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Robert Wyatt - For the Ghosts Within

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Artist: Robert Wyatt

Album: For the Ghosts Within

Label: Domino

Review date: Nov. 8, 2010

Robert Wyatt on Humming, Whistling and ‘Wyatting’ by DominoRecordCo

On his last album, Comicopera, Robert Wyatt sounded about as angry as anyone can sound with a voice like his. Tremulous, cracking just where it matters most, it’s like a Moorish mosaic — not quite perfect, and gorgeous in its imperfection. It’s also an inherently gentle instrument. But when applied to lyrics full of regret and disgust about long-standing and newer political injustices (he is a long-standing sympathizer for the dispossessed) as well as his own personal failings (Wyatt quit drinking during Comicopera‘s production), it hits you, to borrow a line from The Clean, like a big soft punch. The impact of Wyatt’s music is gradual. It reveals itself as incrementally as it was made; you have to sink gradually into the layers of sound before you get to the soul and poetry underneath. But when it finally connects, it can knock you out with beauty, intelligence, compassion and tunes that somehow morph from simple ditties into complex organisms that take up permanent space in your brain.

And so it is with For the Ghosts Within. On first listen, it’s like a failed confection, with way too much butter cream frosting and not enough cake. This is very much a three-way project, and both of Wyatt’s collaborators — violinist Ros Stephen and clarinet/saxophone player Gilad Atzmon — have a weakness for plushness. Stephen’s arrangements for her Signamos string quartet (actually a quintet, with double bassist Richard Pryce adding necessary swing and ballast) are rich with antique melodrama, and Atzmon adds three or four lumps of sugar to his klezmer-steeped reed tone. The settings they’ve devised for the older Wyatt tracks and jazz standards that make up much of the album feel like a mid-20th century European re-interpretation of jazz as music for a weepy movie set in cafés with rain-spattered windows. The upholstery overburdens the music with a preciousness that is a far cry from the spot-on sparseness of Wyatt’s rendition of Eubie Blake’s “Memories Of You” on the flip side of the “Shipbuilding” single; it also undercuts Wyatt’s stern condemnation of Palestinian repression.

But keep listening and details introduce themselves; a filter that makes the strings sound like they’re being played through an antique radio, drums that sound like they were sampled from a ‘20s jazz record, a tiny lick from Wyatt’s muted trumpet. They don’t cancel out the excessive sweetening, but the more you hear them, the more they cut it, like a melting ice cube that slowly renders sweet tea drinkable.

And then there are the anomalous tracks. Wyatt barely sings on “The Ghost Within,” but his martial snare drum playing and guest vocalist Tali Atzmon’s stern cabaret delivery give the music just enough backbone to bear the load of self-consciously haunting clarinet. Wyatt also seems like a guest on “Where Are They Now?” Back in 1991 he pledged his support to the displaced Palestinians on the song "Dondestan"; here he lets a couple of them have their say, rapping in Arabic over a retitled, chopped ‘n fiddled hip-hop version of the song. It sticks out like a sore thumb, and it’s probably not hip hop that anyone who cares about hip hop would dig, but it’s just the thing to rouse the record from excessive politeness. And it also reconnects with his work in the ‘80s, when he’d put another artist on his own record just so you could dig their sounds and politics.

And at the end, Wyatt takes the For the Ghosts Within‘s over-riding mushiness, runs with it, and it makes it totally work. He sings Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World” with that still-great voice, radiating gentle dignity and the tenderness that only a guy who has been alive for 65 years and really believes that the world can be a better place can muster.

For a minute I feel like an asshole for every harsh thing I’ve said about this album. But just for a minute — I’d still rather listen to Shleep, Comicopera, or Rock Bottom.

By Bill Meyer

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