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Robert Wyatt - Rock Bottom CD (album) cover


Robert Wyatt


Canterbury Scene

4.28 | 903 ratings

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TGM: Orb
Prog Reviewer
5 stars Sea Song, Robert Wyatt, 1974


Robert Wyatt's sophomore solo effort, Rock Bottom, famously came after his unfortunate accident, which prevented him from seriously drumming and touring, and, as mentioned in the sleeve notes, forcing him to focus more on the singing and arrangement of his work. While The End Of An Ear was a very respectable jazz-rock album, the new Wyatt has an emotional resonance and connection that is simply staggering, as well as a mouth-watering guest list. Rock Bottom is an astoundingly good album, with perhaps 4 of the songs being just about ideal, and the other two are also extremely strong and individual, and moreover it works as a whole, the idea of hitting bottom, of being at your lowest point and yet not being that badly off, is repeated throughout... it's a serious and yet seriously silly lyrical work, and one of the subtlest and most understated in progressive rock. Thus, noting the coincidental fact that, without a single strain, Rock Bottom is one of the most exotic and excitingly quirky albums I've heard, this album gets a well-deserved five stars.

Sea Song's strange, optimistic, but mournful, romanticism is the perfect opener. A measured tap on a single hollowish drum acts as a constant for the gorgeous shimmering keyboards (incredibly tasteful mellotron, a shimmering foreground and some moonlit dancing from the pianos and the most moving synthesiser part I've heard) and Wyatt's uniquely emotional voice blending in with them from the flowing verses to the school of aquatic sounds in a soft, longing, wordless conclusion. The lyrics are yet another attraction, with playful marine imagery merging in with the song's genuine, impassioned thoughts on love; and let us not forget Richard Sinclair's quiet, understated, low bass part, nor how incredibly moving that sung conclusion is, nor the calculated contrasts of the challenging low piano rolls... all in all, this song is as perfect as songs get.

A Last Straw is a piece I'd initially thought of as slightly clunky, now, I have to admit that it's still fantastic, even if its introduction and occasional lines don't flow quite as smoothly as I'd like them to. A smooth low jazz jam enters the song, with Wyatt employing a really neat guitar sound (the solo is just incredible), and a fantastic rhythm section consisting of Hugh Hopper and Laurie Allan more than capably pulling into an essentially improvised-sounding piece over which Wyatt's prepared guitar and piano echoes and voice are cast. The pieces of wordless improvisation here, a bubbly vocal creature, a looped guitar solo (in the same sort of manner as Ratledge's organ was on Soft Machine's Third) and a breathy piano conclusion are again the song's highlight/s. So, the sonic texture is really interesting, and, though this is certainly not the best piece here, I can't now see it not being on there, which means it's not lowering the rating.

Little Red Riding Hood Hit The Road is driven initially by a frantic, carnival-sounding trumpet and a rhythm section which consists of energetic work from Richard Sinclair and an array of small percussive creatures. Vanishing trumpet and keyboard segments seem to contrast and supplement all this franticness, as does Wyatt's running vocal (again continually curtailed with an interesting fade), with another shift from seemingly nonsensical and light-hearted lines into an entirely serious and meaningful address (again, romantic: 'But I'll keep on trying, and I'm sure you will too'). This all melts together, following Ivor Cutler's bouncy, lower and more defined voice offering carefully preparatory nonsense (now, it's nonsense, later, it's serious), into a thick wall of trumpet and keyboard and bass and everything quite together sound.

Alifib begins as an almost mantric chanting over Hugh Hopper's confident basswork and a variety of dextrous classical-guitar-sounding solos with a hymnal vibe and saddened keys; this transforms into a medieval-type yearning romantic nonsense-driven-plea with hugely emotive, downcast vocals, and suddenly a dark keyboard chord sequence, panning piano and the hollow sound of James' drum (Wyatt's percussion staple for this one) leaves us sliding along with a snarling bass clarinet (one of my favourite instruments) and Alife, which outpours and reshapes the same lyrics into a childishly possessive vocal part so perfectly and rightly. There's a bit of a neat jazz solo in amongst this... the sophistication and the childishness of the male supplicant, in our case Bob, contrasting with Alife's generosity (Alfreda Benge, Wyatt's then-fiancée). At first, it appears like cleverly arranged nonsense, and then the pattern hits you. It's real, it's relevant. It's pretty accurate in my experience (it just doesn't seem to make sense!). Anyway, Alfie's apparition and winding-down vocal leads out this deluxe suite.

Little Red Robin Hood Hit The Road is a two-part creature, with firstly Wyatt's pessimistic and sad vocal and a full band in attendance (and man, what a line-up, Laurie Allan offering an incredible militaristic drumming performance, Richard Sinclair on bass guitar, Mike Oldfield on guitar, Wyatt on keys)... its impact in terms of sheer destructiveness is something that other artists simply don't do... 'In the gardens of England/dead moles lie inside their holes/The dead-end tunnels crumble/In the rain, underfoot'... no amount of supposedly brutal pseudo-Satanism is going to hit you that hard emotionally with such a sense of destruction. This first part, rounding out with an increasingly intense band and Wyatt's looped 'Can't you see them' vocal, falls off into a weepy baritone concertina (I know because the credits sheet tells me) and Ivor Cutler's miserable, low brogue offering a negativity to contrast completely with his previous appearance, and suddenly, Fred Frith's unwinding viola appears, and the song is slowly unfolding, step by step, fold by fold, moment by moment. The conclusion, at the same time destructive, mocking, and yet, not all that terribly bleak, seems almost logical. As an ending piece, this one's just incredible, crushing, yet hopeful, and it works.

So, if you've read the above, it's obvious I'm a big fan of this one, and slowly gathering more of Wyatt's albums. An obvious five-star record, though it takes time, appreciation and a good sense for, if not necessarily of, humour to really get to know. One of the subtlest, most interesting and most moving records of the classic era, and it strikes me as being just about obscure enough that a lot of reasonably knowledgeable folk might not have it; so, if you're in that number, rush to your nearest store of quality music and order Rock Bottom. Give it a few listens, time to grow, think about it a little, and you probably won't be disappointed.

Rating: Five Stars Favourite Track: Sea Song

TGM: Orb | 5/5 |


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