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Published: 2003/10/29
by Jesse Jarnow

Solar Flares Burn For You – Robert WyattCuckooland – Robert Wyatt

Cuneiform Records 175

RykoDisc/Hannibal Records 1468

In 1973, at the edge of 28, former Soft Machine drummer Robert Wyatt fell
out a window. As the saying goes, it's not the fall that kills you, it's the
sudden stop. And, in this case, the stop didn't quite accomplish that.
Whether this fall, and the subsequent paralysis of Wyatt's legs, is the
cause of the weirdly brilliant music Wyatt has been releasing since then is
up for debate. What's not is the consistently boggling body of work Wyatt
has constructed — almost literally the missing link between Syd Barrett and
Brian Eno. As one of rock's great enduring weirdoes, any new music is
welcome from him. And though releases from Wyatt are rare, 2003 finds two
fresh discs of unheard recordings: Cuckooland, on RykoDisc, is a new
album; Solar Flares Burn For You, on Cuneiform, is a collection of
odds and ends, radio sessions and the like, mostly from early in Wyatt's
solo career in the mid 1970s.

As the drummer for the late '60s/early '70s British psychedelic prog-rock
outfit Soft Machine, Wyatt was part of the same art music scene that
produced Floyd. Nearly a decade later, he would play on recordings like
Eno's groundbreaking ambient work Music For Airports. More
significantly, though, Wyatt has burrowed a clear conceptual niche between
the two influential Brits. Like the drugged-out one-time Floyd wunderkind,
Wyatt's music operates with a wholly self-contained logic. Like Eno, he has
persevered as an artist (as opposed to a house-bound looney), releasing
albums whenever it damn well suits him. And even more significantly (and
marvelously), his music is a perfect marriage between the two, somewhere
between Barrett's explorations at the edge of structural sanity, and Eno's
conscious art production, resulting in constructions that are unique and
vulnerable and heartbreaking.

What makes Wyatt so wonderful, though, is that his music eliminates the
notion of genre as a mediator — or, rather, creates the illusion of doing
so, which basically amounts to the same thing. His music isn't transmitted
via any pre-existing style. Rather, it seems to take on the form of a true
self-expression — rhythms, melodies, lyrics, techniques, and production all
twisted to a particular self-invented notion of music.

Neither Solar Flares Burn For You, nor Cuckooland is a
particularly good introduction to this peculiar genius — the former
containing stripped-down sketches of the other music Wyatt was making during
the period, the latter presenting him in somewhat diminished (though always
playful) form. Each hints at the quiet and puzzling beauty that encompasses
albums like 1974's Rock Bottom, but each is beautiful in its own
right, and contains more originality per measure than most can muster in a
lifetime. Both are filled with Wyatt's sonic obsessions: lone trumpets
wavering over synthesizer landscapes, trembling piano, and fragile vocals
singing slowly developing melodies of alternating whimsy and bite.

Solar Flares is made up of four basic chunks, organized oddly: two
sections of music from before the accident (a radio session December 1972,
and an instrumental film score from spring 1973), and two sections of music
from after (a radio session from 1974, and three recent tracks). The disc
opens with the tracks from '74, which are easily the disc's most haunting
moments — especially the solo piano recordings of Rock Bottom's
"Alifib" and "Sea Song," stripped of all layering, and left with nothing but
Wyatt's tenderly shaky voice (Neil Young's got nothin' on him). Long,
knotted melodies fold themselves around muted piano as Wyatt sings. "You
look different every time you come / From the foam-crested brine," he
declares, "Your skin shining softly in the moonlight / Partly fish, partly
porpoise, partly baby sperm whale / Am I yours? Are you mine to play with?"
The song is marvelous, internal rhymes creating alien effects. Topping off
the '74 session is a strangely straight-ahead (and deeply pleasurable) take
on Neil Diamond's "I'm a Believer."

The rest of Solar Flares is a bit of a tangled mess. Likely, the
bizarre music he would go on to make in the years following his accident
were well into blueprint form in Wyatt's head for years. Indeed, the '72
radio session and the soundtrack are filled with bizarre sonorities and
avant-garde tendencies that point squarely towards Rock Bottom, but
they lack the emotional commitment of the latter. As such, Wyatt was
perfectly comfortable creating the score for a mostly nonsensical art film
like Solar Flares Burn For You (included on the enhanced CD,
featuring a face-painted bloke prancing his way through downtown London and
scaring the straights while wielding a paper fish) while also writing
cheeky-ass vaudeville parodies like "We've Got An Arts Council Grant"
(included on the '72 session), which poke fun at its own. The Rock
Bottom material short-circuits such questioning — so purely emotional
in its weirdness that it easily justifies its own existence.

Cuckooland is a bit harder to parse, though still filled with
excellent pieces of music. Jazz takes to the frontline, a mix of fusion and
sentimental melodies. Wyatt's songs are as emotionally abstruse as ever,
though helpful fragments in the liner notes give them some context. What is
missing is a sense of intimacy. It's not the guests (and there are plenty of
'em, including Eno himself and Pink Floyd's David Gilmour), so much as a
diminished focus. Wyatt has undoubtedly created his own sound — which, like
many original approaches, is driven by a unique sense of rhythm. In Soft
Machine, Wyatt was a drummer, and though he's played keyboards and trumpet
for 30 years, many of the songs still seem to be built around rhythmic
ideas. As a drummer with a pair of paralyzed legs, that leaves Wyatt a
limited set of options for creating drum parts — and, thus, originality.
The Rock Bottom material creates the illusion of being invented as it
goes along. It sounds like music made in somebody's head, and only
incidentally translated to tape.

Likewise, the recording technology used to make Rock Bottom and the
'70s material on Solar Flares reflects that. Wyatt's approach on
Cuckooland is similar, with plenty of old synths. But new technology
doesn't capture old technology very well — it often reveals cracks in the
facade. What sounded warm on Rock Bottom sounds thin on
Cuckooland. Higher resolution'll do that. Ah, well. The result is
that all of Wyatt's weirdness comes off as an exercise for the listener, as
opposed an inevitable sounding artistic statement. It's not quite
avant-garde for its own sake, but it's closer than it used to be. Artistic
success of Cuckooland aside, one keeps coming back to Wyatt's voice,
angelically delicate, which magically melts away any digital frost and
intellectual rationalizations in a beautiful instant and defines any
listening as an emotional experience. That is a powerful trick, one
which Wyatt will likely be able to employ no matter what happens
technologically over the rest of his life, and that is worth celebrating in
any form.

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