Outdated Politics, Timely Message
Nothing Can Stop Us is not actually a proper Robert Wyatt album, it is a collection of singles Wyatt released in the early ‘80s. All tracks but two are covers, and one of those non-covers consists of a poet reciting his own poem. Under the guise of releasing versions of his favorite songs, Wyatt discretely created an album that doubled as a political manifesto written in other people’s words (some of those words in English and others not). Surprisingly, Nothing Can Stop Us may be one of Wyatt’s most focused works.
At this point in his career, the former Soft Machine drummer had long since abandoned the ethereal ideas of his generation and had devoted himself firmly to his own brand of old school Marxism. Caught between the twin forces of Thatcherism and Reagan’s “Morning in America”, it is easy to see why Wyatt became fiercer in his political views (although the fact that the titles of two of the album’s 10 tracks contain positive references to Stalin is a bit disquieting). With the exception of his own “Born Again Cretin”, a demented Beach Boys number satirically calling for Nelson Mandela to rot in prison, Wyatt’s political beliefs come through more in attitude than in words. Wyatt sings “Caimanera”, a.k.a. “Guantanamera”, with such a passion that even if someone didn’t know about that song’s importance as a Cuban anthem, one could tell that Wyatt was singing a song both of pride and rebellion. Wyatt’s collaboration with Bengali group Dishari, “Trade Union”, also showcases music as the ultimate universal political expression. Dishari may not sing in English, and may play instruments I’ve only barely heard of, but the band’s rallying cry is as explicit as Rage Against the Machine at their bluntest.
“At Last I Am Free” is perhaps the most ingenious interpretation on the album. Wyatt takes a song from Chic, one of the bands that I would never expect Robert Wyatt to cover, and rework its down-tempo love lyrics into an anthem of ecstatic, well, freedom. It is no mistake that Wyatt sequences this radical re-working immediately following his riffs on Mandela in “Born Again Cretin”. “Strange Fruit” plays it more traditional, but Wyatt needs to do little to the classic song to heighten its political message. Wyatt’s thin, very English voice cannot possibly contain the terrifying lynching imagery within the song itself, but his inability to express the true horror of the song suggests the impossibility of anyone being able to fully understand the horrors of racism’s worst injustices. Wyatt also brings a sinister edge to Ivor Cutler’s “Grass”, a surreal slice of disturbed English whimsy whose lyrics play like Nick Cave channeling Edward Lear or vice-versa.
The explicitly political songs Wyatt chooses are, perhaps by design, heavily dated. “Stalin Wasn’t Stallin’” is a World War II era barbershop ode to Stalin and his Russian forces standing up against Hitler. Its sunny optimism towards Stalin’s heroism may sound ironic, but Wyatt simply wants to remind the world of the ‘80s that America and Russia were once allies (oddly, this message, too, is dated). “Red Flag” is a traditional Worker’s Song, Wyatt’s tribute to the socialists of the past. The fact that these songs were dated even when they were recorded adds to their appeal. Unlike the recent songs that Wyatt infuses with political meaning, Wyatt practically strips these two songs of their political impact in order to showcase their musical merit regardless of their political viewpoints.
As the collection ends, with Peter Blackman reading his poem “Stalingrad”, praising the Russian soldiers who died in conflict with the Nazi Army, the significance of this album becomes clear. Marxist communism is long dead, and socialism is something of a quaint relic for most of the world. Stalin, it goes without saying, was a murderous tyrant who spread fear and death rather than freedom. Still, as the liner notes mention, Blackman is not just talking about the late U.S.S.R.: “he sees only a continuity of the same struggle, of people everywhere, in Vietnam, in Africa, in the face of Reagan’s threatened holocaust”. The places have changed, the ideals have changed, but the struggle for freedom and justice will never end. Through other people’s words, Wyatt makes a powerful statement with this album: As long as this struggle continues, there will always be music. And as long as there is music, there will always be that fundamental belief: “Nothing can stop us”.