Every music aficionado has his or her favourite, ‘go-to’ artist or band. However, it makes no difference whether you are a dedicated follower of fashion or simply more comfortable listening to a couple of golden oldies, more often than not some artists will be overlooked. Maybe you have simply not heard of them. Or perhaps they have been looming in your peripheral vision for some time, but they are such revered figures, with such extensive back catalogues you are not really sure where to start?
For myself Robert Wyatt was one of these beguiling outsiders. Fortunately for many – and this reviewer included – Domino are releasing ‘Different Every Time’, a career spanning, double compilation album of Wyatt’s work. Curated by Wyatt, Domino and Marcus O’Dair, it acts as the perfect companion piece to O’Dair’s new biography of the same title. The satirically titled ‘Benign Dictatorships’ is a collection of unearthed oddities (some available for the very first time) and a selection of Robert’s finest collaborations and guest appearances. ‘Ex Machina’ is an audible anthology of Wyatt’s music, presenting tracks from his Canterbury days with Soft Machine through to Matching Mole through to ‘Comicopera’. It stands as the ideal off point for delving into the Englishman’s magnificent imaginings.
Although Soft Machine achieved little commercial success at the time, the underground four-piece went on to pioneer the progressive rock genre and toured with the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd. It was also the world’s first glimpse of Robert Wyatt’s idiosyncratic talents. Soft Machine’s nineteen-minute dizzy epic ‘Moon in June’ opens ‘Ex Machina’ and from behind the kit we are greeted by the soft and brazen British accent of Wyatt. The through-composed track teeters between tender melodies and padded dissonant patches, combining the freeform feel of prog and jazz with the hysteria of psychedelia. The experimentalism hits you between the eyes and one can picture bodies lounged-out across the floor of London’s UFO Club, as their thoughts interlock with the spiralling, unrelenting solos. It feels like one of those live tracks that you come out of and have no idea how long you’ve been gone for.
The next two ‘Matching Mole’ songs further explore the act of composing within a creative environment without boundaries. On ‘Signed Curtain’ Wyatt channels both Nilsson and Newman as he breaks down pop song structure to its bare bones, as he exclaims “And this is the chorus”. For someone who once felt the only acceptable path in life was to be Ray Charles, his lack of self-consciousness and ego is incredibly refreshing and contagious. In fact it means that a song that would be written off as a parody when performed by any other artist, instead sounds genuine and lined with heartache and regret when Wyatt utters “It’s alright, it only means that I lost faith in this song because it won’t help me reach you”.
No matter the content or context, Wyatt’s wide-eyed honesty seeps into every note he performs. Often in a similar but more preserved manner to Daniel Johnston. On ‘God Song’ Wyatt seems part world-weary cynic and part curious youngster as he prods at the weighty subject of religion. He advises “Next time you send your boy down here, give him a wife and a sexy daughter. Someone we can understand” and as Brian Eno once noted, his compassion and curiosity means he will wade into any topic or fight for whichever cause he believes in, even when the mainstream deems it to be terribly unfashionable.
By the time we reach the fourth track, the first of Wyatt’s official solo releases, we have already covered a significant part of his legacy. From his madcap Soft Machine days and his eventual dismissal to his formation of the short-lived outfit Matching Mole and past his tragic fall from a fourth floor window, which left him paralysed from the waist down. Robert has actually discussed how the event liberated him, as it removed the prospect of working with a band for a while and allowed him to be the sole creator. Swapping non-pitched percussion for full swing composition Wyatt was in his element.
The glacial cool swing of ‘Last Straw’ taken from ‘Live at Drury Lane’ features more skatting from Wyatt, as his vocals imitate the footloose feel of the instruments interblending around him. His take of Chris Andrew’s hit ‘Yesterday Man’ and his expressive cover of Chic’s ‘At Last I Am Free’ show his appreciation of pop and his ability to transform a track. It’s hard to believe ‘At Last I Am Free’ is not a self-penned piece as he pours his heart into the otherworldly, airy anthem.
The propulsive push of ‘The Age of Self’ written in support of the UK miners union in 1982 feels both foreshadowing and foreboding as Wyatt sings “And it seems to me if we forget our roots and where we stand, the movement will disintegrate like castles built on sand”. Elsewhere on the album the devotional and poetic lyricism of ‘Worship’ and the dark and melancholic imagery of ‘Cuckoo Madame’ are mesmerising. With the latter sounding as if it is suspended in space as ethereal backing vocals pitch shift around Wyatt like a distorted Cocteau Twins or Julianna Barwick track.
However, nowhere else on the album is the art-rocker’s intrinsic creativity and lyrical sincerity clearer than on ‘Free Will and Testament’. Again, the fact that confounding metaphysical musings such as “So when I say that I know me how can I know that? What kind of spider understands arachnophobia?” are commonplace in Wyatt’s music, speaks for itself. Much like the title of this double album, ‘Different Every Time’. Here we have been blessed with a scrapbook of such striking variety and experimental musicality, it is overwhelming once you let it take you in.
I haven’t quite shaken a quote from the BBC4 documentary ‘Robert Wyatt Story’ where he admits:
“I have to be awake and be a properly dressed person everyday, but actually only just enough to actually eat and make a few friends. As far as I’m concerned I’m dreaming all the time, the only difference is I come up for daylight like other people, the way a whale has to come up for air”
This mind frame he inhabits means he is able to give some sort of outside commentary on life as if he is coming from another standing. His egoless sense of self and his cultivated, often childlike awe, allows you to see the profound in the mundane or vice versa, through his musical exploration. It is with great pleasure that I can say ‘Different Every Time’ has turned a Robert Wyatt-newcomer into an irrefutable fan for life.
Review by: David Weir
Out Now via Domino
This great compilation also provides our Song of the Day…
Also available via Amazon: Different Every Time: The Authorised Biography of Robert Wyatt (Marcus O’Dair)