I was reading over this interview with Robert Wyatt today, thinking about “The Ghosts Within”, and about how he flourishes as a collaborator with friends, but not as a bandmember. “The trouble with a band is I can’t take orders and I can’t give orders,” he said around the time of “Comicopera”. “So there’s no comfortable role for me in a band, whereas on a project I think, well, if they’ve asked me I shall try and do whatever it is they’ve imagined me doing. As close as possible. There’s no pressure on me. I try and do what they want.”
“The Ghosts Within”, credited jointly to Wyatt, Ros Stephen and Gilad Atzmon, is a bit closer to a band record than Wyatt has managed for a good while, though it still feels like more of a collaboration project. Wyatt doesn’t actually sing on every track, though his abiding presence – good-humoured, thoughtful, a unifying force with heroic disdain for cultural boundaries – infects every minute of the album.
On one level, you could see much of “The Ghosts Within” as a standards album, a covers album, a mature and contemplative sequel to “Nothing Can Stop Us”. Listening to Wyatt take on “Laura”, “What’s New” or “What A Wonderful World”, it’s odd that while the strength and charm of his voice remain potent, its peculiarities seem less pronounced. It’s harder to talk of Wyatt as a unique voice – realistically, it’s pretty sill trying to call anyone unique, but anyway… – when the fragility and artfulness of his phrasing is so reminiscent here of Chet Baker.
The idiosyncracies are provided as much by his two eclectic collaborators: Gilad Atzmon, an Israeli jazz saxophonist and longtime Wyatt vet, adds ornate, middle-eastern-tinged swirls and textures; Ros Stephen factors in lush and kinetic tango strings. As ever with Wyatt, there’s a sense of boundaries collapsing, of harmonious fusions, though perhaps with a fixed team – as opposed to the shifting squads of musicians who’ve figured on recent Wyatt albums – “The Ghosts Within” feels more focused, tidy even.
The jarring exception is “Where Are They Now”, which begins with jinking whimsy from Atzmon, then charges into a bouncy Palestinian hip-hop track with raps from a band called Ramallah Underground and, after a fashion, from Wyatt himself. It’s pretty good, but feels a little out of place here. There are a good few production tricks deployed more subtly elsewhere, though: a return visit to Chic’s “At Last I Am Free” (another link to “Nothing Can Stop Us”) is hazy and heavily phased. On his first version, Wyatt actually sang along to the original in his headphones. This time, he’s a ghostly, unanchored presence, increasingly content to let his voice be used as a texture rather than a lead.
The rampant democracy comes to a peak on the title track, one of a small clutch of new songs written by Wyatt and Alfie Benge. From Atzmon’s Arabian-styled opening, through to the massed voices of the chorus, it might well be one of the pair’s best latterday songs; a companion piece, perhaps, to something like “Lullaby For Hamza” from “Cuckooland”. Wyatt, though, generously cedes lead responsibilities to Tali Atzmon, a relative presumably, and possessor of one of those clean, ringing female voices, like Monica Vasconcelos perhaps, that Wyatt has long valued as a foil to his own. Not one to let a good song lie, or be precious about a final version, maybe Wyatt should have a go at it himself on his next solo record?