Listening to Cuckooland is akin to having a cup of tea with a very, very intelligent...
Chris Jones 2003-09-18
It may be six years since Robert Wyatt's last album (Shleep), and he may admit to a one song a year work rate, but the the end results contain a spontaneity and charm that remains peerless. Wyatt exists in a hermetic world where working methods remain unhurried by market forces and he regularly performs the seemingly impossible alchemical marriage of enchanting melody and politically charged lyrical content. It's some balancing act; until you realise that he's not even on the high wire. He's wryly observing the bedlam we inhabit from the bottom of his garden. Listening to Cuckooland is akin to having a cup of tea with a very, very intelligent friend. It soothes as it pricks the conscience.
Since Rock Bottom, his solo debut proper (he himself regards earlier effort End Of An Ear asjuvenilia), Wyatt has, along with partner Alfreda Benge and a host of eminent and multi-talented friends, made albums that run parallel to modern recorded art. By now we all know what he likes. Jazz (preferably with free or bop roots), charmingly spare arrangements and a plethora of interesting (read: slightly wonky) instrumentation. ''Cuckoo Madame'' finds Robert even employing the same cheap keyboard sounds that he used on Rock Bottom. And why not? It suits his voice down to the ground.
Of course since his earliest days with the Soft Machine he's claimed to be more jazzer than avant gardener. With Cuckooland the influences are more evident than ever. Take ''Trickle Down'' with its rising and descending bassline. Like so much on Cuckooland, it swings with aplomb. And it's hardly surprising when you consider input from luminaries such as Gilad Atzmon, Annie Whitehead and, most importantly, Karen Mantler. (The daughter of Carla Bley; she provides vocals, songs and even harmonica on a host of tracks). ''Old Europe'' even takes as its text the legendary Paris jazz scene of the late 50s. Yet you never feel that Robert's wallowing in nostalgia, but painting an impressionistic world where Miles and Juliette Greco still romance each other in monochrome streets.
Politically he's as perplexed (and as pointed) as ever. The key title here is ''Forest''. A scorching indictment of British immigration policy that, nevertheless, manages to be utterly lovely (only Wyatt could get old mate David Gilmour to deliver lines as fluid as he did back in the day). ''Cuckoo Madame'' just may be about Margaret Thatcher and ''La Ahada Yalam'' proves that there's still something pertinent to be said about the atom bomb.
This is classic Wyatt. Brian Eno adds his tell-tale fairy dust and Benge's lyrics should now be recognized as the perfect match for one of England's most enduring and endearing voices (special mention here for ''Lullaloop''). Wyatt shows himself to be no slouch on the cornet (''Old Europe'' conjures up a veritable big band sound from two players), yet it's the voice that remains his primary instrument. He modestly refers to it as 'now reduced to a wino's mutter', but no other artist has yet to approach the abstractions, humbleness and, let's be honest, cuteness that marks him as instantly recognisable. Time for England to listen to its conscience again: over a nice cup of tea...