Old Rottenthat

Robert Wyatt


ORDET BLOG - 22 mars 2016

Robert Wyatt: Old Rottenhat

Philippe L


L’inattaquable plongée mid-seventies Rock Bottom à beau être l'un des plus beaux albums d’anti-rock au monde, il y a dedans Nick Mason l'infirmier Pink Floyd et encore un peu quelque chose du Barnum dans les arrangements. Voilà peut-être pourquoi j'ai toujours trouvé plus à mon goût le Robert Wyatt mid-eighties celui du vieux chapeau pourri et des merveilles Cherry Red. Une voix, un orgue et rien de plus, ou presque. Robert le défenestré gazouille autour de quelques génocides divers et oubliés celui des Indiens d’Amérique, celui des Timorais orientaux, il est question de lutte des classes, de mass medium et de temps de cerveaux disponible. C'est un disque qui pourrait avoir été écrit par Noam Chomsky. Bienheureusement il est chanté par Robert Wyatt, ce formidable porte-parole du Parti communiste britannique. Là oui très haut dans les limbes, c'est lui. (On me chuchote qu'un Wyatt fredonnant le bottin pourrait être tout autant politique puisque ce qui est surtout politique chez lui c'est sa voix et avant tout sa voix. Je ne sais pas ; peut-être, allez savoir ?)

NEW MUSICAL EXPRESS - 30 November 1985

Robert Wyatt: Old Rottenhat (Rough Trade)

Mat Snow


CAN POLITICS and music mix? Are songs about matters commonly deemed to belong in the political sphere not really songs at all, but rather singing pamphlets on a par with singing telegrams? Should political songs necessarily be anthemic and sloganising: is their purpose to stress goals, identify the enemy, raise the spirits and unite common causes in a single voice? What is music for?
Old Rottenhat raises all these questions; but first impressions first. How does it sound? "Musically, I should say it's more of a slinking record than a dance record," ventures Robert in his customarily wry press-release. He's right. Old Rottenhat neither quickens the pulse nor punches the shadows: rather, it fills the air with the sound of quietly philosophical Englishness, a point of view, a tone of voice, a singular mood.
Robert Wyatt's quirky individualism is the strength of his music and argument. A Wyatt record is like an old friend; it neither hectors, lectures nor harangues as if the listener were a public meeting. His plaintively low-key voice and the uncluttered, hymnal contemplativeness of his music demand you listen hard: its quiet self-effacement is not only impossible to ignore, but invests with personal relevance and resonance tunes hitherto abandoned to memory's stockpile of frozen standards. I'm thinking of his 1974 version of The Monkees' 'I'm A Believer' and his solo rendition of 'The Red Flag' from the 1982 collection Nothing Can Stop Us: sung by Robert Wyatt they find a melancholy dimension that rings touching, refreshing and true.
Old Rottenhat – as unheroic an LP title as there's ever been – is dedicated to Michael Bettany, "just one of England's (sic) many political prisoners". Since Old Rottenhat is Robert Wyatt's first LP of self-penned songs since 1975's Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard, I should imagine he thought long and hard about this choice. Bettany's trial for trying to pass official secrets to Russia indicated a most hapless bungler, inspired more by embittered outsiderhood than idealism: Robert Wyatt makes no distinction between this dubious character and a more noble political prisoner. Whichever, Bettany shouldn't be in jail, and Wyatt's judgement here is humane, not ideological – a telling gesture.
But of what does he sing? The majority of songs here are plainly 'political'. He regrets the divisiveness and hypocrisy of the Alliance parties ('Alliance'); sighs at the modish view that workerism has been undermined by consumerisation ('The Age Of Self'); confronts white America with the wilfully forgotten history lesson of the Red Indian extermination ('United States Of Amnesia'); derides British self-glorification ('The British Road'); reminds that there is such a place as East Timor, and all is not well there ('East Timor'); implicates our 'free press' in the erosion of our freedom of thought ('Mass Medium')...
These are familiar topics of hand-wringing conversation amongst Guardian-readers such as myself; but does conscience only prod if pushed by novelty? Should concern diminish with loss of newsworthiness? And would we just stand there and be buttonholed, however right-on the message, if the messenger was a bore?
Luckily, not a note strikes false nor word rings hollow. With quiet, mournful endurance, Robert Wyatt applies steady musical pressure – a sort of analogue to the theory where real history is not the surface activity of the waves, but rather the great invisible oceanic movements beneath. Words may lose their original meaning over time, but music conveys a profounder spirit. That is what music is for.
By the way, a great record.