Robert Wyatt’s recording career is considerably longer than my life here on Earth. There are of course plenty of people who write about music who can come out with that statement, but it deserves to be laboured for a bit. This extraordinary musician – who by all accounts and testimonies appears to be a very nice man as well – has enriched the lives of many for almost five decades now, either as a founder member of Soft Machine or with his own idiosyncratic solo material.
Wyatt turns 70 in January, and is taking the chance to curate this introduction to his career, especially as he has, in his own words, ‘stopped making music’. It is a double album that begins in the bosom of the ‘Canterbury Scene’ before striking out on his own. That scene has become known for its pastoral tinged music of a progressive nature, but Soft Machine’s Moon In June is a reminder that it was equal parts jazz too. It is satisfying that Wyatt chooses to dive straight in at the deep end with this 19-minute epic from 1970, which keeps on giving with the warm keyboard lines from Mike Ratledge and keening violin from Rab Spall, both countered by Wyatt’s free-as-a-bird vocal and drums. The suite moves between periods of energetic release and soporific, dreamy musing.
As the first disc (‘Ex Machina’) progresses, Wyatt steers us through his next Canterbury Scene band, the far-out Matching Mole, whose Signed Curtain (‘this is the first verse, this is the chorus’) has only half its tongue in its cheek. It is an odd song, frustrating and endearing in equal measure, and surely the catalyst for similar songs from Flaming Lips in the more recent past. Similarly God Song, where the apologetic singer proclaims “Pardon me I’m very drunk!”
Wyatt does tend towards the softer side in his selections after that. The Age Of Shelf (from Old Rottenhat) gets the drum machine out, which reminds us how well Wyatt and electronica mix – while a supremely elegant account of Chic’s At Last I Am Free melts the heart. Meanwhile two collaborations with wife Alfreda Benge offer their enchanting beauty towards the end, with the lovely close harmonies of Cuckoo Madame and the dreamy Just As You Are, from Cuckooland and Comicopera respectively.
The principal fault with this first disc is that the bleeding chunks, while fitting well with each other, still work better within the context of their own albums. With that in mind the second disc, ‘Benign Dictatorships’, is more successful, looking at Wyatt’s music through the eyes and vocals of others – usually in a collaborative performing sense.
A simple glance at the track listing gives an idea of how his music can face in several directions simultaneously, so much so that Hot Chip, Anja Garbarek, Björk and Working Week are all natural collaborators. The first of these generates considerable emotional heft with just an accordion and some studio trickery at their disposal, while the Working Week collaboration Venceremos (We Will Win), which also includes Tracey Thorn, is a vibrant and rhythmically propulsive number, the closest thing to a foot tapper there is here.
Then there is the wonderful, Elvis Costello-penned Shipbuilding – surely one of the finest protest songs in existence – and a soft meditation The River, with Jeanette Lindstrom. Then a rather wonderful collaboration takes place between Wyatt and Marcus O’Dair of Grasscut, his biographer – a soft focus, intimate portrait with a plaintive and rather moving trumpet solo. This reminds us just how well Wyatt’s voice goes with brass, a feeling reinforced by the Happy End collaboration Turn Things Upside Down.
Textures change intriguingly throughout the second disc, from Big Screen Robert, two meticulously orchestrated soundtrack collaborations with Michael Mantler from The Hapless Child And Other Inscrutable Stories, to Classical Robert, a solo recording of John Cage’s Experiences No.2.
It would be difficult to cover off every strand of Robert Wyatt’s richly diverse recording career in just over two hours. Different Every Time succeeds, though, in illustrating just how versatile and original this creative spirit has been, and how he will no doubt cast a long shadow of influence in the future. Robert Wyatt is, quite simply, an English musical institution.