Mojo NOVEMBER 2007 - by Danny Eccleston


Moving, sparkling triptych from the sixty-two-year-old who just keeps getting better.

Robert Wyatt: Comicopera

Is there another '60s-vintage muso still operating on a level with Robert Wyatt? One who makes records as good as any in his or her catalogue? For the former Soft Machine drummer, of course, there was no moment of transfiguring pop stardom, no place in some illusory pantheon to preserve - and you sense it is, in part, his humility that keeps his music on the straight and narrow.

Comicopera is typical Wyatt in the way it sits next to you and whispers in your ear, sharing often uncomfortable ideas in that friendly, melancholy voice. In other ways, it's all-new Wyatt, sharing personnel with 2003's Cuckooland (notably, Gilad Atzmon on tenor sax and Paul Weller on guitar) but lacking its predecessor's nuages of keyboards and sounding more immediate, live and quirkily melodic.

And while Cuckooland split into two parts (with thirty seconds of silent intermission), Comicopera divides into three. Act 1 - subtitled Lost in Noise - is domestically inclined, incorporating a ravishing, mordant account of a long-term love affair (Just As You Are), with vocals shared by Wyatt and Brazilian chanteuse Mônica Vasconcelos, and lyrics ("It's that look in your eyes / I know you despise / Me for not being stronger") that bear poet wife Alfreda Benge's trademark lack of sentimentality. It may yet prove Wyatt and Benge's best claim to have written a "standard".

Part 2 - The Here And Now - gruffly engages with the world. There are deadpan jokes ("It's a beautiful day... but not here") amid simply serendipitous moments of music, especially where Atzmon's tenor, Orphy Robinson's steel pans and Wyatt's splashy percussion interact. In a brilliant gambit, the segment ends with a song from the perspective of a bomber pilot, happily blitzing the crap out of an unspecified Arab homeland, and another from the p.o.v. of the victim, whose hellish disorientation is uncannily summoned in the desperate, repeated refrain: "Something unbelievable is happening to the floor!"

Wyatt says this apocalyptic punctuation mark made an immediate return to Anglophone pop seem a betrayal. So Act 3 - Away With The Fairies - goes Latin. It's pretty enough, with a moving Hasta Siempre Commandante saluting Che Guevara with help via a swinging Italian combo, and a dense Orphy Robinson vibe instrumental providing variety. But after the in-you-face engagement and subversive pop of Acts 1 and 2, it feels superfluous and defocusing.

Concluding circumlocution aside, Comicopera gets to you quicker and stays with you longer than any previous Wyatt album. Moreover, it's hard to imagine a record more original or full of life, from any artist of any age, emerging this year. It's that damn good.


Robert Wyatt talks to Danny Eccleston.

I love the gloomy English high street scene of A Beautiful Place.

"Yes, well you have those moments, don't you, when the grimness of England seems overwhelming. At the same time, England to me is the feeling of Gilad and Orphy merrily duetting in the middle of an imaginary street somewhere. That's my happy England, what draws me back to London, that burst of sunshine."

What does Paul Weller bring to your records?

"He always comes up with something appropriate. I like his texture and percussion, the grunts and growls. We're both rooted in black music - it's just that he starts at Marvin Gaye and I start with Roland Kirk - and both of us are just so... English. Everything gets filtered through that."

The three-act structure gives you a lot of options...

"This is a record. I can be what I like. I can be a girl, a boy, anything. So I decided I wouldn't be English at all for the last third and go away with the fairies. So that's why it's called that."

You do Carlos Puebla's Hasta Siempre Commandante. It's a subject that's obviously still close to your heart...

"I did one of his songs in the early '80s, with Harry Beckett on trumpet. I like his style, it's earthy - almost like one of those Cape Verdean singers, and the song, like the Che Guevara T-shirts, has gone through kitsch and come through the other side unscathed. It still makes my skin prickle a bit, just the hope against hope."

Subject matter aside, I think the melodies on this record are your strongest ever...

"Jazz is my daily gruel and it's a great place to find melodies - you'll get eight in a good Sonny Rollins solo for a start! Recently I've started listening to the jazz singers - I was never into them so much before I turned sixty, they weren't rough enough for me. But now I'm really listening to Nat 'King' Cole and Sarah Vaughan, amazed at how they hold a tune. I just think I want to be in that place where they go, but I'm afraid I've smoked too many fags!"