2007 studio album from the extraordinary singer/ songwriter and former member of Soft Machine. Produced by Wyatt himself and recorded with the help of Phil Manzarena, Paul Weller and Brian Eno, Wyatt delivers an album of Jazz-tinged Psych-Rock spilt into three acts with the last being sung entirely in Italian and Spanish as a protest at the war in Iraq, symbolizing alienation from Anglo-American culture.
Review by Thom Jurek
More immediately accessible and warm than Cuckooland, more ambitious than Shleep, Comicopera, in three acts, is the end result of Robert Wyatt looking around and examining the craziness and wild unpredictability in real life in 2007. Knowing one man's opinion of things hardly matters, he brings together musicians from Israel, Spain, England, Norway, Cuba, Brazil, and Colombia in songs that originate with him, but also from these places and Italy. It's full of humor, horror, absurdity, shoulder-shrugging "what?"-styled confusion, exasperation, and even nostalgia, though his particular brand of that is with the eyes wide open. The sound of the record is what immediately separates it from its predecessors: it feels more like a recording made in a studio with a live band than one assembled in pieces. And indeed, in many cases, that's what happened. Old friends like Brian Eno, Phil Manzanera, and Annie Whitehead are present, some not so old ones like Paul Weller and Karen Mantler, and other collaborators he has more recently encountered in Anja Garbarek, Orphy Robinson, Yaron Stavi, Mônica Vasconcelos, Gilad Atzmon, Chucho Merchán, Maurizio Camardi, and Alfonso Santimone, just to name a few, with songwriting contributions from his companion Alfie Benge, Garbarek, and Eno, among others. The first five tracks, under the heading "Lost in Noise," are centered on personal observations of love and loss, and at 62, Wyatt has seen his share of friends pass on and ends with a bomb going off.
The middle section "The Here and Now," from cuts six through eleven, examine what it actually means to be English under these circumstances -- i.e. in a war -- and the third, "Away with the Fairies," in tracks 12-16, is where Wyatt's narrator, utterly fed up with the messiness, violence, conflict, and the real noise of life, completely abandons singing in the English language. The truth of the matter is it sounds far more "high concept" than it is. Wyatt claims that his method of working is that he just collects bits of things and puts them together. The songs in the first section are lovely, tender, bittersweet, airy, and melancholic. On "Stay Tuned," Wyatt sings as a narrator who is nothing more than particles of air: "In between/lost in noise/somewhere/somewhere..." as Garbarek's voice soars wordlessly above in between verses, as Eno's keyboards and effects, Seaming To's clarinet and harmony vocal, Whitehead's trombone, and Stavi's bass violin create a kind of chamber jazz around those words, hovering in the front. Letting the words assert themselves like a whisper in the ear or a voice in a dream, Vasconcelos takes the lead vocal as the accusing betrayed lover on the jazzy pop ballad "Just as You Are," and Wyatt takes on the mess, about trying to make excuses. The center is punctuated by Paul Weller's guitar, Wyatt playing hand percussion, and Stavi's bass violin creating the most taut sort of discomfort between the voices. England becomes a place where there is a beautiful day for walking about -- as Manzanera's guitar strolls along through "A Beautiful Peace" before Wyatt lets the cat out of the bag: "but not here," because a bomb has gone off and war has begun.
Religion gets skewered too -- albeit with his characteristic subtle and dry wit despite the very real anger and emotion -- and the jazz just keeps coming. Wyatt's narrator switches places amid the finger popping subtle jazz and lilting rock tunes and he becomes the bomber (he makes no distinction as to which one is officially military or terrorist because all the man wants is peace, not bombs of any kind) as well as the bombed, who have either no idea what the hell is going on or who have done their own part to participate by their blind and numb assent. There is a hint of what's to come in part three with the instrumental "On the Town Square," with Wyatt on cornet, Del Bartle on electric guitar, and Gilad Atzmon's tenor saxophone, all playing around a killer rhythm by Robinson on steel pans. ("A Beautiful War" is a scathing indictment of the wars we watch on TV without wondering about the consequences of them.) His and Mantler's voices here are almost like nursery rhymes: "It's a beautiful day/For a daring raid/I can see my prey from afar/So I open the hatch/And drop the first batch/It's a shame I'll miss the blaze/But I'll see the film within Days/And I'll get to see the replay/Of my beautiful day..." On the next cut, "Out of the Blue," the aftermath of such actions becomes clear: he and Eno wrap their voices in something akin to true strangeness and horror: "For Reasons beyond all understanding/You've blown my house apart/You've set me free/To let you know/you've planted/everlasting hatred in my heart/You've planted your everlasting hatred in my heart." Jazz is a not so subtle subtext here, as a social force as well as an aesthetic one, and while these songs of Wyatt's and his collaborators may not be rooted in what Blue Note releases these days as acceptable, they are far more interesting.
These tunes are also quite literally almost as accessible in their way as anything on the mighty Domino imprint (Franz Ferdinand's home) that this set has been issued on, even without screaming guitars and popping snare drums.
In the third section, Wyatt's protagonist just goes off to find out what else is in the world, singing in Spanish and Italian. Poems by Lorca are set to music (and Wyatt plays a mean pocket trumpet as well as keyboards, and handles percussion). Abandonment of the conflict seems like the only proper thing for a world citizen to do. Here is where players like Robinson playing steel pan drums and vibes, subdued Latin and Caribbean rhythms, and jazz all get mixed up together in a seamless and quite lovely brew. (Check the instrumental by Robinson called "Pastafari.") The final cut may be a bit troubling in that it is a reading of Carlos Puebla's homage to Che Guevara, "Hasta Siempre Comandante." But it's nostalgic, not defiant; not blind assent, but a reverie, that if anything seems to wonder what happened to get from idealism to this place the protagonist finds himself in. And, if idealism is to come from anywhere, it must come from outside the English-speaking world. It's one of the hippest tracks here, played by a killer Italian band (with help from the voices of Wyatt, Mantler, and Vasconcelos), playing a wonderful meld of rhumba and jazz. Comicopera may not be all comic, and indeed inverts the entire comic opera notion of beginning with a catastrophe and ending with redemption, but Wyatt's never been so simple. What he has been, however, is close to brilliant, and this delightfully engaging little set will, if heard, more likely than not bring more people sniffing 'round his large body of work than anything he's done since the early '90s.
Robert Wyatt has the saddest voice in rock, which is fitting-- he's had plenty to be sad about, beginning with the 1973 accident that left him confined to a wheelchair. But Wyatt has also long been relatively at ease with his injury, if not sanguine, and has used his perch to take account of the world around him, growing increasingly politicized as the 1970s progressed and Margaret Thatcher ascended the ranks of power in the UK. At times his politics has overshadowed his music and, in the case of "Shipbuilding", even granted him a minor hit.
Not that Wyatt is anyone's idea of a traditional rock singer. Since his days drumming in Soft Machine through his work as a solo artist, he's carved out a pretty unique position for himself as an almost anti-pop star. Like latter-day Scott Walker, Wyatt's essentially created his own genre, a mish-mash of jazz, art-rock, and experimental music. It's also, as with recent Walker, equally compelling and challenging, but as much as Wyatt requires concentration, his albums are generally emotionally rewarding and only confrontational in their eerie serenity.
Despite the preternatural calm in Wyatt's amazing voice, here he seems more agitated than ever. Describing his new album Comicopera in the press notes, Wyatt reveals an almost tragic distaste for the direction western civilization has taken. Indeed, the album ends with Wyatt singing in Spanish and Italian as a declared form of protest. "It's to do with feeling completely alienated from Anglo-American culture at this point," he says. "Just sort of being silent as an English-speaking person, because of this fucking war. The last thing I sing in English is 'You've planted all your everlasting hatred in my heart.'"
Those are strong words from someone so famously gentle, and in fact Comicopera ("comic opera") proceeds along a three-act structure. It begins with "Lost In Noise", a five-song suite (mostly written with poet and partner Alfreda Benge) addressing the personal, broadens to "The Here and the Now" (resolutely political) and ends with "Away With the Fairies" (where Wyatt indulges his polyglot form of protest). Wyatt is aided throughout by such regular collaborators and co-conspirators as Brian Eno, Paul Weller, and Roxy Music's Phil Manzanera.
Delineated acts aside, the disc maintains a certain sonic consistency, carefully balancing discord with grace; the structure does pay off, however-- particularly the first two-thirds. "Lost in Noise" begins with "Stay Tuned", a mournful Anja Garbarek song, but it's the astounding duet with Monica Vasconcelos, "Just as You Are", and the spacious chamber pop of "You You" that stick out as highlights.
With "The Here and the Now", things turn rueful and cynical, if deceptively poppier. "A Beautiful Place" (an Eno co-write) and "Be Serious" are an agnostic's stab at spiritualism; "How can I express myself when there's no self to express?" is the latter's take on religion's habit of doing the thinking for its adherents. "Mob Rule", "A Beautiful War", and "Out of the Blue" comprise Wyatt's state of the world dissection. The first song addresses the build up to war, and the second the deceptively sunny disposition of a soldier after a successful military run. "Out of the Blue" then switches the perspective from the bomber to the bombed. It's this victim that seethes with "everlasting hatred."
By necessity and by design, this is also where the disc loses focus, and Wyatt begins to rely on some dissolute fragments (including one actually called "Fragment"), the poetry of Federico García Lorca, and the music of Cuban composer Carlos Puebla, whose tribute to Che Guevara, "Hasta Siempre Comandante", ends the album on a mischievously radical note.
Forget for the moment that Guevara spent far too much of his later life fighting against many of the very freedoms that Wyatt (one assumes) holds dear. The song's message is still clear enough. It's Wyatt's subversive equivalent of "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?", a venerable lefty's call for a return to lost values, a cry for revolution from someone for whom violence, let alone a raised voice, is one step beyond a last resort. It hangs there at the end of the disc like a question left unanswered.
-Joshua Klein, October 09, 2007