The Observer OCTOBER 14, 2006 - by Sean O'Hagan


It is not often that one has the chance to recommend a concept album by a sixty-two-year-old, wheelchair-bound, Marxist songwriter with a beard, but you really should beg, steal, borrow or illegally download a copy of Robert Wyatt's new CD, Comicopera, as soon as you can. Don't just take my word for it. Björk is a big fan, as is Radiohead's Thom Yorke, while both Brian Eno and Paul Weller appear on the new album. Alexis Taylor from young electro-pop hipsters Hot Chip is such a devotee that he has written the press release for it. In fact, Taylor begins his eulogy by admitting that he discovered the great man's music 'when borrowing, then stealing' an earlier Wyatt album, Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard, from a public library. Needs must, I guess.

Anyway, those of you still reeling from reading the words 'sixty-two-year-old', 'concept album', 'Marxist' and 'beard' in the same sentence as 'songwriter', may not have heard Robert Wyatt's music before. Nor, indeed, his name. This is because he belongs to what you might call the veteran's branch of pop's outsider club, that small and diverse group of awkward buggers who have merrily gone their own unwavering way for decades now - think Scott Walker, free jazz giant Ornette Coleman or Lee 'Scratch' Perry, the sonic architect of some of the most otherworldly reggae music ever made. One of the more interesting aspects of pop culture in the digital age is the way in which even the work of the aforementioned pioneers has been rediscovered. It was Walker's turn in the last year or so; it could now be Wyatt's.

The signs look good. Wyatt's new album, Comicopera, his tenth solo outing, discounting compilations, is released on the Domino label, home of Franz Ferdinand and Arctic Monkeys. He is currently on the cover not just of The Wire, the bible of all things musically experimental and extreme, but the younger, hipper, Plan B, whose editors were not even born in 1973 when Wyatt, a veteran of Soft Machine, he fell out of a third-floor window while drunk. Paralysed from the waist down, he has been wheelchair-bound ever since.

The following year he made Rock Bottom, one of those self-contained records, like Van Morrison's Astral Weeks or Patti Smith's Horses, that seemed to have arrived, fully formed, out of nowhere. It still sounds utterly singular. Wyatt briefly became a bona fide pop star in 1974 too, his wilfully rickety rendition of the Monkees' I'm a Believer entering the charts for a few weeks having been championed by - who else? - John Peel. After a period of silence he resurfaced on the Rough Trade label in the postpunk early '80s. Around this time he also joined the Communist Party and, as far as I can ascertain, remains an unrepentant hard leftie, though in person he is a big softie who possesses an almost childlike wonder at the world. He may be the only musician to have a verb named after him, 'wyatting' having recently started appearing in music blogs to describe the practice of playing the strangest tracks on a pub jukebox just to annoy your fellow drinkers.

"My songs aren't pop songs," he said recently. "I go on and on for longer than pop songs do... I'm just trying to string bits of music together." And yet his place in the pop firmament is assured if only for the fact that he voiced what is arguably the greatest political pop song of recent times. Shipbuilding was released twenty-five years ago as a protest against the Falklands War. Written by Elvis Costello, it subsequently became a Robert Wyatt song, so plaintive and stoical was his delivery. It remains that rare thing, a political song that is first and foremost a crafted pop song.

I listened to Shipbuilding again the other day and could not help but wonder why nothing even remotely as affecting has been written about the war in Iraq. Radiohead tried and failed with You And Whose Army in 2001, but neither the sentiment nor the song seemed focused. Something has been lost in the interim, pop's conscience maybe, which is now synonymous not with political consciousness but charity fundraising. Or maybe the silence is to do with the long implosion of the radical left and the attendant rise of irony and detachment as a post-Thatcher pop aesthetic. There is protest aplenty on Comicopera, though, as well as tears and laughter and the usual effortless strangeness and charm. Something for everyone, in fact, from the controlled anger of Out Of The Blue, written by Wyatt's partner, the artist Alfreda Benge, in the wake of the Israeli bombing of Lebanon, to Be Serious, a jolly agnostic singalong which begins with the lines: "I really envy Christians, I envy Muslims too / It must be great to be so sure..." If Richard Dawkins needs a non-secular gospel song to rally the unfaithful at readings, he should cop a listen.

Robert Wyatt has been doing his own thing for forty-odd years now, and is not about to change. You may have to travel more than half way to meet him, but it's well worth the journey.