Wyatt: Everything but the Lyrics
Robert Wyatt, ever since exiting the Soft Machine, turned away from the psychedelic explorations of his former band and found his own, softer brand of music. Primary a drummer with his old bands (Soft Machine/Matching Mole), Wyatt’s interest in drumming waned after an accident left him paralyzed. Although greatly immobilized, Wyatt’s imagination was suddenly freed, leading him to a string of unique and critically adored albums during the ‘70s. Wyatt’s later work, however, remains rather under-the-radar. Perhaps Rykodisc’s latest batch of Wyatt reissues will bring albums like 1991’s Dondestan to light.
Rykodisc’s recent reissue of Dondestan (Revisited, is actually the album’s third incarnation. Wyatt, in 1998, found Dondestan‘s original master tapes and created a new version, different in both mix and tracklisting, more in tune to what he wanted from the album. It is Wyatt’s approved mix that Rykodisc has decided to remaster and market, and from the way the tracks seamlessly flow into one another, it is difficult to imagine Dondestan in any other form. Wyatt’s possessiveness over Dondestan goes beyond the final mix, the noted multi-instrumentalist claims he played nearly every instrument on the album. On the interview included on the multi-media portion of this enhanced CD, Wyatt credits this feat as being part of his stubbornness, as someone disabled, to allow others to do things for him which he could do himself.
The odd aspect of this statement, is that Wyatt contradicts himself within the interview. Wyatt admits that he “ran out of words” while working on Dondestan, so he began to borrow those of his wife, poet Alfreda Benge. Half of Dondestan consists of Wyatt laying down tracks for his wife’s poetry. This move, while certainly interesting in theory, actually weakens the album in certain respects. Benge’s words are evocative and beautiful as are Wyatt’s arrangements, but the tracks rarely cohere as songs. In a rare occurrence, both the music and the words fail to do justice to each other. “Sight of the Wind”, for instance, is a powerful poem, but Wyatt’s attempt to make lines like “Yesterday’s footprints vanished, / Replaced by smooth rippling / Wave formation” fit into anything like a conventional song structure result in formless, occasionally dull, songs. Perhaps Wyatt should have left some of these tracks as instrumentals, leaving Benge’s poetry in the liner notes and let the listener imagine the correspondences.
The collaborations do bear fruit on two of the songs. “Shirnkrap”‘s simple rhymes and comical tone makes it an ideal material for one of Wyatt’s satirical numbers. A witty profile on the anxieties inherent in the modern workforce, “Shrinkrap” is aided by Wyatt’s bone dry English rapping, think Mark Skinner not KRS-One, and a fast paced, reverse-tape aided rhythm section which is as anxious as the worried narrator who fears: “my id is raw / My ego breaking / From months of toil / To separate my real self / from its husk”. “Worship”, again one of Benge’s simpler poems, is the only Benge/Wyatt combination that proves that poetry and rock and roll can combine in almost magical ways. Benge’s seaside imagery is perfectly suited for Wyatt’s strange blend of Marxist jazz-rock, uneasy ambient touches, and Smile-era Beach Boys. It is a perfect fusion that shows that Wyatt’s initial idea to use his wife’s poetry to inspire him could have been a genius move.
In fact, this collaboration did light some sparks for Wyatt, because the remainder of the album is fairly inspired. The opening two tracks, “CP Jeebies” and “N.I.O. (New Information Society)”, which respectively, uphold the importance of the Communist Party and mock the urge for privatization, act as a sort of dreamy, political suite. Although hearing Wyatt laud the Communist Party in the beginning of the 1990s seems a little odd, both songs are valuable additions to Wyatt’s catalogue of laid-back yet politically charged songs. “Dondestan”, the album’s best track by far, is a jaunty music hall number that, of all things, calls for the creation of a Palestinian state. If it sounds a little bit like Leftist Politics for Kindergarteners, that aspect only makes it all the more charming. “Left on Man” is a haunting, repetitive drone that takes the low-key menace underneath even the album’s most cheerful tracks, and turns it into a mesmerizing hook of “simplify, reduce, over-simplify”. Finally, Wyatt reunites with his old Soft Machine band mate Hugh Hopper who co-wrote, and unless my ears have gone insane, added a little bass to “Lisp Service”, to create a satisfying finish.
Like all of Wyatt’s albums, Dondestan is a grower, an album that makes no concessions to the pop world. If his collaborations with his wife fail as often as they hit the mark, the album works as a whole as a strange political statement somehow melded with a bewitching musical background. It may not be polished for a Rober Wyatt album, but it’s still a gem.