Pitchfork NOVEMBER 30, 2010 - by Douglas Wolk


By the time Robert Wyatt made 1997's Shleep - his first album in six years - he was something of a British institution: a magnificent, one-of-a-kind singer who'd become mostly known for memorable cameos on other people's records. The popular perception of him seemed to be his wheelchair and long white beard, without much between them. Shleep, though, re-established Wyatt as the center of attention, and became the foundation of his career's third act, documented (along with parts of the first two) by the second new batch of re-releases of his discography.

Shleep reintroduced a long-absent sense of playfulness and joy into Wyatt's work. (It also helped that the production was more focused and varied than it had been on anything he'd done since Rock Bottom.) The album starts off with the two wittiest songs in his repertoire: Heaps Of Sheeps, a collaboration with his old compatriot Brian Eno, and The Duchess, a mischievous tribute to his wife Alfreda Benge that erases language the way his earlier Alifib confounds it. Nearly every song on Shleep shines in one way or another: It features a couple of his most elegant melodies in Was A Friend (co-written by his old Soft Machine bandmate Hugh Hopper) and Free Will And Testament, as well as an extended paraphrase of Bob Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues (Blues In Bob Minor) and a little instrumental written by Paul Weller. Its centerpiece is a three-song suite whose lyrics (by Benge) are ostensibly about birds and metaphorically about aliens and refugees: their leftist politics were more effective for being integrated into their art rather than plunked onto it, as they'd been in the Dondestan era.

EPs, a box of five short CDs initially released in 1999, is a grab-bag of some of Wyatt's not-really-album-length work. His miraculous 1974 cover of I'm A Believer - which got him on Top Of The Pops in his wheelchair - is here; so is his definitive 1982 recording of Elvis Costello's Shipbuilding, the 1984 Work in Progress EP (with a spine-chilling, minimalist version of Peter Gabriel's Biko), a tedious twenty-minute suite he composed for an animal-rights film, and a set of not-particularly-useful remixes from Shleep. It's useful as a display of how much his solo work is of a piece, but it's also spotty and incomplete: It'd have been nice for the new edition to include 1992's A Short Break EP or 2002's Airplay EP.

Since the '70s, Wyatt has collaborated on and off with jazz outliers Michael Mantler and Carla Bley. 2003's Cuckooland - another bird reference, another reference to exile and absence - prominently features their daughter Karen Mantler, and features covers of three of her songs. (She also sings A.C. Jobim's Insensatez, AKA How Insensitive, as a duet with Wyatt; he plays a "Karenotron" programmed with samples of her voice.) The album feels like a messier, slightly less coherent sequel to Shleep - there's even another sheep song, Mantler's Life Is Sheep - and the arrangements prominently involve the chintzy synth presets of which Wyatt is inexplicably fond. But his singing makes the most of his voice's cracked, sun-bleached grain, the songwriting pushes victoriously into new territory (Lullaloop ingeniously reworks a sample of another one of the album's songs, Lullaby For Hamza), and a solo piano version of Buddy Holly's Raining In My Heart is a welcome casual touch.

Theatre Royal Drury Lane, recorded in 1974 and released in 2005 (after being reconstructed from incomplete tapes), documents one of the very few stage performances of Wyatt's solo career. The band is fantastic - it includes Mongezi Feza, Fred Frith, Nick Mason, and Julie Tippetts, among other luminaries of the British jazz and art-rock scene - and the set features all of Rock Bottom, a handful of favorites from Wyatt's Soft Machine days, and an extended jam on I'm a Believer. Regrettably, the sound quality is indifferent, and the performances don't particularly improve on their studio equivalents. It's fun for fans, but shouldn't be anybody's first (or fifth) Wyatt album.