When he was in his twenties, Robert Wyatt already had the voice of an old man—a quavering high lisp, laden with melancholy, jagged and ground down like the edge of an heirloom coping saw. Now that he’s pushing 60 and his larynx is racked by age for real, he’s got a lot of practice using its graybeard mojo. The guy could sing Das Kapital and it’d sound like “La Vie en Rose,” which is fortunate, since sometimes he basically does. He’s lived in England all his life, but despite the flashes of playfulness on most of his records, he sings and writes like an exile: “I just feel like a ghost among the living, that’s all.” Wyatt’s a promiscuous collaborator (he’s sung with Jimi Hendrix, Brian Eno, Elvis Costello, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Ultramarine . . . ), but a very slow laborer on his own—not counting compilations, he’s made half a dozen solo albums since he quit his prog-rock bands Soft Machine and Matching Mole 30 years ago, and both of his new discs emphasize the inch-by-inch process of his work.
Cuckooland feels unfinished and maybe unfinishable—its artwork is constructed from Wyatt’s scribbled chord sheets and structural notes. (Like 1991’s Dondestan, the title means “nowhere”; this time, it also means “country of invaders.”) It’s got some of Wyatt’s most nuanced singing, and oodles of casual charm—the amateur trumpet playing is right on. It’s also plagued by overcrowded or underfed arrangements, ooky sax and clarinet solos, and some of the most god-awful synthesizer presets ever. There’s a lullaby (for a child born during the bombing of Baghdad) and a “Lullaloop,” a solo piano version of Buddy Holly’s “Raining in My Heart,” one new song that samples another.
Wyatt tends to bond for life with certain musicians, and a lot of Cuckooland‘s best moments come from his newest foil, New Yorker Karen Mantler. The daughter of his longtime collaborators Carla Bley and Michael Mantler, she’s made some wonderful, barely heard albums of her own (hunt down 1996’s Farewell). Mantler sings three of her old songs with him, as well as A.C. Jobim’s “Insensatez”; he plays a “Karenotron” that samples her vowels. Her songs have a ratio of whimsy to despair that’s the inverse of Wyatt’s, and her voice is a deadpan version of his, with the same sort of flawed purity.
The patchwork Solar Flares Burn for You is, oddly, more focused: radio sessions and an experimental film soundtrack from 30 years ago, plus three recent home recordings. It’s mostly sketches toward later collaborations, potential or actual—not demos, as such (other than “The Verb,” which is probably the first song to cite Noam Chomsky as a linguist), but not-yet-fixed forms. The drone-and-loop film soundtrack pulses like an artery, and evolved into a prog-jazz jam on 1975’s Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard. Again, one new song samples another, which in turn is Wyatt tootling a cornet over a loop by Hugh Hopper, his occasional bandmate of 40 years’ standing.
The highlight of Solar Flares is also one of the peaks of Wyatt’s career: a heartstopping solo BBC session from 1974, part of his “comeback” after an accident that left him permanently wheelchair-bound. The difference between those performances and a set recorded with Francis Monkman two years earlier is the difference between a promising goofball and a fully arrived artist. In the 1972 tracks, Wyatt’s a snarky show-off, at home in his own skin, singing Danny Kaye’s “Little Child” in funny voices and snickering about arts council grants. By 1974’s “Sea Song” and “Alifib,” he’s a foam-flecked ghost, lost and found again. He covers “I’m a Believer” as a skeptic’s explanation, in all seriousness, of how love has actually saved him. He doesn’t belong in the world where he finds himself, but he couldn’t leave it if he tried.