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Robert Wyatt - Comicopera (Domino)

5 January 2008

The words “To foreign parts / to iron out my frowns” are printed in the liner notes to ROBERT WYATT’s three-act album Comicopera, as a description of the third act, “Away With the Fairies”. And yes, where the first two acts detail those ‘frowns’ in a more earthbound, but no less musically imaginative way, this third section is where he escapes off into fantasies and traveling. He sings in Italian over creeping, carnivalesque music, trips around like a sleepwalker lost in a maze, and creates ‘electrical interference’ while a collaborator plays freestyle vibraphone.

There’s a point during this act, though, where among the dream waves comes an echo from the first act. Titled “Fragment”, it’s a piece of a love-song duet between embattled lovers, “Just As You Are”. that stands as the album’s most touching moment. That song is heartbreaking, as MONICA VASCONCELOS’ elegant voice is followed by Wyatt’s more fragile one. The impression is of lovers hurting each other, lying to each other, yet still depending upon each other and hoping never to lose each other. Though the song is strong enough to never have truly left us, when it returns 13 songs later as a ‘fragment’ of a dream, it’s a reminder of the heartbeat and tears beneath the fantasies, and of the ways we can never truly escape from other people, from the marks other people have made upon us.

Fragmentation is a key part of Comicopera’s landscape. It begins with Wyatt “lost in noise”. The first act bears that as its title, as it touches on the ways people pull away from each other and themselves – sometimes, as on the moving, seeming Alzheimer’s tale “A.W.O.L.”, against their own ability or awareness. The aging and splintering of the ‘self’, not to mention the slipperiness of the very concept, is central to this opera, but that’s also tied into community, to a more global sense of destruction, to institutions that wreak havoc while persuading people it’s for the greater good.

Comicopera’s three-act structure is broad in scope – lyrically and thematically, but musically, too. Wyatt and collaborators (ANNIE WHITEHEAD, YARON STAVI, BRIAN ENO, PAUL WELLER and several more) create music that’s built equally of classic pop song structures and restless, progressive ‘playing around’. There’s a wild streak within – clear-headed musicianship, but also many surprises, all coordinated gracefully by a maestro who into his sixties is making music that’s as visionary as ever.