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Robert Wyatt - Comicopera

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Artist: Robert Wyatt

Album: Comicopera

Label: Domino

Review date: Jan. 11, 2008

It's taken me a long time to review this record, even though I liked Robert Wyatt's last album Cuckooland, and that's probably because Comicopera is so relentlessly unassuming. Unlike, say, Scott Walker (another 60-something art-rock songwriter), Wyatt's music is almost never overtly bold or surprising.

Maybe, somehow, that's to Wyatt's credit. The last half of George W.S. Trow's 1981 book Within the Context of No Context is a profile of Atlantic Records honcho Ahmet Ertegün, and in it Trow contrasts the Motown Records sound with some other pop music of its day by describing it as "urban" and "nervous." It struck me that most of today's Western music, from pop to the avant garde, sounds that way. Even most of today's country music sounds pretty "urban" and "nervous."

That's probably appropriate - these are nerve-wracking times - but there's probably more to it than that. What attracts us to a website like Dusted? We're here because, at our cores, we're restless listeners - constantly pursuing the new, and becoming anxious at the first sign of cliché.

There's nothing wrong with that, but maybe it isn't the best approach when listening to Robert Wyatt, whose personality shines through in his recent music mostly in ways that aren't immediately obvious. His high, reedy voice is distinctive, but most of his lyrics aren't, at least not at first, and his music is mostly a cloudy mixture of the least confrontational elements of rock, jazz, and genres you'd expect to hear in a cafe in Europe.

You're probably less concerned with trying to prove yourself at 63 than you are as a young man, which probably explains much of the difference between Wyatt now and Wyatt as the twentysomething drummer for the prog juggernaut Soft Machine. But, with a couple of notable exceptions, Comicopera feels as resigned as Cuckooland did.

Comicopera is a sort of concept album with three parts: after the introspective opening section "Lost in Noise," there's "The Here and Now," which mostly deals with politics, or at least the outside world. This second section ends with a pair of songs, "A Beautiful War" and "Out of the Blue," that are written from the perspective of a bomber pilot and a bomb victim, respectively. Wyatt doesn't sing in English on any of the songs in the final section, "Away with the Fairies," because, Wyatt says, "...[I]t's to do with feeling completely alienated from Anglo-American culture at that point. Just sort of being silent as an English-speaking person, because of this fucking war."

I like Comicopera a lot more when I skip "Out of the Blue," which is as surprisingly angry-sounding as its subject matter suggests, and concentrate on the rest of it as a collection of songs. And "Mob Rule," two songs before it, reminds me a little of King Crimson's "Elephant Talk" (you know, the one that goes "Talk, it's only talk / Arguments, agreements, advice, answers, articulate announcements...") in that it sounds more like a parody of political commentary than political commentary itself. The jaunty, ironic "A Beautiful War" is sickeningly effective, but after that, the best tracks on Comicopera are the ones that aren't overtly political.

Wyatt's music works best for me when it's not so direct. I want Wyatt's music to linger at the edge of my consciousness rather than driving a stake through it. I don't want to really 'get' his songs on first listen. Fortunately, most of the rest of Comicopera works that way. In particular, "A.W.O.L." and especially the bizarre "You You" all take several listens to really appreciate. They don't assert, they insinuate. So, in the end, Comicopera works for about the same reasons Cuckooland did. One just has to hear past the political theme of the album to appreciate its more understated charms.

By Charlie Wilmoth

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