Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Old Friends, Sat On A Park Bench Like Bookends

Kevin Ayers - The Unfairground
Robert Wyatt - Comicopera

It’s a special couple of months that sees these two pioneering collaborators (both Soft Machine alumni) both releasing new albums. Wyatt’s output has stayed restlessly creative over recent years, with a series of largely home-recorded albums demonstrating the continued flowering of his remarkable genius. As a composer, he is continually pushing himself in new directions, and he remains one of the most insightful and inventive of pop writers. ‘Cuckooland’ and now ‘Comicopera’ may show him becoming increasingly accessible but he is still completely fearless in his themes and juxtapositions, far from any comfortable or classifiable terrain. Yet, in some ways, it’s the Ayers album, whilst decidedly more conventional, that is the more unexpected. It’s this hermetic figure’s first recording for over fifteen years, and it is a remarkably dignified and unassuming disc. Wyatt himself is among the numerous guests on ‘The Unfairground’, billed amusingly as The Wyattron, although it’s not clear exactly what his contribution entails.

The play on words in Ayers’ chosen title is so obvious that it’s difficult to believe it hasn’t been used before. In fact, it neatly sums up the directness and clarity of this deceptively simple collection. Ayers’ vocal style is delicate, clear and almost conversational, and his melodies take a while to ingrain themselves in the mind. Repeated listens to ‘The Unfairground’ reveal numerous pleasures in its elaborate arrangements and old fashioned dusty shuffles. There’s also something hugely endearing about its ruminative and reflective mood.

Ayers may have been passing the time drinking wine in the South of France, but he clearly hasn’t closed his ears to contemporary talent. Among the guests on this beguiling record are indie-jazz pianist Bill Wells, various members of The Ladybug Transistor, former Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci singer Euros Childs and one of the greatest songwriters of the past 20 years in Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake. The songs all benefit from detail in the arrangements, including strings, brass and harmony vocals. These never feel tacked on after the event, but are rather innate contributing factors to the relaxed, lightly entertaining feel of the music.

The jauntiness of the opening ‘Only Heaven Knows’ or the delightfully infectious ‘Walk On Water’ border on twee, but never quite stray into that unpleasant pastiche territory coveted by Belle and Sebastian in their recent work with Trevor Horn. There’s also an important counterweight to be found elsewhere in the murky, dense trudge of ‘Brainstorm’ or the charming Cajun melancholy of ‘Baby Come Home’. The feel of much of this music is restrained and subtle, from the dusty shuffle of ‘Shine A Light’ to the multi-faceted rhythmic adventures of the title track, which bears a strong resemblance to Bob Dylan’s ‘Mozambique’.

Much of ‘The Unfairground’ deals with disappointment and uncertainty, and how age and experience do not by themselves bring greater insight. These are quite brave themes, although the reflective, whimsical humour with which Ayers confronts these subjects ensures that these songs are not overly weighty. Indeed, far from it, for there’s an admirable lightness of touch throughout the album. The resignation of ‘Cold Shoulder’ might be merely weary, or it might be wise (‘old shoulders become cold shoulders, nothing left to lean on’), whilst ‘Friends and Strangers’ neatly encapsulates the difficulties when the boundaries between friendship and love become blurred (‘funny how a situation changes, love can turn the best of friends into strangers’).

Those familiar with the oddball quirkiness Ayers displayed on albums like ‘Whatevershebringswesing’ might well find the relative straightforwardness and unashamed whimsy of ‘The Unfairground’ underwhelming. I have a clear sense that this is one of those delightfully modest albums that is all too easy to underestimate. It’s lovingly crafted, with an intriguing set of guests who have real empathy with Ayers’ unassuming approach.

Robert Wyatt claims that ‘Comicopera’ is about ‘the unpredictable mischief of real life’ and what greater, more sophisticated backdrop for an artistic statement could there be? He also claims that he doesn’t like to limit himself through prior planning or conceptual restrictions, although ‘Comicopera’ is an intelligently structured work neatly divided into three acts. Wyatt has a unique ability to make his work sound simultaneously both unfinished and utterly complete – there is as much space in this music as there is sound, and the low key production values allow for imperfections and real feeling.

So much has been made of Wyatt’s obfuscation or the challenge his music poses to ears more attuned to conventional pop music. His name has even become a verb – to ‘Wyatt’ now refers to the act of deliberately selecting the most outrageous or provocative track on a pub jukebox. Listening to ‘Comicopera’, though, I don’t feel that Wyatt’s music is without broader appeal. Whilst he’s undoubtedly preoccupied with sound in the broadest sense, and also with the traditions of improvisation and harmonic extension not usually explored in conventional pop writing, he has such a sensitive ear for melody and elegant chord progressions that much of the music here is both touching and approachable. Take the brief but charming ‘A Beautiful Peace’ for example, its delicate rustle and strum having an effortless charm. The music on ‘Comicopera’ is also subtle and considerably nuanced however, and therefore lacks the insistence or immediacy of much mainstream pop music. Like the best composition in any genre, it demands close attention, and rewards the effort handsomely.

Much of Wyatt’s last album (the outstanding ‘Cuckooland’) was fuelled by audacious examinations of the Middle East situation. ‘Comicopera’ advances this preoccupation by pivoting on the most original and intelligent expression of anger at the Iraq war any musician has yet mustered. Its second act sees Wyatt playing opposing roles, as a gung-ho bomber and an innocent victim of bombings. Then, in the album’s third (and most unconventional) act, Wyatt abandons the English language for Italian and Spanish, an expression of his perceived political and cultural alienation from the Anglo-American axis. This is a much more lucid, nuanced and powerful expression of dislocation than the uncontrolled anger Neil Young indulged on the massively overrated ‘Living With War’ album last year.

Ultimately, though, ‘Comicopera’ is as much personal as it is political, and even its most confrontational moments build broad pictures from individual perspectives. Wyatt and his wife and co-lyricist Alfreda Benge may be rivalled in 2007 only by Bjork and Feist for their insight into human behaviour. There are love songs here, but they are free from the burden of sentimentality and rarely predictable in their outlook. Sometimes, as much of the emotion and feeling is hidden as it is revealed (I particularly like ‘A.W.O.L’ with its lyrics about ‘thinking in riddles and waving to trains that no longer run’). Yet occasionally, Wyatt and Benge manage to be strikingly direct, as on ‘Just As You Are’ which manages to revisit that well-worn theme of constancy in love without sounding tired or jaded.

This album is so stylistically diverse and scattershot that it shouldn’t hang together nearly as coherently as it does. Its overarching themes and musical preoccupations provide a consistent thread, and there’s an engaging mystery neatly introduced by the eerie interpretation of Anja Garbarek’s ‘Stay Tuned’.

The three act scheme also helps to add shape and form, even if it was, as Wyatt suggests, an afterthought. The first act, subtitled ‘Lost In Noise’ is notable for its smoky, entrancing arrangements focussing on trumpet and saxophone. These performances are not just lovingly arranged (particularly the wonderful ‘Anachronist’ which is both hypnotic and discomforting) but also carefully recorded, capturing the natural live sound and tone of these instruments.

The first part of the middle act most explicitly conjures the comic mood the album’s title suggests. This being a Robert Wyatt album, however, the humour is particularly dry. On the quirky deconstructed blues ‘Be Serious’, he quips ‘how can I express myself when there’s no self to express?’, a peculiar inversion of existentialist philosophy. The act ends with the album’s most politically confrontational material, but is glued together by the endearingly ramshackle instrumental ‘On The Town Square’, essentially an extended improvisation for saxophone and steel pan over just one insistently repeated guitar chord. ‘A Beautiful War’ is devastating in its sardonic cynicism in the face of war, Wyatt playing the role of gleeful bomber privileged with a promise of freedom and security denied to his targets (‘I open the hatch, and I drop the first batch/It’s a shame, I’ll miss the place, but I’ll get to see the film within days…the replay of my beautiful day’). Immediately afterwards, on the brilliantly disorientating ‘Out Of The Blue’, Wyatt switches roles to play the part of the beleaguered victim of war (‘Beyond all understanding you’ve blown my house apart/You set me free…You’ve planted all your everlasting hatred in my heart’). It sounds appropriately confusing and terrifying, but also underlines a sense of anger and fearless righteousness.

The final act, subtitled ‘Away With The Fairies’ seems to enter another world completely, a land that is both romantic and disconcertingly dark, with Wyatt both forsaking the English language and veering into his most inventive musical terrain. ‘Cancion de Julieta’ might be the album’s most difficult moment but it’s also a clear highlight, setting a Lorca poem to appropriately dramatic and evocative music. It builds from just Wyatt’s uniquely conversational intoning set against a discreet double bass glide, into a swirling, malevolent concoction in asymmetrical time. The take on Orphy Robinson’s ‘Pastafari’ is equal parts Steve Reich and Lionel Hampton, far more engaging than a simple interlude. After ‘Fragment’ echoes some of the themes from the first act, the album ends with the Latin-tinged ‘Hasta Siemore Comandante’, which manages to be at once elusive and forthright, foreboding and celebratory.

It would be easy to take Wyatt for granted because he consistently produces music that is this weird and wonderful – it is exactly what his audience expects from him. But let’s be clear – there is no other male solo artist working on this level and nobody this unafraid to combine ideas and sounds that might otherwise be assumed to be in conflict with each other. ‘Comicopera’ is yet another vivid masterpiece in a career that has not yet produced anything less.

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