[8 November 2010]
It would seem a mistake to treat this release as a Robert Wyatt album for a number of reasons. The project had its roots in two collaborations between the Israeli-born saxophonist/clarinetist Gilad Atzmon and the British violinist Ros Stephen, the first being Atzmon’s involvement in Stephen’s Tango Siempre project and the second being the duo’s take on Charlie Parker’s 1950s recordings with strings (released on Atzmon’s album In Loving Memory of America). Then there is the fact that ...for the Ghosts Within is very clearly a collaborative effort between Atzmon, Stephen, and Wyatt, with each performer given ample space to add their own particular textures to these recordings. Writing and arranging credits are shared between the three artists and, despite Wyatt’s claims that most musical collaborations are really a series of shifting dictatorships, there is a sense of equal involvement from all involved.
However, for fans of Wyatt and his extensive body of work, it may be hard not to treat this album as further glorious evidence of a singular late voice that came into existence around the time of his 1997 album Shleep. The late voice, in this sense, is quite simply understood as the voice of age and experience, a voice defined by its place in an artist’s chronology. Shleep, partly because it was the first major work by Wyatt since 1991’s Dondestan and partly because its appearance coincided with a surge of renewed interest in the artist, seemed to mark a break between mid-period Wyatt and late Wyatt. Since that point, there have been two extensive reissue programs—first on Hannibal/Ryko, more recently on Wyatt’s current label Domino—and two more critically lauded albums, Cuckooland and Comicopera (both of which featured contributions by Atzmon).
... for the Ghosts Within seems to fit neatly into the trajectory of this late period, partly due to its revisiting of earlier moments in Wyatt’s career. Dondestan‘s title track is refashioned as “Where Are They Now?”, given a new lease of life via the addition of hip hop beats and a rap by Palestinian artist Stormtrap (Abboud Hashem). “Maryan”, which originally appeared on Shleep, is given a fresh sheen from Stephen’s string arrangements and Atzmon’s clarinet. Wyatt also reprises “At Last I Am Free”, the Chic song he originally covered in 1980, and “Round Midnight”, which appeared on the 1982-1984 compilation. In a further connection to Wyatt’s previous albums, the artwork was completed by his wife and longtime artistic collaborator Alfreda Benge, who also contributes lyrics to two songs.
Wyatt has a long history of covering other artists’ songs, from his version of Neil Diamond’s “I’m a Believer” through his heartbreaking take on Elvis Costello’s “Shipbuilding” to his recording of Carlos Puebla’s “Hasta Siempre Comandante”. On this album, half the songs are jazz standards or, in the case of “What a Wonderful World”, pop songs indelibly associated with jazz artists. As Wyatt mixes his own work with versions of “Laura”, “Lush Life”, and “In a Sentimental Mood”, it is tempting to draw a comparison with Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now (from 2000). That album gave beautiful expression to Mitchell’s late voice as she revisited two songs written as a young woman alongside a number of jazz standards, asking her audience to consider her songs as standards and to trace the distance travelled between the recordings.
Wyatt and Mitchell, two artists whose interest in jazz profoundly shaped their songwriting, also provide fine examples of how the late voice as described above is always complicated by consideration of other factors. Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now”, written when she was just 24, is a song whose wisdom, experience, and narrational perspective belies its author’s youth (compare, too, Sandy Denny’s “Who Knows Where the Time Goes”, Richard Thompson’s “Meet on the Ledge”, Bob Dylan’s early work, and all of Nick Drake’s). When Mitchell came to record the song again with an orchestra, she was arguably only confirming a lateness that had always been there. Her voice, hoarse with the resonance of a spent life, encountered a lyric which had long anticipated the meeting.
Wyatt complicates the simple, chronological definition of lateness in other ways. Instead of writing music of experience at an early age, he fashioned an aesthetic that relies on innocence and naiveté, an approach that has continued into his later years. Ever since his time with Soft Machine, he has emphasized a childlike sense of wonder at the world and a deliberately childish desire to cling to domestic comforts. At the same time, Wyatt has immersed himself in politics and in the performance of political material. This is another form of wonder at the world, a wonder that demands answers to difficult questions, the child’s “why?” becoming the adult’s insistence on justice and reparation.
That combination is once again in evidence on ...for the Ghosts Within. Where the childlike rhyme of “Dondestan” (“Palestine’s a country/or at least used to be”) was emphasized in its original form by a repeated, one-finger keyboard line, its message drilling itself into the listener’s memory, the song is given a more complex treatment in “Where Are They Now?”. The melody is first rehearsed by Atman’s horns and Stephen’s strings in a distinctly retro manner, the warm fuzziness suggesting jazz of a bygone era. This feeling is then continued via the application of analog hiss to the recording, a temporal and spatial rejigging that in turn is displaced by the hip hop beats and assertive rap. “Palestine’s a country” becomes a small, sample-like element in the mix, a more subtle assertion of a country’s right to exist.
If “Where Are They Now” serves as a display of Wyatt’s ongoing political concerns, his performance of “What a Wonderful World”? is a reminder of his continued sense of wonder. Once again, the string quartet is on exquisite form, as is Atzmon. The instrumentalists are well aware of the tendency for string-accompanied jazz to veer towards the syrupy, especially when given such sentimental material as this. They respond by adding well-judged elements of danger and doubt into their tones. Wyatt’s voice, slightly flattened to sound like a horn, has the wonderful everyday sincerity that he has always brought to his singing and which grounds his work in the real world even as it imagines spaces far beyond. He may no longer reach the high notes of his earlier work, but he is still a long way from the gravelly texture of Louis Armstrong, giving Wyatt convincing ownership of the song’s sense of awe.
Between these performances, there is a brilliant display of Wyatt’s fascination with dreamlike textures in the reworking of “Maryan”. The combination of his elusive lyric, his melody-evading vocal, Atzmon’s clarinet (at its most intoxicating and otherworldly on this track), shimmering strings, and a warped, watery studio mix make this nothing less than a late career equivalent of Wyatt’s signature “Sea Song”. It’s that accomplished.
Before any of these, however, there is “Laura”, which brilliantly dispels any doubt about Wyatt’s ability to take on the classic songbooks. The string quartet starts dramatically, then falls briefly silent to allow the singer’s voice in. Wyatt hits the opening notes perfectly, his voice both soaring and flat (just the right amount of flatness, just as Billie Holiday taught), light and heavy, yearning and resigned. The strings reenter and it’s as if they have been tamed by the voice, made softer by their accompanying role. Wyatt continues to mix everyday matter-of-factness with exceptional wonder and hope, only to remind us that Laura is “only a dream”. Atzmon, always a master of the nostalgic tone, takes his turn and ushers the tune away down the alleyways of memory and regret. Richard Pryce’s double bass is the perfect underpinning to these proceedings, a set of footsteps wandering forlorn through those same alleyways.
And so it is with the other standards, save that, on “Round Midnight”, Wyatt forsakes singing words for whistling the melody and opts for humming “In a Sentimental Mood”. In the film that accompanies the album, Wyatt explains that words are unnecessary additions to some of the great jazz tunes and that, as a singer, he sometimes feels he gets the short straw. Maybe so, but Robert Wyatt’s music without Robert Wyatt’s voice must be an unthinkable prospect for many. The whistling may be the logical extension of the ways in which, throughout his career, he has explored the interaction of words, language, sound, and sense by using deliberately absurdist techniques. But the voice-as-instrument is also a voice that delivers messages, that asserts a shared humanity. “I see friends shaking hands”, sings Wyatt at the album’s close, and you can’t help but be moved. For a little while, at least, the world sounds wonderful again.