CD: Robert Wyatt, Comicopera

Sometimes life-affirming, and occasionally unlistenable. As ever, Wyatt leaves his listeners no safety net, writes Tim Adams

Robert Wyatt lately spawned a verb. To 'Wyatt' is to choose something obscure and annoying from a pub juke box in an attempt to empty the establishment. It was coined by a young teacher in London who found that Wyatt's 1991 offering 'Dondestan' had a particularly powerful effect in this regard. Wyatt himself subsequently confessed to rather liking the idea. 'I don't really like disconcerting people, but even when I try to be normal I disconcert anyway,' he suggested.

Now 62, Wyatt has been listening to a different drum for so long that it has become a signature tune. His experimentation began in earnest with Soft Machine in the Sixties, but it accelerated after he was left wheelchair-bound after a fall from a balcony at a party in 1973. Comicopera is his 12th solo album, and an arch kind of distillation of what has gone before. He recorded a good part of it at home in Louth, Lincolnshire and it displays a typical improvised quality. In a generally likeable way nothing seems finished or quite properly thought through.

It moves forward in three acts: 'Lost in noise,' 'The here and now' and 'Away with the fairies'. The first segment is a kind of fateful love story that begins and ends in tears, the second explores a breakdown of sorts against the backdrop of war, and the third, which Borrows some Latin American and Cuban rhythms and is sung in Spanish, is somewhat life-affirming. On each part Wyatt's voice, avuncular and unhinged by turns, his native West Country filtered through a sort of nasal cockney, is supported by Paul Weller's guitar, and Brian Eno's keyboards, as well as, among others, virtuoso horn playing from Annie Whitehead and the cool bass violin of Yaron Stavi.

There is a lyrical ambition to it. You can hear the influence of Wyatt's late friend, Ivor Cutler, John Peel's poet in residence, in the spoken voice opening of 'A Beautiful Peace' or in the delivery of 'Mob Rule' which outlines the absurdities of a decision to go to war. 'Cancion de Julieta' sets a Lorca poem to music.

Even so, like all the best experimentalists, Wyatt lacks a filter. The quality veers wildly, but every so often he hits upon a great song. 'Just As You Are' in particular sets the smoothest of melodies and a haunting cornet solo from Wyatt against the most world-weary of lyrics, an acceptance of the failures and deception of love. 'A.W.O.L' is an 'Eleanor Rigby'-esque tale of loneliness, in which Wyatt's voice works some small poignant wonders, while for 'Be Serious', it becomes the long-bearded voice of the prophet in the wilderness of a jazz arrangement.

There are too, though, a fair few pub-clearers: if you get a chance in your local try the opener 'Stay Tuned' or, better, the chaotic psychedelia of 'Out of the Blue' which riffs with an electronic church organ version of Brian Eno's voice, far too many discordant saxophones and the spiralling repetitive line 'You have planted all your everlasting hatred in my heart'. Should do the trick.

Download: 'Just As You Are'


Tim Adams

The GuardianTramp

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