Robert Wyatt – His Greatest Misses [Hannibal, 2004]

Robert Wyatt - His Greatest MissesThis compelling introduction to Robert Wyatt’s career was initially released in 2004 – by, in Wyatt’s words, “a thoughtful chap in Japan brought these tunes together as a sort of canter around my back-catalogue”. A canter it is, through the unique rhythms and cadences of the former Soft Machine vocalist’s musical world, one that takes in tender pop, light prog and gentle jazz, plus the mesmerising innocence, and bluntness, of his rough, Kentish accent.

But to call this set “His Greatest Misses” is a little disingenuous: two hits nestle in this record, both of them written by other people. Wyatt’s take on The Monkees’ I’m a Believer was a hit single in 1975, after he returned to making music after the fall from a window that left him paralysed from the waist down. Thirty-five years later, it’s still a delicious confection: Wyatt delivering his message of love plainly and frankly as fidgety guitars and Motown pianos add colour to the ends of his lines. His version of Shipbuilding, which Elvis Costello and Clive Langer wrote for him in 1982, is even better: he brings an almost unbearable rawness to the story of the Falklands War, returning work to the shipyards but threatening death to men at sea. Hearing his trebly warble deliver everyday phrases like “Well, I ask you”, then tell us about the “people who get killed”, you are listening to one of pop’s greatest performances.

But Wyatt’s own material is also more accessible than many would imagine. Sea Song, from his debut album Rock Bottom, is free-form in melody, but full of gorgeous hooks and touching lyrics (“You’re terrific when you’re drunk / I like you mostly late at night / you’re quite all right”). Woodwind-heavy early track Solar Flares is propulsive and addictive; 1992’s Heaps of Sheeps teems with perky keyboards and backing vocals; while Mister E from 2003’s Mercury-nominated Cuckooland plays like a duet from a Hollywood film.

Nevertheless, there’s plenty of oddness here too – Muddy Mouse (b), a dissonant minute-long tale about what “cubs and brownies do at night after a boring day”, being a perfect example. But even here, tenderness and warmth bubbles through every second and syllable, reminding us of the palpable greatness of this Great British Eccentric.

Jude Rogers

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence. Originally published on BBC Music.

Back to reviews
Buy Robert Wyatt CDs from
Robert Wyatt Discography
Robert Wyatt @ Wikipedia