Has there ever been a move more prog-rock in spirit than opening an anthology geared toward new initiates with an 18-minute opus? Signs of progginess flash red throughout the many movements of “Moon In June,” a song that Robert Wyatt recorded with his early band Soft Machine in 1970. (See: circuitous organ jams, orgiastic drum fills, “movements,” et al.)
As the opener of the double-length collection Different Every Time, however, it serves as a playful feint, since Wyatt at his best couldn’t be less bloated or more humble and humane. After Soft Machine, Wyatt directed his energies to a solo career in which dreamy, wispy rock communes with the heady delicacies of jazz. “Signed Curtain” and “God Song” draw from a pair of 1972 albums credited to Matching Mole, with Wyatt’s wondrously elfin voice floating over finesse-inflected piano and acoustic guitar. Both cuts draw on Wyatt’s impish sense of humor, with the first including a real-time recitation of what happens in the midst of the song (“This is the first verse … this is the chorus, or perhaps it’s a bridge”) and the second opening with the wry line, “What on earth are you doing, God?”
“Last Straw,” from Wyatt’s 1974 masterpiece Rock Bottom, showcases his ability to waver and wander through the space of songs that welcome states of lost-in-the-clouds daydreaming. It’s a curious selection, though, in a live incarnation that plays differently (rawer, more raucous) than the album version. Elsewhere, Different Every Time — a compilation accompanying a new Wyatt biography with the same title by Marcus O’Dair — opts for less-than-obvious choices. More than an obscurantist gesture, however, it goes to show how malleable Wyatt is when he drifts dexterously across styles and moods.
The second part of the anthology gathers collaborations old and new under the typically sporting subtitle “Benign Dictatorships.” At the start, “The River” finds Wyatt singing over mellow organ and mildly psychedelic flights of fancy by Swedish artist Jeanette Lindstrom. Better-known co-conspirators include U.K. electronic act Hot Chip (“We’re Looking For A Lot Of Love”), Roxy Music‘s Phil Manzanera (“Frontera”) and Björk, whose “Submarine” (from Medulla) enlists extra otherworldliness from Wyatt’s singular voice.
It’s eclectic company, to be sure, and Wyatt warms to it all. In the best-known song here, a stirring cover of Elvis Costello‘s “Shipbuilding,” Wyatt does justice to a great song as an interpreter while still making it his own — at least for a spell that could stand to go on much, much longer.
First Listen: Robert Wyatt, 'Different Every Time: Ex Machina'
Artist: Robert Wyatt
Album: Ex Machina