Rhythm & Views 

Robert Wyatt

You never know what to expect from Robert Wyatt, except that he'll challenge your ears as well as your heart with lovely, sad and dark avant-garde rock compositions. Once upon a time, he was the drummer for '70s prog-rock band Soft Machine. Recent work has headed for the fringes.

Divided into three parts--representing love and loss, war and conflict and, ultimately, a tentative hopefulness--Wyatt's 12th solo album includes songs that hint at chamber pop, jazz, country, blues, gospel, calypso, nursery rhymes, dissonant noise and minimalism. He is ably abetted by freethinking musos such as Brian Eno, Phil Manzanera, vocalist Monica Vasconcelos and Paul Weller.

Wyatt's singing voice has long sounded like that of a frail old man; it's so high and fragile and almost always melancholy. But he's always trying new approaches and adopts an almost-streetwise cockney accent on "Just as You Are," which is a tender duet with Vasconcelos. Then he twines his wordless vocals with the horn section on the instrumental "Anachronist," and I get it--his voice sounds like a muted trumpet.

He's none too fond of religion. Loping country-folk informs "A Beautiful Peace," in which he whimsically observes urban sprawl while walking away from a church, and bluesy jazz frames "Be Serious," in which he claims to envy the convictions of Muslims, Christians, Hindus and Jews.

Wyatt finds contentment in the last act, during which he sings either in Italian or Spanish (one tune adapts a poem by Frederico Garcia Lorca) or simply works eerie magic ("Pastafari," "Fragment") with vibes, piano, percussion and "electrical interference."

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