Robert Wyatt is one of those undeniably great, well-beloved and slightly eccentric English musicians left over from a more adventurous age. Since the early 1970s, when he played drums in the progressive/jazz group The Soft Machine and when, in 1973, he fell drunk out of a third-story window and was paralyzed from the waist down, he’s created a small body of records that combines his skewed, pointed wit, melancholy lyricism and lefty politics with an eclectic jazz-based progressive rock that sounds like no one else’s. Unlike his friends Pink Floyd and other groups that started out in the English psychedelic scene of the late ’60s, Wyatt never came anywhere near the mainstream and thus never fell prey to the bloated commercial conceits that would taint those groups. He has never recorded with any regularity; he is of that breed of occasional studio dabblers who feels no pressure to do anything he doesn’t want to. When the music comes, it comes.
On his latest album, “Comicopera,” several of his best traits are in evidence. At 62, he still has a profoundly vulnerable, quavering voice that can creep up on you unexpectedly and break your heart. Who could fail to be moved by this paraplegic Santa of a singer, white beard and all, with his lilting, lisping falsetto?
The record is divided into three acts of about five songs each: “Lost in Noise,” “The Here and There,” and “Away with the Fairies.” Roughly speaking, for Wyatt feels no need to clarify his intentions, the first act seems to be thematically personal and domestic, the second is worldlier and the third is, well – in Spanish. (Apparently some of these songs are settings of Lorca poems.)
The first act starts off with the moody, dirge-like ambience of “Stay Tuned,” followed by three meditative love songs, the strongest songs on the album, in which Wyatt’s self-deprecating irony is offset by his wife Alfreda Benge’s full-bodied soprano. “AWOL,” in its gentle despair, is reminiscent of Syd Barrett’s best ditties. The gorgeous “You You” has Wyatt’s gruff lisp double-tracked with a falsetto. This song, as well as several others, has the hypnotic drone and smooth-jazz saxophone of “Avalon”-period Roxy Music, which is not totally coincidental given that Roxy’s Phil Manzanera plays on the album, as does Brian Eno. But the “Enotron,” as Wyatt calls him, isn’t too much in evidence except on the song “Out of the Blue,” probably the most sonically adventurous track.
Indeed, the album is rather tame for Wyatt. After the first five songs, which are mostly wonderful but hardly up-tempo, “Comicopera” quickly descends into a kind of murky, generic mid-tempo jazz shuffle, which remains fairly consistent despite the perambulations through various styles. The most surprising of these shifts is the last song of the final “Spanish” act, a rhumba, “Hasta Siempre Comandante.” This is unexpected, but fits well into Wyatt’s particular mold of eclecticism.
The “worldly” middle act of the record has a discernibly anti-religious feel as well as the gloominess that is one of Wyatt’s trademarks. A typical lyric, from “Beautiful Place,” is: “Looks pretty grim in the Methodist hall / Despite a poster that says He’s there for us all / It’s a beautiful day.” The music abruptly cuts out, and then Wyatt says, alone: “But not here.” In “Be Serious,” Wyatt sings, “I really envy Christians, / I really envy Muslims too,” and then “Do us a favor, be serious / Do us a favor, leave it out.” He’s fervent without being too strident, so it’s fun to listen to.
Wyatt’s far-left politics, which are center-stage on many of his records — for example, his support of Palestine and his Communist sympathies (he was once and perhaps still is a member of the party) — are certainly not overt on this album. Maybe that’s what’s lacking: a little grounding. Listening to the album, or any of Wyatt’s albums, feels like floating, and that’s just fine. But in “Comicopera,” there is ultimately not quite enough substance, either lyrics or hooks, to latch on to. This isn’t pop, of course, and it shouldn’t be. But many of the songs drift by without really grabbing you. The music is always pleasant, atmospheric, but not as transcendent as Wyatt can be at his best.
The best moments in the duller second and third acts occur in the exquisite, demented little vibes ditty “Pastafari,” as well as in the codas of “Hasta Siempre” and “Cancon de Juliete,” which are both luscious and throbbing. But too often the album sounds like the results of a decent day’s worth of fooling around in the studio. This does not make for music that is worth coming back to again and again. As critics say (in what is a now a cliché, and with good reason), if this hour of music were tastefully reduced to, say, 40 or 45 minutes, we would have a very good album. But as it stands, the good moments are, if not too few, at least too far between.