His songs have been covered by the likes of [a]Gorky's Zygotic Mynci[/a], while his own sporadic releases have been graced by everyone from [a]Brian Eno[/a] to [B]Jerry Dammers[/B], [B]Paul Weller[/B]
[a]Robert Wyatt[/a] has been a ghostly presence in progressive British pop for the last 30 years. His avant-jazz drumming and achingly fragile voice echo through much of Damon Albarn’s output, his songs have been covered by the likes of [a]Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci[/a], while his own sporadic releases have been graced by everyone from Brian Eno to Jerry Dammers, Paul Weller to Ultramarine.
This handsomely packaged box set kicks off in the post-Soft Machine mid-’70s, just after Wyatt was paralysed from the waist down by a drunken fall from four floors up. The first of five EPs begins with his spaced-out, whimsically Olde English take on The Monkees’ hit ‘I’m A Believer’. The shrill, lovelorn flutter of ‘Memories’ and brass-driven township jive of ‘Sonia’ are equally minimal and emotive, twanging heartstrings with the slightest of sighs.
The second disc centres on Wyatt’s most famous hit, ‘Shipbuilding’. Written especially for the Marxist singer by Elvis Costello in 1982, this all-time classic anti-war anthem draws an explicit link between the Falklands conflict and Thatcherite industrial decline, all within the context of an exquisitely sad saloon-bar lament. Its original B-side, ‘Memories Of You’, is a tear-stained gem too, although Wyatt’s stab at Thelonius Monk’s ‘Round Midnight’ is a trifle cluttered, and his animal rights drone-poem ‘Pigs… (In There)’ is hardly a barrel of laughs either.
‘Work In Progress’, first released on Rough Trade in 1984, contains some sublime marriages of rudimentary electronics with so-called ‘world’ music. ‘Yolanda’ and ‘Te Recuerdo Amanda’ are gently oscillating covers of leftist Chilean anthems, each as woozily soothing as warm sunlight. ‘Amber And The Amberines’ is Wyatt’s own stirring epitaph to the US invasion of Grenada, a quavering post-rock torch song and tribute to the undying socialist flame. Even his weightless glide through Peter Gabriel’s stadium conscience-pricker ‘Biko’ manages to lose much of the original’s windy pomposity, if not its dragging pace.
Only the fourth disc, edited highlights of Wyatt’s soundtrack to Victor Schonfeld’s 1984 anti-slaughter movie The Animals Film, lets this collection down. It’s a noodling, twittering, Krautronic clonkfest clearly designed with harrowing visual images in mind, not home listening.
But the fifth set, featuring four lightly remixed dub’n’bass and trip-hop versions of tracks from Wyatt’s 1997 album ‘Shleep’, restores some consistency and linear logic. Even in such self-consciously contemporary surroundings, what shines through is the luminous beauty of the most original and emotive voice in hard-left British pop.
If you don’t believe avant-garde political music can be both playful and polemical, heartfelt and heartbreaking, you need [a]Robert Wyatt[/a] in your life.