Wyatt / Atmon / Stephen - For The Ghosts Within
Imagine yourself in a pre-war bar in Casablanca, listening to a string quartet backing a singer and saxophonist. Throw down a few absinthes, suck up a few hookahs and you’ll drop-kick yourself into Wyatt World – a disturbing place of beauty and sublime despair.
Robert Wyatt's latest release sees him team up with saxophonist Gilad Atzmon and violinist Ros Stephen to record five original tracks plus reworkings of six classics. Far from being revitalised, the old standards are uninspiring and sit ill at ease with the five newer compositions which actually compound Wyatt’s demi-god status.
Wyatt’s ability to create new styles or to bring together seemingly disparate genres has once again taken flight in at least part of For The Ghosts Within but you do feel the hand of a cynical record company executive at work here: “Jesus Crikey Almighty! What is that pile of tosh? We’ll never sell any copies of that crap. Stick on some good old songs and we might at least get some of our money back.”
The album kicks off with ‘Laura’, a gentle 1930s-40s melody with a dark string arrangement and 60s saxophone riffs. It’s an unexpectedly flat start to a Wyatt set, but as it’s an old song it does set something of a theme for half of the tracks here. Next up is ‘Lullaby For Irene’: a quick burst of North African-inspired sax, common to many of the newer tunes, which develops into a tragic melody. After the poor opener this gives hope for the rest of the ensemble and things really kick off with ‘The Ghosts Within’ – starting out like an Algerian 'How Soon Is Now' with droning strings overlayed by oboe and drums, when in bursts an accordion and suddenly you’re in Paris. Sultry female vocals ooze out and you slide into a 30s Berlin club. Truly magnificent.
‘Where Are They Now’ is Coward-esque in its simple, bouncy opening when up crops a Salt’n’Peppa-like rap in Arabic. The whole thing is then ripped apart by a robust male rapper and piercing ululations. It's Wyatt at his bizarre best. ‘Marya’n, in counterpoint to the previous two songs, has a military marching beat and gorgeous, soaring vocals backed by a delicate string arrangement but still with touches of a wind from the souk. You’re on the point of throwing everything away and following Wyatt on his path to glory when you’re suddenly dragged back to earth with a mediocre rendition of ‘Round Midnight’.
‘Lush Life' reset’s the mood, with its bird song and muted trumpet but it’s only a brief joy as ‘What’s New’ and ‘In a Sentimental Mood’ are mundane and drab by comparison. 'At Last I’m Free’ again offers a glimpse of what could have been as the looped vocals mesmerize but the coup de grace is only a smashed brandy glass away. ‘What A Wonderful World’ sums up the weak bits of the album: boring and beige and not worth inclusion compared to other tracks which are so much more compelling.
Had four of the infinitely weaker rehashings been removed, and the remaining songs been released as a mini-album, this could have been the finest thing that Wyatt had created for years. Sadly, you’re left with a deep feeling of “Robert, if only …”