Scratch the surface of Robert Wyatt's Comicopera, and you may be surprised. He sings of "so many promises broken" ("Just as You Are"), blithely states that "you've planted everlasting hatred in my heart" ("Out of the Blue"), and poses the self-deprecating question: "How can I express myself / When there's no self to express?" ("Be Serious").
Unlike the agitprop polemics with which Wyatt has intermittently occupied himself during a fitful solo career that dates back to 1971, Comicopera focuses more on the personal than the political. It would seem that the narrator has been abandoned and is commenting - with equal parts fury and detachment - on his empty, changed life. Even songs whose titles would appear to suggest political subtexts ("A Beautiful War," "Mob Rule") turn out, upon examination, to be about interpersonal conflicts and strategies.
It's all encased in music that's casually appealing and somewhat offbeat, evoking the surrealistic whimsy of Wyatt's Soft Machine period by way of his Seventies solo output, when he was part of an art-prog clique that included Brian Eno, Phil Manzanera, and Kevin Ayers. The referents are more jazz than rock - in truth, they always have been - with horns providing coolly emotional shadings to Wyatt's tragicomic miniatures.
"A.W.O.L" and "Just as You Are" rank among the best pure songs in Wyatt's catalog. But elsewhere, he abandons or subverts song structure with Eno-esque overlays of electronic sound (such as the buzzing cacophony on "Out of the Blue"), through which a discernible song still emerges, like a flower through concrete. A few numbers are titled and sung in Spanish (shades of "Frontera," his sterling collaboration on Manzanera's Diamond Head album from 1975). "Cancion de Julieta" is an agonizing seven-and-a-half-minute slog through a thick swamp of groaning agony and dissonance. (Love hurts!) And some of the album is just random, like the vibes solo "Pastafari," which sounds like it was made up on the spot.
Overall, Comicopera has moments both glorious and maddening. Despite its arraying into three "acts" - "Lost in Noise," "The Here and the Now," and "Away with the Fairies" - it's hard to discern a coherent narrative (and the third act's shift away from English doesn't help). A little explication du texte, as the French say, might've been useful. As it is, Comicopera best works its magic when you absorb it ambiently rather than confront it directly.
Copyright © 2013 Bonnier Corp. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.