Robert Wyatt albums don't come along all that often - this is his first since 1997's warm, engaging Shleep - but when they do, they're invariably enjoyable, thoughtful and brimming with his characteristic endearing musical textures.
Cuckooland is no different in those respects, though behind the customary keyboard drones and the bottomless melancholy of that inimitable voice, there are several striking differences this time round. For one, Wyatt's drumming is decidedly more expressive here, with frisky brushwork enlivening tracks like "Old Europe", and hyperactive, involved cymbal work particularly evident throughout the album. For another, his cornet and trumpet playing is more confident and appealing than before, with several creditable solos, and never - whatever his own typically modest assessments of his own talents - overshadowed by a stellar line-up that includes trombonist Annie Whitehead, Brian Eno, Dave Gilmour, Phil Manzanera, Paul Weller and reedman Gilad Atzmon. Atzmon is the album's secret weapon, an extraordinarily talented player whose sax and clarinet work adds colour and character to several tracks, and whose breathy flute brings an authentic middle-eastern, duduk-like flavour to the final track "La Ahada Yalam".
Karen Mantler, the daughter of Carla Bley and Michael Mantler, is another important player, writing and playing on three of the songs and also appearing in the guise of the "Karenotron", a sort of vocal mellotron made up of samples of her voice. But there are no slackers here, with the line-up equally at home on the swirling dub space-jazz of "Trickle Down", the spooky waltz "Forest", and the wistful cover of Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Insensatez".
The material, mostly written by Wyatt either solo or in collaboration with his partner Alfreda Benge, largely reflects the couple's preoccupation with political concerns and particularly the plight of the dispossessed, be they gypsies hounded from Eastern Europe to Kentish seaside towns ("Forest"), orphaned Iraqi children terrorised by US bombing raids ("Lullaby For Hamza"), or birds given a bad press for their maternal instincts ("Cuckoo Madame").
Best of all is "Old Europe", a celebration of Fifties Gallic jazz style ("Paris at night/ And the strains of a ghost saxophone") which conjures up a time when black American jazz stars found Europe a much more amenable (and respectful) place than their own homeland, becoming exiles by choice rather than circumstance.
Elsewhere, Mantler's "Beware" offers a warning against the treachery of supposed friends, Benge's "Lullaloop" toasts the value of relaxation, and Wyatt's own "Just A Bit" offers a philosophical meditation upon art and religion, replete with typical punning wordplay ("icon tact") and self-deprecating attitude. As always, a quiet but forceful intelligence underlies the whole album, but without detracting from its enjoyability. Another subtle masterpiece from an underrated national treasure.
- More about: