Cuckooland
2003

Robert Wyatt

   
 


 
LES INROCKUPTIBLES - 30 septembre 2003

Robert Wyatt - Cuckooland - Rykodisc - Naïve

Richard Robert
 

Les premières mesures de Cuckooland, où quelques coulures de cornet glissent sur une nappe de synthé bon marché, ramènent l’auditeur en terrain familier, une manière de dire que, six ans après Shleep, Robert Wyatt a choisi comme toujours de changer dans la continuité. Mais le terrain est si fertile, si prodigue de beautés et d’inventions, qu’on se laisse une fois de plus surprendre. Il y a d’abord la classe phénoménale d’un musicien qui réussit à enchaîner les figures harmoniques, mélodiques et rythmiques les plus acrobatiques sans jamais donner l’impression de s’adonner à de pénibles tours de force. Il y a cette voix à la fois neuve et ancestrale qui unifie cette improbable mosaïque, cette voix d’enfant centenaire qui n’est pas n’en déplaise à Ryuichi Sakamoto ? “la plus triste du monde” : simplement la plus littérale et la plus musicale du monde. Il y a aussi l’extraordinaire fond de jeu d’une équipe d’instrumentistes qui, de Karen Mantler à David Gilmour, du clarinettiste israélien Gilad Atzmon à la tromboniste Annie Whitehead, donne à chaque trait mélodique la couleur et la vibration requises. Il y a enfin cette place nouvelle accordée au jazz, qui n’apparaît plus seulement en filigrane, mais de manière très explicite, comme sur ces véritables airs à swinguer que sont Old Europe ou Trickle Down. Cet hommage à la musique qui l’a éveillé n’est pas le seul moment fort d’un disque extrêmement dense : toutes les chansons, ici, peuvent facilement faire l’objet de plusieurs niveaux de lecture (musical, poétique, politique, sentimental’), sans que la limpidité ni la légèreté de l’ensemble en soient pour autant altérées. Comment Wyatt réussit-il à créer une musique aussi chargée et aussi aérienne ? Face à une telle question, l’Anglais répond qu’il n’est pas psychologue pour un sou et qu’il n’est pas doué pour l’introspection. S’il est un musicien hors compétition, l’Anglais n’a pas renoncé pour autant à son amour du jeu. Et c’est bien ça qu’on entend de bout en bout dans Cuckooland, comme dans une épatante compilation d’inédits qui vient de sortir, Solar Flares Burn for You (1972-2003). C’est peut-être là l’enseignement délivré par l’œuvre de Robert Wyatt : l’amour de la musique, quand il est porté par une telle fraîcheur d’intention et d’expression, rend beau, intelligent, heureux et sensible. Une vérité qu’on est en droit d’estimer naïve, voire mièvre, mais qui trouve pourtant dans Cuckooland sa plus indiscutable transcription.



 
WIRE - september 2003

Robert Wyatt - Cuckooland - Hannibal HN1468 CD

Clive Bell
Photo : Keiko Yoshida


 

1997's Shleep was rereleased in 2002, but Cuckooland is Robert Wyatt's first album of the new millennium. The ex-singer and drummer from Soft Machine and Matching Mole lives quietly in Lincolnshire, writing "about one song a year" with his wife, Alfreda Benge. Ryuichi Sakamoto once said that Wyatt had "the saddest voice in the world", and for those of us who regard him fondly as a member of some kind of British alternative royal family, it's a pleasure to see him credited with 'coronet' on the first track. Presumably that's a typo, because Wyatt plays plenty of cornet and trumpet (his first instrument, childhood violin lessons notwithstanding) throughout Cuckooland - to lovely melancholy effect on "Old Europe", which is about Juliette Greco and Miles Davis in Paris in 1949. That title's reference to Donald Rumsfeld's anti-French sneering on the eve of the Iraq war is no accident.
Over the last three decades Wyatt has staked out his musical patch by borrowing widely from both jazz and 'beat music'. His 1974 pop hit with The Monkees' "I'm A Believer" was an appropriate response to the jazz instrumentalists who got him sacked from Soft Machine. If Shleep was a poppier, brighter vision than usual, for Cuckooland Wyatt has nudged the dial back towards jazz. The album is also murkier and more understated. The good news is that there are classic songs here, some good jokes, glorious old fashioned harmonica courtesy of Karen Mantler, and yet more proof of Wyatt's amazing ability to write a moving melody about the grimmest of topics without trivialising or patronising them. "Forest" is a rich goulash of a song, with a double-layered chorus and Brian Eno joining the choir for the counter-melody. After a couple of listens you'll be singing too, and yet the lyrics deal with World War Two gypsy extermination camps. "Foreign Accents" loops a six word lyric - four of them Japanese - for a nursery rhyme about Israeli nuclear weapons and CIA meddling in Iran. Wyatt has been here before, of course. "East Timor" on 1985's Old Rottenhat was minimal, caustic and unforgettable. And those who remember with pleasure Shleep's "Free Will And Testament" (a pop ditty that tackles head-on the limitations of human free will) will enjoy Cuckooland's opening track, "Just A Bit", where Wyatt takes on a rich subject: is religious belief a good thing? "Superstition's like religion, bonsai version -faintly sad." It's "I'm A Believer" dragged into 2003. "I'm not a political activist - more an aesthete and self-indulgent piss-artist," Wyatt told The Guardian early this year. He says of his voice that it has "ever-decreasing range, now more or less reduced to a wino's mutter". His self-assessment is a little harsh, for Wyatt can still negotiate the beautiful high melody of "Lullaby For Hamza" (about the bombing of Baghdad) better than any other male vocalist I can think of. The grumpy wino speaks out on "Lullaloop", a hilarious complaint about fast walkers and noisy neighbours. But it's true to say that much of the singing is understated, whether from Wyatt or his guest Karen Mantler (Carla Bley's and Mike Mantler's daughter, who contributes three songs). Sometimes the mix swamps the voices a little, a shame given the quality of the lyrics. This problem is not helped by Wyatt's current fondness for a real stinker of a synth - a huffing, twinkling breeze of digital halitosis that has been mixed more generously than it deserves.
On the musical plus side there is plenty of sax, clarinet and flute from Israeli exile Gilad Atzmon (formerly of Ian Dury's Blockheads). Also dark, treacly trombones from Annie Whitehead, spot-on guitar from Paul Weller on "Lullaloop", and Mantler's spine-tingling harmonica. Not to forget Wyatt's drumming, which, like his trumpet, is more in evidence than usual. When the atmosphere threatens to turn dark and glum, Wyatt clears the air with a parlour piano rendition of Buddy Holly's "Raining In My Heart", or a simple duet with Mantler on Carlos Jobim's Brazilian classic, "Insensatez".
Wyatt can justly be proud of this batch. Shleep raised the bar very high, but Cuckooland is a substantial and deeply personal work, with the light touch of a true master. At 75 minutes, it's also a generously long collection, and the boss has thoughtfully included a half-minute break in the middle, "long enough to change the record or put on the kettle".




 
       

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