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Alfreda Benge's sleepy voice answers from the other side of the Atlantic, her English accent wool-thick. It takes all of my effort not to reply by bursting into song: "Alllllllifi, my larder," the refrain to "Alifib," Canterbury legend Robert Wyatt's sweet if strange ode to his musepartner, taken from his sublime 1974 solo album, Rock Bottom. In my mind's eye I see that famous photo of the couple from around that time, scant months after Wyatt's wine-sodden plunge from a third-story window rendered the once octopus-like prog-rock drummer of Soft Machine and Matching Mole a paraplegic. Wheelchair-bound, Wyatt bears a shaggy, sheepish smirk in the pic, while Alfreda stands beside him, a stern look on her face, a gleaming butcher knife in her hand. I have but a nervous five-word exchange with her before strains of some lost bebop recording come onto the line and Wyatt issues his own warm "Hullo."
He has agreed to discuss the release of Comicopera, his ninth studio album in 30-plus years. Just don't call it an "opera" in the literal sense. "I find the blank canvas of a CD with the potential to be 80 minutes daunting," Wyatt divulges from his home in Louth, Lincolnshire, saying that superimposing three dramatic acts helped organize the album: "The dramatic structure was simply because there were different songs on there. They're not all singer-songwriter me-me-me things in the sense that there are quite different characters on it. There's someone whose idea of happiness is going on a successful bombing run. There's a nihilist who feels alone cuz he doesn't have religion. There's a woman telling a man off. There's all kinds of emotions in there."
As on previous efforts, Wyatt still builds songs up on his keyboard (with what the Voice once deemed "some of the most god-awful synthesizer presets ever") at a pace part jazz-shuffle, part somnambulism, with horns, violins, and the sonority of friends gently accruing around his sage voice. Wyatt again draws on a remarkable group of musical conspirators for Comicopera, including the likes of Brian Eno, Paul Weller, Annie Whitehead, singer Monica Vasconcelos, and Alfie herself. (FYI: She portrays that woman telling a man off.) The two trade verses on Act I's painfully honest "Just As You Are," both attempting to love despite infuriating shortcomings on either side. That personal rift widens over the course of the album, expanding outward to comment on worldly conflicts as well. If lovers can't understand the person beside them, then how could a bombardier and the bombarded?
"[It's] something Susan Sontag said quite late on," Wyatt explains. "The question is not just compassion, but to really empathize with the Other. . . . It's that kind of thing . . . to distance myself from that with the slogan 'Not in my name.'" So while the middle part of the album has Wyatt, in his words, "bemused by little country towns and boring council meetings" in the English countryside, the bombing of helpless civilians on "A Beautiful War" is the last indignation. Amid the eerie intonations of Eno's voice on "Out of the Blue" at the end of Act II, Wyatt's character rasps about his house being blown apart, that "you've planted your everlasting hatred in my heart." For the remainder of the album, that Other is present, eschewing English altogether and singing instead in Italian and Spanish throughout Act III.
It's not an unfamiliar stratagem for Wyatt. Even while releasing curious Top 40 fare like "Shipbuilding" and his take on the Monkees' "I'm a Believer," he also sang Spanish tunes like "Yolanda" and "Te Reuerdo Amanda" (all collected on his CD EPs). A lifelong admirer of figures like Federico García Lorca and Che Guevara, he now sets Lorca's surrealistic imagery to song and sings Carlos Puebla's ode to the fallen revolutionary, "Hasta Siempre Comandante," at the end of Comicopera. "They're all bits of me," Wyatt realizes. "When you got different characters in a sort of sequence and there's music and singing, it's kinda like an opera." He pauses. "But it's not a serious opera."