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Robert Wyatt - Rock Bottom CD (album) cover


Robert Wyatt


Canterbury Scene

4.28 | 903 ratings

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Prog Reviewer
5 stars Recently, I've been getting into Soft Machine, and I realised that the thing about that group I enjoyed the most was Robert Wyatt. His drumming, vocals and lyrics make the songs he plays on so unique and special. It didn't take me long to discover his solo albums, and consequently 'Rock Bottom'. I was immediately mesmerised by this shimmering album, and in a week, I'd managed to play it over ten times without getting bored in the slightest. Imagine my delight then, when I found that it was ranked as the second best Canterbury Scene album on ProgArchives.

First, some history. As you have probably read elsewhere, Wyatt had been writing the material for this album when he took a tragic fall from a fourth storey window, permanently paralysing his legs. In the eight months he was in hospital, he had to come to terms with the fact that he would never be able to drum in the usual sense again, let alone walk. Somehow, Wyatt was able to capture the emotions of these troubling times in the album, making 'Rock Bottom' one of the most intimate and personal albums ever.

Like any good solo album, the list of musicians appearing is permeated by some real stars. Canterbury stars Hugh Hopper and Richard Sinclair take turns in playing the bass on the album, whilst Nick Mason from Pink Floyd produces. Scottish poet Ivor Cutler rounds off the album, and on the same song, we hear the legendary Mike Oldfield on guitar, and Henry Cow star Fred Frith on the viola. With Wyatt's beautiful vocals on top, this is a musical journey you won't forget.

Sea Song is the obvious choice for the start of the album, as it is a brilliant stand-alone track. This is a synth led song with piano accompaniment, and the production is very clean. The lyrics are the highlight of this track, as they are bizarre, but strangely beautiful, just like everything Wyatt does. This is a simple song, with no chorus, and a long outro. Wyatt's wordless vocals are impeccable when he decorates the outro with them. A very sad song, and one that perfectly captures Wyatt's emotional struggle at that time, even if not lyrically.

Last Straw is my least favourite song on the album, but that doesn't mean it's not brilliant. This is a jazzier track, with Laurie Allan on drums. There are simple lyrics, but the best part of the track is Wyatt's signature 'wah-wah' vocal effect in between verses. What's amazing, is that he sounds like this live, and on certain recordings, he does much more with his voice than on here. An impressive song.

Little Red Riding Hood Hit The Road is a more experimental song. The song features Wyatt on the bongos providing a fast beat for the chords in the background. The best word to describe this kind of music would be drone. Throughout the song, there is a sense of urgency that drives the song towards its finish. Amazingly enough, the lyrics between 2:53 and 3:40 are reversed between 3:40 and 4:23, but still fit perfectly. So perfectly that your humble reviewer didn't realise until this very listening (after listening to it 12 times already). Ivor Cutler gives a quick segment of the speech from the end of the album before the song ends. For managing to sneak backwards lyrics in without me noticing, this song recieves full credit.

Side 2 begins with a two part suite, which is seemingly dedicated to Wyatt's partner, Alfreda Benge. The first part of the suite is Alifib, and the first striking thing about this track is Wyatt's heavy breathing. However, this is not just breathing, he is actually saying the word 'Alife' over and over again. In fact, he does this 318 times, which lasts the entire of the first part of the suite. The first three and half minutes are taken up by a beautiful synth solo. On the 169th 'Alife', Robert Wyatt begins singing. The lyrics are nonsensical, like a children's nursery rhyme, but they are incredibly resonant, and seem to hold infinite meaning to Wyatt. This is the saddest track on the record, and probably the track that convinced me to get it. In the second half, Alife, things get more experimental. The lyrics from the first part are repeated but rather than singing the lyrics, Wyatt takes to saying them with no rhythm at all as if he is going insane. This is quite a disturbing song, with the dissonant saxophone in the background. There is a long experimental instrumental, where the sax takes a life of its own. Right before the end of the song, Benge herself enters and concludes the song with more nonsensical lyrics. Strangely enough, this is an incredibly romantic song, when you see it as a tribute to her.

Little Red Robin Hood Hit The Road is perhaps my favourite song on the record. In my opinion, this is the closest the record comes to conventional prog rock, with Mike Oldfield's amazing guitar solo, Wyatt's powerful lyrics and Laurie Allan's rocky drumming. The lyrics 'In the garden of England...' remind me of Genesis's 'Selling England By The Pound'. The song finishes with a sort of nonsense poem by Ivor Cutler, which sounds amazingly powerful with the concertina and viola in the background. Maniacal laughter closes the album. After finishing this song, it's good to pause and reflect on the astonishing album you've just heard.

This is an emotional rollercoaster album that is full of contradictions. It's nonsenical, but at the same time full of meaning. It's simple, but at the same time incredibly complex. It's innocent and naive, but at the same time incredibly provocative. It's sad and depressing, but in a way joyous and triumphant. It's loose and liquid but at the same time, intricate and well thought out. The front cover shows a beautiful delicate pencil drawn image by Benge, with a girl with balloons in the sea, perhaps representing the first song on the album. The delicateness of the artwork reflects how delicate this album is, and how delicate Wyatt would have been after his fall. I could play this album over and over and never get bored, and it could even be one of my desert island discs. Needless to say, this album gets 5 wonderful stars, for being a work of utter genius.

baz91 | 5/5 |


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