Monday, February 13, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #98 - Robert Wyatt - Rock Bottom (1974)

I must begin this entry with an apology. I had intended to post a new review every week, but as astute reads will have noticed, I have already failed in that ambition, and only three albums in! The reason is that the album in question, Rock Bottom, was out of print in my country and I had difficulty in obtaining a copy. After my initial order from Amazon was abruptly cancelled days after it was supposed to arrive, I had to pursue overseas options, which even in the futuristic space age in which we live took rather longer than I expected. This will likely not be the last such roadblock, as there are several more albums in the list that are currently unavailable, but I shall endeavor to make allowances and obtain them in a timely fashion. In any case, I have the album now, so we can proceed.

While an avid lover of progressive rock, I have never much cared for the Canterbury scene. Bands such as Caravan and the Soft Machine have failed to hold my interest, and as Wyatt is well-known as one of the major figures of that subgenre, I confess I approached this record with a bit of trepidation. Wyatt's voice is not one that I find especially pleasant, particularly in its higher registers, and indeed I would call his vocals my least favorite part of the album. Apart from that minor niggle, however, I was pleasantly surprised by Rock Bottom, which is in every respect an engaging and satisfying listen.

Beginning with a relatively straightforward song, we are at once alerted that things are not quite right, as the otherwise conventional structure is interrupted by stabs of atonal piano, and strangely droning keyboards. The influence of jazz is prominent, but the unusual harmonic and melodic language is used in this context in what I would characterize as an impressionistic fashion.

Indeed, the whole album oddly reminds me of a Monet painting. There are no sharp edges, and everything is hazy and diffuse. In this respect, the cover painting is perfect. The album's centerpiece, Little Red Riding Hood Hits the Road, is built on a tapestry of echoing, interlocking trumpets that produce a mesmerizing effect.

For me at least, the album seems to invite such extra-musical comparisons. Many of the lyrics consist of nonsense poetry, which, combined with its extremely English ad literate sensibilities, reminds me of the work of Lewis Carroll, which is assuredly a good thing.

As I've mentioned before, the ability to choose good collaborators is one of the marks of a great musician, and sat this Wyatt excels. The contributions of guest musicians, primarily to the album's closer, are delightful, from Mike Oldfield's trademarked layered guitars, to Fred Frith's viola, to Ivor Cutler's strangely accented recitation, accompanied by the creaking and groaning of a baritone concertina.

The album is paradoxical in that it comes across as both dark and light, both sad and joyous. There is desperation here; the tragic “stop its” of Little Red Riding Hood are heartbreaking, and this is understandable given that Wyatt was having to come to terms with being a paraplegic at the time of this album, having lost the use of his legs from a four-stroy fall. Yet there is also hope and love, and his devotion to his wife, who appears on the album and about whom many of the lyrics center, is clear. In fact, one of the last lines on the record sums up the nature of love with succinct poignancy: "Your madness fits in nicely with my own." What more could anyone ask in a significant other?

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