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For Robert Wyatt, one of art rock’s great progenitors, genre definitions have always been challenges, not boundaries. He studied jazz drumming as a teen, and the Canterbury scene of the late 1960s (which include Gong, Caravan, and Wyatt’s own Soft Machine) was famous for its jazzy strain of progressive music. In 1973, Wyatt had to switch from drums to other instruments when, after falling ass over teakettle from a fourth floor window during a party, he became a paraplegic.
So it comes as no surprise that his latest collaboration—For the Ghosts Within, a song cycle of originals and jazz vocal standards with alto saxophonist Gilad Atzmon and violinist Ros Stephen—is a melting pot of genres and regional musical styles. That polyglot approach is a refreshing constant, and the album is as strong as Wyatt’s two records from the last decade, 2003’s Cuckooland and 2007’s Comicopera.
Although Wyatt has learned to play piano, trumpet, guitar, and many other instruments, his greatest and most unique tool is his voice, whose vulnerable, high-register pitch often sounds downright cetacean. Wyatt’s singing style is delicate, but strong enough that it retains both his British accent and signature lisp. Still, some listeners may find his vocals unnerving. (He’s even inspired a gerund: “Wyatting,” the act of clearing out a pub by playing avant-garde music on the jukebox.) Wyatt has always contended he’s not being weird on purpose, and at the very least, mainstreamers can relax knowing that his singing is much more palatable on For the Ghosts Within than, say, his imitation of an orgasmic merman on the loopy stunner “Instant Pussy,” from his early-’70s Matching Mole days.
In fact, the opening standard “Laura” is almost deceptively normal, an intoxicating noir vignette. Stephen’s violin sets a dramatic mood before Wyatt begins crooning, completely in key, and Atzmon’s brings a classicist nocturnal vibe. On “Lush Life,” Billy Strayhorn’s standard that was popularized by Duke Ellington, Wyatt plays trumpet and gently sings of frequenting dives and “come-what-may places”—with which he, a notorious tippler back in the day, is undeniably familiar. Surely we’ve all heard too many covers of “What a Wonderful World,” but the subdued instrumentation and Wyatt’s reading of Louis Armstrong’s lyrics are earnest enough to keep the album’s closer from feeling extraneous or becoming a treacly parody.
Wyatt, the biggest name in this collaboration, isn’t too egotistical to stand in the wings when he needs to. On “Round Midnight, he’s content to contribute only atmospheric whistling. He even allows Atzmon’s wife, Tali, to handle lead vocals on the title track, in which the former’s sax borrows from Arabian music and sounds like a muezzin’s call to prayer. With Tali’s sumptuous voice, “For the Ghosts Within” could be the theme song for a Middle Eastern James Bond movie.
Wyatt, a card-carrying member of the British Communist Party, has never disguised his politics. However, Atzmon threatens to upstage him as the album’s leftist lightning rod. The Israeli-born musician has written many essays and books opposing Zionism and advocating for Palestinians’ right of return. He even created a Benny Hill-esque parody group, Artie Fishel & the Promised Band, which makes faux-Zionist klezmer music. Like Wyatt, who once recorded a song called “Stalin Wasn’t Stallin’,” Atzmon has a sense of humor that softens his controversial views.
So: about that mountain gazelle in the studio, the song “Where Are They Now?” It starts out harmlessly enough, with Atzmon playing a simple, repeating pattern. Then we here tinny, compressed beats that foretell the entrance of Stormtrap—of the Palestinian hip-hop group Ramallah Underground—who drops some political science on the unwary listener. By necessity, Wyatt phones this one in, as his only contribution is a vocal sample taken from 1991’s Dondestan: “Palestine’s a country/Or at least used to be.” Well-intentioned or not, this number is a misstep, if an interesting one.
One of the stronger tracks is the cover of Chic’s “At Least I Am Free,” Wyatt’s second recording of that song. (Dude loves his C’est Chic.) The newer version starts with some spacey sound effects and Stephen’s sorrowful violin. This version’s strings, psychedelic feel, and Wyatt’s voice transform a Quiet Storm song about a broken relationship into something spiritual and epic.
The standout jazz standard is “In a Sentimental Mood,” the album’s best showcase for Atzmon’s and Stephen’s instrumental talents. The crackly effects and quiet, ghostly vocal samples make the song sound like a broadcast from yesteryear. Wyatt doesn’t even appear until four minutes in and then only to warble wordlessly for a minute. It’s a perfect example of why this collaboration is successful. The trio seamlessly blends traditional song forms and artsy, off-kilter styles. As for shortcomings, it’s too bad Wyatt doesn’t appear more on For the Ghosts Within, although his playful spirit and respect for musical history is evident on every track.