Sole creative survivor of Canterbury scene further refines his art on eighth LP
Gentleman, internationalist, humanitarian, and one of the most moving singers Britain has ever produced, Robert Wyatt doesn’t make anywhere near enough records. Cuckooland is only his eighth solo album in the 32 years since he was drummed out of Soft Machine, and the first since 1997’s Shleep.
Cuckooland reflects the care and long labour which went into it. A quilted, intricate and absorbing collection of songs that moves Shleep’s fluttering textures into darker territory, it finds Wyatt observing the world with love and bewilderment. He has always been an unusually sensitive political artist, and two songs composed with his wife, the poet Alfreda Benge?”Forest”, about gypsies, and “Lullaby For Hamza”, about Iraq?characteristically avoid didactics and concentrate on the reality of suffering. “Forest”, in particular, is magnificent, a bleary and looping chorale that showcases two of Wyatt’s greatest assets. There’s his ability to write songs with sophisticated historical perspectives, so that here the treatment of Eastern European gypsy asylum-seekers is compared with the plight of their ancestors in Nazi extermination camps. And there’s his uncanny empathy with the disenfranchised, wherever they may come from.
Perhaps it’s because Wyatt himself has never fitted in musically?at least not since the Canterbury scene’s demise. Consequently, Cuckooland remains happily adrift of conventional genres. The disparate clutch of guest musicians, including Brian Eno, Paul Weller, Dave Gilmour, fine Israeli saxophonist Gilad Atzmon, singer and harmonica player Karen Mantler, sound way out of context, sublimated to Wyatt’s idiosyncratic vision. As he admits, Cuckooland is a refinement of the music he has always made?although his love of jazz is more pronounced than usual. Wyatt plays plenty of trumpet as a result, in much the same way as he sings, drums and plays his piano and gauzy synths: tentative, without affectation, within a tight tonal range. The trumpet helps out with the high notes he can no longer reach with his voice, since age has cut his range by half an octave. But it’s that voice which is still the most remarkable thing. On 1974’s classic Rock Bottom, its frailty echoed the mood of a man trying to come to terms with both profound love and physical disability. Now, gracefully disintegrated further, it’s the tool of one approaching 60 whose concern for the world, and desire to improve it, is stronger than ever.