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Casual Brilliance

It may not sound like Robert Wyatt puts much thought into his songs, but they're loaded for bear.

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ROBERT WYATT | COMICOPERA (DOMINO)

Robert Wyatt has been making solo albums since 1970--a year before he parted ways with the Soft Machine, the seminal English prog band he cofounded in 1966. He released his latest, Comicopera, earlier this month, and like most of his recent recordings it's a long way from his old band's busy, heady fusion of psychedelic rock and electric jazz. These days Wyatt has a way of making pop music so relaxed and loose, so unpolished and conversational, that it seems like something he might've done to while away an afternoon. Singing in a sleepy, wispy croon, he sometimes seems to be finding the melody as he goes.

To some degree the easygoing feel of his albums isn't an illusion. Wyatt records when the mood strikes, often at home, and he always involves plenty of his friends--on Comicopera they include Brian Eno, Phil Manzanera of Roxy Music, and Paul Weller--so the casual, convivial feeling is genuine. But though his music sounds playful and off-the-cuff, it's carefully constructed--his wandering melodies are in fact mapped out ahead of time, and his lyrics communicate a complex mix of compassion and frustration.

"Just as You Are," which Wyatt wrote with his longtime partner in life and art, poet Alfreda "Alfie" Benge, takes the form of a nakedly honest conversation between an old couple. The woman's lines, sung by Brazilian vocalist Monica Vasconcelos, are heavy with well-earned resentment, but it's not enough to break the back of her affection. In response the man, sung by Wyatt, offers something she can't find in herself--a kind of unconditional love. This wrenching portrait of a deep but damaged relationship became even more poignant for me after I read David Toop's cover story on Wyatt in the current issue of the Wire, in which Benge admits that she can't love unconditionally and that Wyatt's drinking problem, particularly while he was making this record, drove her nearly to the edge. (Wyatt began going to AA soon after and is now sober.) Toop also relays the story of the tune's origin: Eno dropped by the couple's home and, finding them killing time, told them to "write a country song." What came out is hardly country, but it's the most profound and powerful track on the album.

Wyatt has divided Comicopera into three acts, and "Just as You Are" occurs in the first, "Lost in Noise." It's the most personal and emotionally direct part of the album, clearly rooted in his own experience. The songs breathe tenderness, but they portray flawed connections and decay--though most of the characters are listening to one another and struggling to sort out their troubles with kindness and patience, things aren't working so well in their relationships. And in the heartbreaking "A.W.O.L," there's no relationship at all anymore: a widow named Hattie simply sits in her attic, listening to the ticking of a clock and disappearing into her memories. The music throughout the first act is somber and exquisitely beautiful--some songs are written for just voice and guitar or piano, and in others gentle lines played on clarinet, trombone, and saxophone intertwine intimately, dancing through guitar, keyboard, and bass. There's not much drumming here, or on the album as a whole--though the drums were Wyatt's instrument in the Soft Machine, he's been wheelchair bound since 1973, paralyzed from the waist down by a drunken fall from a third-floor window at a party. He sings and plays piano, guitar, and trumpet, plus a little hand percussion, and only brings in a guest drummer on one track.

The emphasis on patience and mutual attention in "Lost in Noise" is the perfect setup for act two, "The Here and the Now," where Wyatt confronts the headlong recklessness and blinkered myopia of the so-called war on terror. Here the arrangements are incredibly loose--little more than rickety approximations of swing, pop, and folk tunes--and Wyatt excoriates church and state alike for the mess we're in. In "Mob Rule" he assails war planners who ignore the pleas of the populations they represent, and in "Be Serious," a kind of atheist anthem, he takes Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Hindus to task for their false certainty and easy answers ("Put a sock in it / Then put a lid on it / Do us a favor / Leave it out"). In "A Beautiful War" he casts a pilot as an artist vexed that he can't witness the devastation wrought by his bombs: "It's a shame I'll miss the blaze / But I'll see the film within days." Then in the answer tune, "Out of the Blue," Wyatt takes on the victim's role: "For reasons beyond all understanding / You've blown my house apart." While the pilot imagines "Total success / We'll all be free," his victim moans, "You've planted all your everlasting hatred in my heart." Wyatt's words are harsh, but the gentle humanity in his singing keeps him from sounding like a podium thumper--no matter what sort of violence he describes, he never raises his voice.

Language eventually failed Wyatt as he worked on Comicopera, and the songs in the final act, "Away With the Fairies," are either instrumental or have lyrics in Italian or Spanish, written by other people. On one tune he barely even plays. "After the bombing--it's to do with feeling completely alienated from Anglo-American culture at that point," he says in the album's PR. "Just sort of being silent as an English-speaking person, because of this fucking war." Dissonance, tension, and harsh textures creep into the music. On the instrumental called "Pastafari," written and performed by jazz vibist Orphy Robinson, Wyatt distorts the cool melodies with what the liner notes call "electrical interference," turning them into something almost nightmarish. The act, and the album, close with an homage to Che Guevara by Cuban revolutionary composer Carlos Puebla, a song of hope and faith that also acknowledges some of Guevara's faults. In a way it mirrors Wyatt's willingness to accept human imperfection, both his own and other people's, as well as his refusal to buy into a simple, idealized picture of reality. He's pissed off and has his own notions about what's right, but he's also beaten down and confused--and his muddled criticism and desperate struggle for clarity seem like the most reasonable and genuine responses that anyone so burdened could have.

For more on music, see our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills at chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Robert Wyatt photo by Alfreda Benge.

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