Fine Art is not unlike fine wine; both take time to mature, and cannot be mass-produced. That’s how I feel about Robert Wyatt. So what if he only releases an album every six or seven years. It’s quality that matters at the end of the day. And that’s what the listener has the privilege of enjoying here, with Shleep, Wyatt’s eighth solo outing, and what an exotically unconventional outing it is.
There is something rather selfish about the artist who must suffer in order to produce great art. Before the making of this record Wyatt went through a time of severe depression, followed by a protracted period of insomnia. Neither of which are easy things to negotiate. But during his extended bouts of sleeplessness, Robert would write, and compose what could be argued as his finest album since Rock Bottom, his 1974 masterpiece (something which he dismisses by the way), an LP simply brimming with a certain eccentricity all its own, and an essential purchase for anyone who is into exploring strange new worlds, or who just feels a little maudlin from time to time.
First song “Heaps of Sheeps’ is a sort of peculiar and quirky Eno-esque sea shanty, where Wyatt laments “I Tried counting sheep/One by one/They leapt across the fence… Not longer daring to close my eyes/Still not sleeping”. In fact, that’s Eno on the synthesizer, which explains the tune’s idiosyncratic nature. “The Duchess” is a cheeky, though endearing paean to Wyatt’s wife Alfreda Benge, poet, painter, and lifelong soul mate, not to mention artistic collaborator. That they have remained together all these years is a testament to their devotion to one another, and something which gladdens the heart no end. “Maryan” is one of the prettiest and outwardly gorgeous songs Robert has ever written. That’s him on trumpet by the way, while Chikako Sato graces us with some attractively romantic violin, to lull the listener on a journey through France via Romania, allowing one to drift off into a quixotic dreamland. The quality continues with “Was a Friend” and “Free Will and Testament”, the former especially with its refined melody (one of Wyatt’s best ever) and jazz inspired textures; while the latter is a tender, almost Pink Floydian lament of universal proportions, where the author ponders “Given free will but within certain limitations/I cannot will myself to limitless mutations/I cannot know what I would be if I were not me/I can only guess me”.
“September the Ninth” is just the sort of thing one can imagine Kind of Blue might have sounded like if the Miles Davis’ ensemble had have been ingesting high quantities of LSD. On “Alien” Phil Manzanera lays down some lead guitar, sounding as spacey as ever, as Wyatt wanders round somewhere between the upper atmosphere and his own subconscious. Delightful as it is dreamy. The theme of birds continues with the Jazzy “Out of Season”, which finds Robert commenting on how “A late sparrow fledgling/Bathing in dust/Beneath the gaping mouth/Of the post box/Hungry for letters home”. What is it about using animals as a metaphor for the human experience? I guess they represent a certain innocence which we ourselves can recognise but rarely practice. And as far as Watership Down is concerned, let’s just say that I haven’t eaten rabbit since I first read the book and saw the film as a child.
On “A Sunday in Madrid” is another semi-meditative number, which finds Wyatt in wordy narrative mode, while “Blues in Bob minor” is an obvious nod to Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, the most upbeat composition of the album that will keep the listener from falling asleep. And in case anyone is wondering, the guitars are played by none other than the old Mod-father himself Paul Weller, who also wrote the last track, “The Whole Point of No Return”, what is basically one and a half minutes of ambient self-indulgence, but of the kind I could never truly tire of.
Of all Robert Wyatt’s albums, Rock Bottom might be the one to own and keep under your pillow, but Shleep is every bit as worthy as its older and more celebrated cousin. And while Rock Bottom is a moody, reflective, occasionally spooky work of aural sculpture, Shleep is a far more joyous, humorous, although no less melancholic escapade through Wyatt’s neural wonderland, where nothing is ever quite as it seems, and the only thing to expect is the unexpected. Often it’s the quiet ones who seem to get the least attention, yet prove to be the most interesting and rewarding in the long run. Robert Wyatt is one such artist. The fact that he has now retired from making music altogether (he is in his 70’s after all), one can still bet that he has plenty of musical ideas and concepts coursing through his veins. If only it were possible to bottle what he dreams, then I am sure that there may yet be a plethora of unending compositions still to come.