Graham Reid | | 3 min read
Robert Wyatt occupies an unusual place in rock culture. He's in it, but also apart from it.
He's not known for his hits, although did enjoy brief chart success and a Top of the Pops appearance with his singular version of the Monkees' I'm A Believer back in '74. He doesn't do videos and won't be coming to a concert stage near you, unless it has access for a wheelchair. He's been in one since a drunken fall from a window 30 years ago.
Wyatt's hardly going to appeal in Britneyworld. He's a grizzled, heavily bearded 58-year-old Marxist whose intermittent albums are peppered with jazz textures and musicians.
But Wyatt is part of rock culture, if only by default. As a teenager he played in pop groups but loved the jazz of Charles Mingus and the equally uncategorisable Ornette Coleman, a jazz musician by default who prefers the tag "composer".
In the late 60s/early 70s Wyatt was drummer for the jazz-rock outfits Soft Machine and Matching Mole. He played drums on some of former Pink Floyd member Syd Barrett's solo album The Madcap Laughs, which he recalls as one of his favourite sessions. Then in June '73 he fell from a window shattering his spine.
An intellectual of considerable humour - the latter not always apparent in his serious music - he named his '74 debut solo album Rock Bottom. He'd hit it, and felt he had one.
Those who played on the album included avant-guitarist Fred Frith and Mike Oldfield. Floyd's Nick Mason who produced it considers it "one of the things I'm most proud of in 30 years of doing music".
Rock Bottom is a masterpiece of texture, sometimes wordless singing and an acknowledgment of the support of Wyatt's wife, the artist Alfreda Benge. Wyatt's subsequent career - the follow-up to Rock Bottom was the equally lovely Ruth is Stranger Than Richard - has been intermittent but always interesting.
During the Falklands War he scored a hit with his shaky-voiced, emotional version of Elvis Costello's Shipbuilding (the album cover was an image from Sir Stanley Spencer), and he has recorded such unusual songs as Stalin Wasn't Stalling (originally a patriotic American tune) and a version of the poppy Guantanamera which he took back to its rebel origins as Caimanera.
He's recorded with Brian Eno, Bengali musicians, and the Grimethorpe Colliery Brass Band, has sometimes been called "avant-garde" (in a good way), and his covers have included Billie Holiday's Strange Fruit, the Thelonious Monk jazz ballad Round Midnight and Chic's At Last I'm Free.
Wyatt's voice is lugubrious yet flexible, some might say an acquired taste, but he places it in sympathetic contexts of synths and trumpets. Reviewers have variously described it as fluttering, airy, plaintive and compassionate.
However you consider Wyatt, he is certainly different. He's also just released a new album - his first since Shleep six years ago which had assistance from Eno, Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera and Paul Weller - and it's gorgeous.
Cuckooland has already won plaudits, Andy Gill describing it in the Independent as "another typically absorbing, idiosyncratic affair, full of gentle drones and genial jazz, deceptive melodies and humanist sentiments whose murmured delivery belies the intensity with which they are held together". Which just about sums it up. But there is more.
The theme of Cuckooland is timely. It is of refugees and rootless people, of those condemned to live in the 20th/21st century.
Old Europe is nostalgic for the jazz clubs of post-war Paris with Wyatt playing brushed drums and trumpet alongside Gilad Atzmon's saxes and clarinet. It conjures up a world Wyatt never knew and its title - which Donald Rumsfeld used in a disparaging way at the start of the invasion of Iraq - is a poke at US politicians bereft of an understanding of history.
The equally dreamy, but disconcerting, Forest (with bluesy guitar by Floyd's David Gilmour) laments the plight of gypsies, and the track Cuckoo Madame explains the concept metaphorically and literally in a consideration of the cuckoo, a bird that lives a solitary life and never sees its offspring.
Lullaby for Hamza is for a baby born in Baghdad on the day the bombs started to fall. And Tom Hay's Fox with Eno and spoken lyrics of haiku economy ("Bring out your foghorns, the mist has descended, the alley's never been blinder") is one of those rare pieces deserving the description "atmospheric".
He offers an elegantly simple piano rendition of the standard Raining in My Heart, with Karen Mantler sings the late Antonio Carlos Jobim's regret-filled Insensatez/So Insensitive, and the final track La Ahada Yalam/No-one Knows is a warning in this time of refugee camps, Guantanamo Bay and terrorist training schools.
Taken as a whole Cuckooland is a beautifully unsettling and utterly distinctive album. Only Wyatt could have made it.
But Wyatt doesn't tour, is rarely interviewed, doesn't have a video out, or a record company with a marketing plan. Cuckooland won't be tele-advertised either so it might never find its audience in Britneyworld.
But Robert Wyatt is a gentle, honest reminder of what music can be about.