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[music, albums]

XIV: 1997 Robert Wyatt - Shleep

Robert Wyatt - Shleep

I had forgotten how otherworldly beautiful this record was until I relistened to it (and the other ten contenders of the 1997 poll) on our last eleven hour car trip to Perpignan before Christmas. In a closed place like a car you are really forced to listen to the music, you can't escape. I came up with a simple system of how to rate an album. Just giving a point for each song I like and then adding them up. Shleep got 10/11.

This was Robert Wyatt's first record after the end of 18 years of Tory government. It is a more personal and less outwardly political record than his releases during the Thatcher/Major era. The main theme is insomnia, feverish insomnia to be precise which he suffered from after 1991's Dondestan. Alfreda Benge's (his wife) phantasmagoric cover shows him having defeated both that illness and his paraplegia. He is slumbering on an oversized dove flying above the clouds.

The record starts with the grooving minimal pop song Heaps of Sheeps produced by Brian Eno. Eno provides synthesizer magic and background chorus voice and makes this sound like a song from one of his first two solo albums. The lyrics explain the record title. Wyatt sings on the futile try to count sheeps to fall asleep. The counted sheep jump over a fence but stay there and produce a sheep jam so that they come back and have to be recounted. The stubborn sheep refuse to be instrumentalised as a sleeping aid. Absurd but ingenious.

There is no transition to the next song, The Duchess. A musical U-turn. Everything slows down. From a looping motion picture to an acoustic image with sax improv by free-jazzer Evan Parker. The paradoxical punning lyrics are a declaration of love to Alfreda:

Oh my wife is tall and short, she won't do what she ought. She never lies, but then again, she lies down all day long.

The next track Maryan takes the last bit of haste out of the music. We have arrived in epic cinemascope dream land. Philip Catherine's acoustic guitar constitutes the harmonic base, Chikako Sato gives some shading with her violin, Wyatt sings about the path of a salmon mounting back the river to the source, Nayram (=Maryan in reverse). Just a guess. Could Maryan be his mother?

The transition to Was a Friend is a sample of an Austrian band doing a Wyatt tribute. Musically the song itself sounds like a waking-up within the flow of the record. With lots of gorgeous trumpet improvisation by Wyatt. Though its subject is a dream. On meeting an old friend again. The song is signed Wyatt/Hopper so I think it is about Hugh Hopper, the bassist a member of Soft Machine. Apparently there have been issues when Wyatt had to leave the band. But time has healed the wounds. The hatchet has been buried. Though Wyatt does not know where.

Free Will and Testament is a measured philosophical contemplation on self-referential existential questions with Paul Weller doing the reserved but enveloping rock guitars:

Had I been free, I could have chosen not to be me. Demented forces push me madly round a treadmill Demented forces push me madly round a treadmill Let me off please, I am so tired

It goes on with September the Ninth, a jazzy trombone-soaked ballad with a long instrumental intro on a flying woman whose arms the swallows accept as wings. Evan Parker adds the sax improv touch again.

The keyboard-dominated Alien is the song coming closest to the cover image:

I sleep on the wing Above the rainclouds

The world rhythm is provided by Gary Azucx wonderful djembe. The atmosphere gets proggy when Phil Manzanera's guitar joins in at half-time. Chucho Merchan's bass provides some great licks. Finally Robert Wyatt's voice which is as airy, angelic, asexual, androgynous and all-encompassing as it can get does make this the stand-out track of the album.

Out of Season is a sketch on bird watching. A long 17+ syllables haiku on a young sparrow bathing next to the mail box. How I love that complementary marriage of trombone and trumpet. Impressionism at its best.

A Sunday in Madrid is the song I like least on the album. A long spoken word report on a visit to Madrid. Too long.

Blues in Bob minor is Robert's version of Bob major's Subterranean Homesick Blues. Where the weatherman becomes a weather girl. Much more upbeat, much more danceable. Best cover ever. Apparently Wyatt forgot the words of the original, wanted to sing some repetitive lines and his wife said no. So he reinvented and improved the original. A true original this man.

Then comes The Whole Point of No Return. Like a Tibetan monk choir humming something in the spirit of "Om". There is no better way to finish this album.

Further reading:

Here is the overview of the series 40 years, 40 albums of which part XIV was this post.


yes, it's a lovely album but i don't think it's worn so well over the years. still and all the great tracks really are great. i think 'was a friend' is about ratledge and unreconciled animosity but, really, who knows for sure.

... link  


i think it wyatt's most consistent album. and his voice is better than on earlier releases, maybe fuller. and in a way it is a timeless record. i am not sure if rock bottom is timeless. i bought it much later in the early nineties but i never got into it. it definitely has got this 70s jazzrock/progrock sound which i have heard too often in those years. and the first song puts me off. i love the first album, end of an ear as well but it is maybe a little too freaked out for frequent listening. when wyatt does either political songs (except shipbuilding of course) or sings in spanish or both he often loses me. and that was what he did on all the releases of the 80s i have, even on dondestan which has its moments though. i also like old rottenhat. even the political songs on that one. because they have punch, i guess.

... link  


'rock bottom' was a touchstone record for me, coming at the same time as i started expanding my listening experiences so i've always loved it. i hated all the 80s albums even while loving the rough trade singles but have gone back to them more recently and have enjoyed them immensely - oh callow youth. i think he's a truley great artist - one of a kind, always interesting, if sometimes patchy.

... link  


Rock Bottom and its follow-up, Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard, are both old favourites of mine, though I haven't checked out Wyatt's recent stuff. Not too long ago I heard Heaps of Sheeps and enjoyed it though, and I notice that my local music store has some Wyatt stuff available cheap.

... link  

... comment

last updated: 12/8/21, 5:41 PM
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