"Hullo?" Alfreda Benge's sleepy voice answers from the other side of the Atlantic, her English accent wool-thick. It takes effort not to reply in song: "Alllllllifi, my larder" — the refrain to "Alifib," Robert Wyatt's sweet if strange ode to his muse-partner, which comes from his sublime 1974 solo album, Rock Bottom.
One is also instantly reminded of a photo of the couple from around that time — scant months after Wyatt's wine-sodden plunge from a third-story window rendered the octopus-like prog-rock drummer for Soft Machine and Matching Mole a paraplegic. Wheelchair-bound, Wyatt bears a shaggy, sheepish smirk in the pic, while Alfreda stands beside him with a stern look on her face and a gleaming butcher knife in her hand.
Wyatt recently released Comicopera, his ninth studio album in 30-plus years. Just don't call it an "opera" — at least in the literal sense. "I find the blank canvas of a CD, with the potential to be 80 minutes, daunting," Wyatt says from his home in Lincolnshire, England. "The dramatic structure was simply because there were different songs on there. They're not all singer-songwriter me-me-me things. There's someone whose idea of happiness is going on a successful bombing run. There's a nihilist who feels alone because he doesn't have religion. There's a woman telling a man off. There's all kinds of emotions in there."
Like previous records, Wyatt builds Comicopera's songs on his keyboard (which a critic once deemed "some of the most god-awful synthesizer presets ever") at a pace that's part jazz shuffle, part somnambulism — with horns, violins, and a chorus of friends gently accruing around his sage voice.
Wyatt again draws a remarkable group of musical conspirators on Comicopera, including Brian Eno, Paul Weller, and Alfie herself. (FYI: She portrays that woman telling a man off.) The two trade verses on Act I's painfully honest "Just as You Are," both attempting to love, despite infuriating shortcomings on either side.
That personal rift widens over the course of the album, expanding outward to also comment on more worldly conflicts: If lovers can't understand the person beside them, then how could a bombardier and the bombarded? "The question is not just compassion, but to really empathize with the Other," says Wyatt. "It's that kind of thing — to distance myself from that with the slogan 'Not in my name.'"
So while the middle part of the album finds Wyatt "bemused by little country towns and boring council meetings" in the English countryside, the bombing of helpless civilians in "A Beautiful War" is the final indignation. Amid the eerie intonations of Eno's voice in "Out of the Blue" at the end of Act II, Wyatt's character rasps about his house being blown apart: "You've planted your everlasting hatred in my heart."
For the remainder of Comicopera, that Other is present — eschewing English altogether and singing instead in Italian and Spanish throughout Act III.
It's not an unfamiliar strategy for Wyatt. Even when he was recording Top 40 songs like "Shipbuilding" and a curious cover of the Monkees' "I'm a Believer," Wyatt was singing Spanish tunes like "Yolanda" and "Te Recuerdo Amanda." A lifelong admirer of figures like Federico García Lorca and Che Guevara, Wyatt sets Lorca's surrealistic imagery to song and sings an ode to the fallen revolutionary ("Hasta Siempre Comandante") at the end of Comicopera.
"They're all bits of me," he says. "When you got different characters in a sort of sequence, and there's music and singing, it's kinda like an opera. But it's not a serious opera."
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