It is no remark upon the quality of Different Every Time to say that it is not a ‘very best of’ Robert Wyatt with designs on the stockings of dads up and down the land - mind you, how long is it before John Lewis get the wrong end of the stick and get Ed Sheeran to cover Shipbuilding for their annual Christmas atrocity, as some little Timothy or other attempts to escape his parentally-inflicted mundane bourgeois suburbia with a box for a boat, a desperately tragic triumph of imagination over commerce that only the great middle-class equaliser can rectify? No, rather, this is an unflinching introduction to the breadth of his work from Soft Machine through Matching Mole through almost every fine solo LP to grace his name, and in chronological order at that. How often does a chronologically-ordered compilation of an artist’s work get better as it goes on?
Different Every Time starts of with a hell of a challenge, Soft Machine aren’t for everyone - not without its merits, Moon in June definitely scores pretty highly on the progometer in its complexly structure 19 minutes and could put many off from the start. There’s an instant improvement with two tracks from Matching Mole, jazz-rock making way for the humorous balladry of Signed Curtain and God Song - the latter an atheist’s plea for intervention from above, reckoning He’s made a bit of a mess of it all (and it’s hard to disagree). Wyatt’s masterful solo debut proper Rock Bottom gets a bizarre exclusion, a particularly perverse move given the beautiful Sea Song is the source of the compilation’s title but it doesn’t matter too much; this compilation seeks to reflect its author’s career as accurately as it can by being as stringently unobvious as possible. It’s diverse and dynamic yet cohesive, despite large gaps in time between songs.
Wyatt’s voice might sound like the saddest in the world sometimes, but there’s humour and anger (this is never ‘depressing’ music) in amongst the dolorous piano and plangent synth flourishes. It seeks, it searches, it’s vibrant, it's uplifting and, sometimes, outright confusing. Chords appear that are far from obvious, Chic get covered, the lyrics of Alfreda Benge (Wyatt’s partner of forty plus years) catch you off guard, possessed of simple but unexpected insights into politics both personal and global. And that’s just the first disc. The second consists of many of Wyatt’s collaborations (‘Benign Dictatorships’, as they’re labelled here), including Epic Soundtracks’ wonderful Jellybabies and the aforementioned classic, Costello-penned Top 40 hit. John Lewis’ marketing department won’t get that far of course, this music is far too interesting and infuriating, and, indeed, far too rewarding. Different Every Time sums up Wyatt’s work perfectly – bizarre, beautiful and utterly unique.
‘Different Every Time’ is out now on Domino in LP, CD and digital formats. Marcus O’Dair’s authorised biography of the same name is out now on Serpent’s Tail.
Andrew R. Hill