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The Boston Phoenix Deep Shleep

Robert Wyatt gets personal.

By Mac Randall

JANUARY 20, 1998:  "The big problem I have with rock and roll is the rock end of it," says Robert Wyatt. "But I love the rolling. I'm into roll music." Wyatt's been rolling now for more than three decades, along the periphery where pop, jazz, and experimental genres meet, and the music he's made has been both distinctive and enchanting. His latest release, Shleep (Thirsty Ear), is his first in six years, and though it features cameos from various well-known folks, including Brian Eno and Paul Weller, its main virtue is that it marks the return of the unmistakable Wyatt style -- droll lyrics, complex melodies, sparse arrangements -- and the equally unmistakable Wyatt voice, a fragile, weather-beaten instrument that composer Ryuichi Sakamoto once called "the saddest voice in the world."

A fixture on the London psychedelic underground scene in the '60s, Wyatt hung with legends like Jimi Hendrix and Syd Barrett when he wasn't drumming and singing for his main band, prog-rock pioneers the Soft Machine. But his life changed forever at a fateful party in 1973, when a drunken four-story fall left him paralyzed from the waist down. For the last 25 years, the wheelchair-bound Wyatt has alternated periods of activity -- producing classic albums like 1974's Rock Bottom (first on Virgin, reissued by Caroline), 1981's Nothing Can Stop Us, 1985's Old Rottenhat, and 1991's Dondestan (all on Gramavision) -- with stretches of complete withdrawal from the music business.

Reached by phone at his home in Louth, a tiny market town in the northeast of England (Lincolnshire), Wyatt matter-of-factly confesses to having had "some severe problems close to home" in the early '90s, including a nervous breakdown. Traces of this experience may lurk in the lyrics to Shleep's "Was a Friend," which recounts an ominous meeting with a ghost from the past, and "Heaps of Sheeps," a darkly humorous tale of insomniac desperation. (Although the lyrics to "Heaps of Sheeps" were written by Wyatt's wife, Alfreda Benge, the CD booklet makes it clear that Wyatt also is familiar with sleepless states.) The effect of these songs is more inspiring than disturbing: the urgent ride cymbal and close harmonies of "Was a Friend" burst with energy, and Brian Eno's arrangement and production of "Heaps of Sheeps," complete with mock-heroic vocal chorus, makes for a bouncy little number.

"Brian loved Alfie's words," Wyatt says. "He just sat laughing as he read them, couldn't get over 'em. I'd thought of the song as a mournful New Orleans shuffle, but he really took it by the whatever-it-is and brightened it up, which was fine by me."

Eno is one of 10 guest performers on Shleep, a large number for someone whose last few discs were cut almost completely solo. "The songs seemed to require more people this time," Wyatt explains. "And since we were recording near London, it was easier to have people come out -- I can't really invite people up to Lincolnshire for a wasted afternoon."

The most surprising guest is probably Paul Weller, one of only a handful of current pop artists whom Wyatt professes to admire. Weller contributes guitar and vocals to two selections, a cheeky rewrite of Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" titled "Blues in Bob Minor," and the lovely "Free Will and Testament," in which Wyatt, backed by Weller's subtle slide work, muses over subjects far from your average pop-song material: "The weight of dust exceeds the weight of settled objects/What can it mean, such gravity without a center?/Is there freedom to un-be?/Is there freedom from will-to-be?"

Philosophical lyrics like these call attention to the biggest stylistic departure on Shleep: the turn away from political discussion. Much of Wyatt's work over the last 20 years has dealt with causes of a left-wing nature. He's sung in his own words about Nelson Mandela and East Timor, the plight of refugees and the Communist Party; he's covered Elvis Costello & Clive Langer's "Shipbuilding" (which was written especially for him) and the Cuban folksong "Caimanera." There's none of that here. Shleep's songs are largely ruminative, in both lyrics and music. In fact, the album reaches its peak with three songs written by Wyatt and Benge -- "September the Ninth," "Alien," and "Out of Season" -- whose subject matter is drawn from that most nonpolitical of activities, birdwatching.

Wyatt denies that this change of tone was intentional. "I didn't decide to write political songs in the first place. When I'm writing, I function like an animal, just going on instinct. It's hard to know what to say about that -- in a way, music starts where words end, doesn't it? I still get very agitated, though, either about unpleasant things in the world or the hypocrisy with which they're reported in the news, and that's liable to come out in future songs.

"I'm easily provoked," he concludes with a laugh. "Somebody better not push their luck."


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