on 2 November 2003
Trying to explain what this remarkable album sounds like to someone who has never heard it before isn't easy. And I suppose that's unsurprising, as it's a record that demands more than a few casual listens before one can make sense of it. However, with patience and time, it seeps into the listener's brain as if by osmosis, and gradually reveals its condiderable beauty and charm.
More than anything, Rock Bottom is a record to be felt, and it feels like a dream. Swirling, drifting currents of sound wash out of the speakers, Wyatt's abstract lyrics coming accross like a poem that is difficult to understand in a literal sense, yet one instinctively knows exactly what is meant. It is remarkably visual music - it would be the perfect soundtrack to film of newly discovered creatures that live undisturbed on the ocean floor. Fittingly, as the sea and its inhabitants are recurring themes in the lyrics. I can think of few other albums (well, none) which namecheck brine, porpoises, baby sperm whales and starfish!
I won't dwell much on the merits of the individual tracks - the album is best appreciated as a whole in one sitting. However, my personal highlight is the exquisite Alife, Wyatt's deeply personal long song about his relationship with Alfreda Benge, who painted the beautiful album cover.
Love and hope abound on this album. Wyatt began writing the songs shortly before suffering the accident which left him confined to a wheelchair, and finished them during his long convalescence. Unsurprisingly, there is a palpable sense of uncertainty about the future in his fragile vocals, but ultimately the overwhelming feeling is one of positivity and acceptance. Maudlin self pity doesn't even appear on his emotional register.
Rock Bottom is one of the most thoughtful, beautiful and original albums of the 1970s. It is truly progressive music -groundbreaking and idiosyncratic - without any of the bombast that characterised so much of the musical output of his contemporaries. The only record I can think of comparing it to is Miles Davis' In A Silent Way, with which it shares a soothing, meditative quality. I would recommend it unreservedly to anyone wanting to have an unforgettable musical experience.
on 14 June 2002
This is one of those albums I daren't play too often, in case I lose the absolute sense of awe that it inspires on each playing. The fabulous piano, the clashing trumpet fanfares, Wyatt's unique voice, the lyrics, the whole melting pot....I can remember exactly where I was when I first heard this and I hadn't heard anything quite like it before, having very much come from a punk/new wave background with all those 3 minute 1-2-3-4 thrash songs (which I still love too) but this is something else. And I never knew any of the background to this album until recently, it has always just provided one of those 'instant connection' moments because this album comes right from the heart of Wyatt there is no bowing to other people's taste or opinions. This is the one I play when I'm really depressed because it is so uplifting without being horribly jolly. Now I know the guy had just been paralysed it has taken on a new dimension - the sincerity and soul searching is just so intense and honest, without any hint of self-pity or wallowing in misery. This is the one I'll take with me to the desert island
OK, a handful of things that strike me about this album.
First of all, it took a fair number of listens to truly appreciate it fully. On first play, I was a little confused with it. Wyatt does not, and probably cannot, make traditional music. There is something about all the albums of his I have heard, something which makes them feel fragile and open. Because he is unable to write conventionally, Wyatt has instead built his own set of rules that only he seems to follow. This is what you might call a difficult album.
Secondly, Wyatt's voice is definetely an aquired taste. It's initially jarring, but you do grow to love it.
Thirdly, this album is somehow timeless. Because its lyrics are profoundly unusual, they haven't dated much. I'm too young to have been around when this came out, but unlike other albums of the era, the music doesn't show its age. The sounds are still fresh, and the songs are still so perfect within themselves.
Fourth and finally, the songs are truly original and unusual. Some are so bizzare in structure that they shouldn't work at all. Once they click however, they each show their own qualities and quirks, which all add up to the greater whole. Listening to the album in sequence once this click has occured, becomes a joy.
I feel that, given enough time to enjoy it, this album is one of the most rewarding musicals experiences a person may ever have.
on 25 November 2005
The best thing about Wyatt's albums is that it sounds very simple on the outside, but if you delve in deeper, it sounds very structured and complicated. His lyrics (and wonderful cracked voice) potray a sadness, but always however with a faint ray of hope.
The album never decides to stay on a particular vein for very long, as you least expect it an outburst of free jazzy trumpets come out, and Wyatt melancholicly fights his way through them.
I won't go into the history behind the album as you can most probably (such as him being on a wheelchair, and part of the album centred on Venice) find it on other more detailed or even better reviews!
I'm just giving a personal account on why Rock bottom has had such a great impact on me recently.
As the liner-notes from Wyatt demonstrate, this album has a history- initially composed in Venice as his lover Alfie and "a bunch of friends" worked on the film 'Don't Look Now' on a "very basic little keyboard", this album's creation was interrupted (& later encouraged) by Wyatt's accident which broke his spine and left him in a wheelchair. That most of 'Rock Bottom' was composed prior to the accident skews the idea that it was all a reaction to that event- Wyatt speaks of "a new kind of freedom" it gave him- which accounts more for the emphasis on keyboards (drones and songs)& a rolling-cast of guest-players including Ivor Cutler, Hugh Hopper & Mike Oldfield (some of the chosen instruments are equally obscure- a small battery, Delfina's tray, Delfina's wineglass, James' drum...).
Produced by Pink Floyd's Nick Mason, 'Rock Bottom' collides psychedelia with more ambient-jazz (think Alice Coltrane, or Miles' albums like 'Big Fun' or 'In a Silent Way'). 'Sea Song' is the melancholy-opening track, Wyatt's droning keyboards suggest the acquatic elements found in the lyric, as Wyatt looks at a protean kind of love, "...You look different every time you come from the foam crested brine/Your skin shining softly in the moonlight/Partly-fish, partly-porpoise, partly baby-sperm-whale..." but things seem more ominous with lines like, "Joking apart, when you're drunk- you're terrific/When you're drunk I like you mostly late at night, you're quite alright/But I can't understand the different you in the morning when it's time to play at being human for a while..." or "You'll be different in the spring, I know/You're a seasonal beast, like the starfish that drifts with the tide/So until you're blood runs to meet the next full moon/Your madness fits in nicely with my own/Your lunacy fits neatly with my own..." The conclusion of the song flips from jazzy-atonal-piano-stabs (think 'Aladdin Sane' or 'Death of a Disco Dancer'), Wyatt's moans, a choir of drones & a semi-classical feel that makes me think of Messiaen & Nyman. 'Sea Song' defines the album- one that drags you into its own world completely - one of those albums like Associates' 'Sulk', AR Kane's '69', My Bloody Valentine's 'Loveless', Talk Talk' 'Spirit of Eden' & Cocteau Twins' 'Treasure.'
'A Last Straw' sounds like a collision of post-Syd/pre-'Dark Side'-Floyd & Soft Machine (circa II)- a loose psych-jazzy track with Wyatt playing guitar (& sometimes imitating one) that continues the focus on uterine-imagery (..."Seaweed tangled in our home from home, reminds me of your rocky-bottom...Into the water we'll go, head over heel..."). 1974, a Merman Robert shall be! The guitar is hypnotic, reminding me of a looser 'Drive Blind' by Ride & having the same feel as Pink Floyd's 'Echoes.' The songs just flow- there are six and there are many- 'Little Red Riding Hood Hit the Road' opens with some trumpet from Mongezi Feza, as a strange-loop of drones/voices clutters along (contrast to MBV's 'Loomer')- the voices trying to break though (Ivor Cutler's voice not quite fully present- coming to on the final track/sequel). The song builds on some gorgeous piano/keyboards (as great as Wyatt's contribution to the timeless 'The Sweetest Girl' by Scritti Politti) as he drifts between meaning & nonsense ("Orlandon't tell me..."). The refrain "I know, I know..." really hits home here as the maelstrom has some order put to it- a track that just never bores me (& it even has the word "blimey" in it!).
'Alifib', and its succesor 'Alife' are very much the centre of the album, Wyatt whirlpooling off into 'Jabberwocky'-territory (Lear crashing into The Goons as a copy of 'Finnegans Wake' falls apart in the water...)- "No nit not/Nit nit folly bololey/Alife my larder...Burlybunch the watermole/Hellyplop the fingerhole/Not a wossit, bundy, see/For jangle and bojangle/trip trip pip pippy pippy pip pip..." As PIL noted on 'Death Disco', "words cannot express", and like the oblique lyric to Van Morrison's 'Astral Weeks', the drift toward nonsense, or words that sound both like & unlike words makes sense here. File alongside Cocteau Twins & Sigur Ros: I DARE YOU!!!
'Little Red Robin Hood Hit the Road' sounds like the end (it's a very complete sounding album), "In the garden of England, dead-moles lie inside their holes/The dead-end tunnels crumble in the rain, underfoot/Innit a shame?"- as Mike Oldfield delivers a mindblowing guitar-solo, Wyatt coming out of that almost chanting, "Can't you see them? Roots can't hold them/Bugs console them..." The song lapses into meltdown, reminding me of Can's epic 'Halleluwah', as Ivor Cutler steps in with his baritone concertina & his voice, that sounds like a Scot skanking!
'Rock Bottom' sounds like nothing else really and remains one of the albums I listen to the most & if anyone wants a definition of love, beyond some of the lyrics, the photo of Alfie & Robert on the inner-sleeve by Pennie Smith appears to be just that:"...and we lived happily ever after." Fans of this record may also enjoy the alternate-versions found on the compilation 'Solar Flares Burn For You.'
Simply this is one of my favourite records of all time. For me the first three tracks (the original LP side 1) are perfect. After his fall which left him paralysed, Wyatt recorded this solo album, though the material was written prior to his accident. The music is beautiful, oceanic and dreamlike as no other recording before or since has matched. Full of Wyatts otherworldly voice, bubbling synths, home made percussion and the great, late Ivor Cutler whose participation was inspired. Lyrically it's personal, anguished, surreal and heartbreaking. The production by Floyd's Nick Mason is so subtle and empathic as is the playing by everyone else, including Mike Oldfield, Richard Sinclair and Hugh Hopper. The highlight will always be "Sea Song". This is sublime, fluid, emotive songwriting at its very best.
This re-issue is part of Domino's complete release of Wyatt's back catalogue. I believe it hasn't been remastered, but does re-instate the original pencil drawing by Wyatt's wife Alfreda Benge who also did the colour painting for the 1998 re-issue. The packaging is very nice. These are digipack releases with booklet including full credits and lyrics. Domino do very good re-issues and this doesn't disappoint.
on 15 May 2014
Being a long time progressive rock fan, and having worked my way through the entire back catalogs of Yes and Genesis, plus many more of the foremost prog bands of the seventies, it was about time I got round to listening to Robert Wyatt's solo work, created after his exit from Canterbury band, the Soft Machine. If you are already a fan of the solo output of Peter Gabriel, Jon Anderson and Fish, you will be in for a surprise with Robert Wyatt, because his music's nothing like that. ;-)
The album was recorded after his long hospital stay following his fall from a window, and subsequent paralysis. However, despite the unhappy situation, Rock Bottom is not a depressing record, instead one filled with hope, love and childlike wonder.
The album opens with what is probably Robert's most famous song after Shipbuilding. Setting the tone for the whole album, Wyatt demonstrates his " voice as instrument" vocal technique, singing like a dolphin over a sparse piano and synth accompaniment. A Last Straw takes us further into the deep, into the seaweed of her rocky bottom, before we arise to Little Red Riding Hood Hit The Road, an almost Latin infused piece with trippy drums, backward vocals, reverberating trumpets and the first of two bizarre vocals by guest Ivor Cutler.
Alifib/Alife is the album's high point, it's a love song of sorts to Alfie Benge, Robert's wife and muse. Robert sings in riddles and made up words, but the effect is strangely moving, and is one of the most emotional tracks on the album. The second act, Alife, becomes more urgent, almost delirious, and Robert recites his nonsense lyrics like a half forgotten nursery rhyme. To end, Alfie sings in response to him, that she isn't his larder, but his guarder, which seems so appropriate and lovely :-)
The final track is Little Red Robin Hood Hit The Road, which begins as an unsettling prog rock track, and becomes another absurdist poetic recital from Ivor Cutler.
This is an album best listened to in it's entirely, it's only 39 minutes long, and there is a thematic cohesion to the album, something rarely found nowadays.
If you can imagine an album of free jazz recorded by Winnie The Pooh with lyrics by Stanley Unwin, this is pretty much what it would sound like. Enjoy :-)
on 4 November 2013
Having now reached a certain age i've recently been listening to albums that i missed first time around and which are now generally considered as 'classics'.
I was aware of Robert Wyatt back in his Soft Machine days, although i always considered the band too "jazzy" for my tastes at that time, but i did like his forays into more mainstream music with singles such as 'I'm a believer' and 'Shipbuilding', the latter being an all time favourite of mine.
I came to this album with some trepidation but was determined to give it a fair trial and have listened to it on numerous occasions and in many different environs e.g in the car, on headphones, in bed and just quietly sitting.
You can see (hear) why some people find it a difficult proposition as it has relatively little structure and with the off kilter singing/playing it just makes it a truly unique/weird experience (depending upon your point of view?).
Is it jazz, experimental, avant-garde (maybe all three) but it's certainly never boring.
I'd heard 'sea song' before when done by The Unthanks and it's probably the most accessible song on the album, or maybe my familiarity makes it so.
There were other bits i liked too e.g the cute piano ending on 'a last straw' and the almost prog-like opening on the second 'little red robin hood hit the road' but i found the overwhelming free jazz (or however it's defined) feel which imbued the rest of the album just too much for me.
Is it a classic or just the emperors new clothes, i don't honestly know, but i am glad i (eventually) heard it but it's not an album i'd want to return to again.
on 28 March 2011
In troubled times like these, we could all do worse than follow the example set by Robert Wyatt in 1973/4. Consider the story: after being edged out of the Soft Machine, of which he was a founder member, in 1971, Wyatt sets up a new band, Matching Mole, to explore his own free jazz leanings. When M.M. came to an end, he decamped to Venice with his set designer fiancee Aoife, to consider his next move. In idyllic settings, he composes the songs that will make up Rock Bottom. Returning to the UK, he feels energised and ready to embark on the next chapter of his musical life; then disaster strikes - during a party that June, Wyatt falls out of the window of an upstairs room, breaks his spine and is told that he will be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
For a percussionist, this would normally have spelled the end of the road: but Wyatt has always been so much more than that. After a period of therapy, he decides to return to the music he composed, a seeming lifetime ago; he calls in some of his 'heavy friends' - Mike Oldfield, Ivor Cutler, Mongezi Fezi, Carvan's Richad Sinclair - and goes about the taping of Rock Bottom: an album that laughs in the face of tragedy by celebrating the good things around him, principally his (by now) wife Aoife.
Rock Bottom is a stunning incorporation of Wyatt's influences up to this point and shows his unique songwriting technique (he always felt song lyrics should be written closer to natural speech) at its most characteristic. The opener, Sea Song, is still probably his most famous composition - a disturbing reflection on unlikley emotional compatability fitted to an appropriately unsettling backing, all weird time signatures and spooky mellotron (this number has more recently been covered - brilliantly! - by the Unthank Sisters). And the old side/album closers, Little Red Riding Hood../Little Red Robin Hood represent the same story told from subtly different angles. Elsewhere, Aoife is a touching, but hardly saccharine, tribute to the woman who did so much to make this stage of Robert's life possible....
To call the music 'jazzy' would not be totally inaccurate, but wouldn't really do justice to the subversive mix of styles that we encounter here. Yes, you'll notice traces of the early Soft Machine sound (the first two albums, in particular) but this really is music without category - file under 'individual' would be the best description!
That said, this is probably not the best introductory album for those seeking a 'way in' to Wyatt/the 'Canterbury Sound': for that, go for Soft Machine 1-3, or any of the early albums by Caravan. But make sure you eventually get to Rock Bottom: it really is one of the essential albums of the 1970s.
on 16 December 2010
This reviewer has a confession to make. When he was about fourteen years old -in 1975 as it happens- this album was one of the most frightening things in his relatively limited musical world. Why was this? Because it sounded like nothing else, and it's a tribute to Wyatt that it still doesn't, not even some other Robert Wyatt album.
Lyrically the themes are all over the place, or perhaps merely occupants of unique places. It's still difficult to decide which, which of course makes every listen as intriguing as the last.
Wyatt roped in as eclectic a bunch of session people as you could conceive of too. This accounts for why Mongezi Feza's delirious trumpet is all over "Little Red Riding Hood Hit The Road" even though Ivor Cutler's recitation, at one and the same time strident and measured as it refers to lying in the road trying to trip up the passing cars, sounds like the contribution of a man who just happened to wander into the studio with a text in his hand. It all makes for something else anyway.
"Alifib" is something else again. Wyatt's keyboards are accompanied only by Hugh Hopper's bass guitar and the meditative air the two men conjure up is the combined effort of a duo with their eyes on some rarefied imperatives. Then Wyatt tops it off with nonsensical lyrics which are partly a paean to his partner Alfreda.
Gary Windo, the man with the tenor sax tone you could strip paint with, is on the following "Alife" on both that horn and bass clarinet. On both of them he scrabbles away at the margins of a song in which Wyatt again exhibits lyrical concerns outside of coherence.
"Little Red Robin Hood Hit The Road" is measured and intense, all at once. Cutler's back on it, this time with his baritone concertina in tandem with Fred Frith's violin. His recitation is disorientating enough in itself, but his cackle at the end suggests the whole thing has been some kind of absurdist prank when what the album is in reality is a work so free of influence that it joins that limited rank of `rock records' that simply has to be dealt with on its own terms, or not at all.