Robert Wyatt belongs to the celebrated cohort of British musical savants from the late 60s and 70s, like Brian Eno and Kate Bush, who restlessly pursue a highly personal expression. In Wyatt’s case, jazz is central to that pursuit, less as genre than as license to explore a fusion of sophisticated harmonic frameworks, global musical sources, and lyrics in service of philosophical thought and political protest. In 1967, this fell under the umbrella of British progressive rock. However, Wyatt’s stubborn persistence through changing musical fashions and a 1973 accident that left him a paraplegic would see him inspire artists from world music, post-punk, and high-art electronica.
Wyatt’s career is anthologized on a new two-CD compilation, Different Every Time, that shares the name of a new authorized biography by Marcus O’Dair. Disc 1, titled “Ex Machina,” draws from Wyatt’s own recordings, which began with the prog groups Soft Machine and Matching Mole before transitioning quite seamlessly to a lengthy solo catalogue. The 13 tracks reveal continuities across four decades of music — a plaintive organ melody, a swinging meter on a ride cymbal, Wyatt’s gentle, high-pitched voice — but are necessarily selective and subject to debate. If you were looking for his offbeat 1974 cover of the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer” (#29 in the UK singles chart), it’s not here, although deep cuts like his heartbreaking interpretation of Chic’s gospel ballad “At Last I Am Free” are. This is cerebral, often challenging yet moving music.
Disc 2, “Benign Dictatorships,” expands the album’s range of styles and moods by collecting Wyatt’s contributions to other people’s recordings. Wyatt has been a gregarious muse to many musicians since the pre-punk 70s (solo albums by Roxy Music’s Phil Manzanera and Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason are represented here) and into the new millenium (Björk, Hot Chip). A highlight is his early 80s work with new wave musicians broadening their horizons: singing with Everything But The Girl’s Tracey Thorn for socialist jazzbos Working Week; taking the vocal on a solo single by Epic Soundtrack (from first-gen DIY punks Swell Maps); and delivering the definitive version of Elvis Costello’s “Shipbuilding,” backed by the Attractions.
If you’ve read this far, it’s probably because you already know about Robert Wyatt. Certainly there’s a lot on Different Every Time to excite Wyatt initiates, but this is also an album to introduce newcomers to his remarkable catalogue. Dive in.
Different Every Time comes out on November 18 on Domino Records.
Disc 1: Ex Machina
1. Soft Machine – Moon In June
2. Matching Mole – Signed Curtain
3. Matching Mole – God Song
4. A Last Straw
5. Yesterday Man
6. Team Spirit
7. At Last I Am Free
8. The Age Of Self
10. Free Will And Testament
11. Cuckoo Madame
13. Just As You Are
Disc 2: Benign Dictatorships
1. Jeanette Lindstrom – The River
2. Anja Garbarek – The Diver
3. Hot Chip – We’re Looking For A Lot Of Love
4. Epic Soundtracks – Jellybabies
5. Robert Wyatt – Shipbuilding
6. Grasscut – Richardson Road
7. Happy End – Turn Things Upside Down
8. Monica Vasconcelos – Still In The Dark
9. Working Week – Venceremos (We Will Win) (Jazz Dance Special 12” Version)
10. Phil Manzanera – Frontera
11. Steve Nieve + Robert Wyatt + Muriel Teodori – La Plus Belle Langue
12. Cristina Dona – Goccia
13. Nick Mason – Siam
14. Mike Mantler – A L’abbatoire
15. Mike Mantler – Sinking Spell
16. Bjork – Submarine
17. John Cage – Experiences No. 2