Wild Mercury Sound

Robert Wyatt's "Comicopera"

John Mulvey

I've been promising to write about this Robert Wyatt album for quite a while now, I'm aware. But it's been hard to blog about this one. Not because of any problems with the music - it's wonderful, actually. The problem I'm finding is that listening to "Comicopera" is a kind of immersive experience, so much so that it's hard to come out of it with a critical angle.

You know those photos of jazz musicians from the '50s and '60s? Blue Note sleeves, Herman Leonard portraits, the ones where the musician looks away from the lens, absorbed, while a coil of cigarette smoke is caught in low lights? That's what "Comicopera" reminds me of. There's always been a jazz element to Wyatt's music, of course, but "Comicopera" goes beyond that, so that it seems imbued with a particular, romantic jazz atmosphere: a somnambulent fug, maybe.

Following the pattern of "Cuckooland" from a few years back, Wyatt (I assume it's him, anyway: I have no credits right now) is playing more and more trumpet, allowing his horn to pick up the high notes that he can no longer quite reach. One of the many charms of "Comicopera" is how his trumpet and voice seep into one another, both gracefully disintegrated instruments. On the title track and in many other places, Wyatt hums wordlessly over a crepuscular ambient hum, and it can be hard to tell when he's playing and when he's singing.

This is the prevailing vibe. Drums are brushed indolently, and some earlyish Miles Davis sides have clearly been worn out over the years. "Do Us A Favour" feels like a primitive, Anglicised response to "So What?", with the perpetually puzzled Wyatt expressing a certain envy for those who have religious faith. "Just As You Are", meanwhile, is an extraordinarily tender duet (with a singer I can't place, sorry, though she sounds like a warm Nico, if you can imagine that) about enduring love, clearly intended for Alfreda Benge. Or possibly written by her, come to think of it. I'll fill in some of these gaps when the credits turn up, I promise.

Occasionally, there's a break in this enveloping atmosphere. "Beautiful Peace" begins with Wyatt exclaiming, "Oh look, there's a dead rabbit; all flat!", then becomes a warm, ambling strumalong, much more simple and direct than his usual meticulously layered sound. "Something Unbelievable" is dense and cloudy, but edgier and more dissonant than usual, built around a series of escalating, jolting organ stabs.

By the end, Wyatt pretty much abandons English, with a string of Spanish songs. "Pastafari" is a lovely and curious piece on, I think, vibes, and finally, "Hasta Siempre" suggests Wyatt is belatedly auditioning for one of those many empty spots in the Buena Vista Social Club. He'd be a great recruit, of course: how many other British singers have continued such a sympathetic, long and open-minded love affair with the possibilities of song, and can summon up melancholy and enduring passion with such mature guile? This is a beautiful album, and I should listen to it some more.


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