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Rock Bottom- Robert Wyatt


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Rock Bottom

Robert Wyatt


I bought this album on a whim a few months ago, and it surprised me by being a surreal, emotional masterpiece. Wyatt, formerly the drummer for Soft Machine, recorded this after becoming paralysed from the legs down when he fell from a third floor window at a party. While this ended his career as a drummer, and meant that he could no longer be a part of a touring band, it opened great new opportunities. Unable to drum, Wyatt could now focus all of his efforts on writing, singing and recording his own music.

The album opens with a vibrant, shimmering keyboard, playing a meandering, melancholy line with minimal percussion, gliding across your ears and through your mind as if from a different world. This texture continues through the rest of the song, and throughout most of the rest of the album, keeping you in a entranced for it’s duration.

Wyatt’s vocals enter soon after. His voice would not be conventionally called ‘good’, but I feel that it’s raw, exposed emotion is what gives this album it’s almost intrusively intimate quality. The lyrics are always surreal, and sometimes nonsensical, but throughout the album they carry a melancholy tone.

Side One continues in the same mood; a highlight is the swirling, pounding loop on “Little Red Riding Hood Hit the Roadâ€, created from Mongezi Feza’s trumpet playing. It is these background textures which make Rock Bottom so unique.

The album begins to head in a definite direction on the first track of Side Two, “Alifibâ€. It opens with a looped voice breathing the name “Alife†(referring to Alfreda Benge, Wyatt’s future wife). The aforementioned keyboards are again present, and Hugh Hopper provides a delicate bass solo before Wyatt’s voice enters, singing half real words and half not, one of the few coherent statements being “Alife my larderâ€. These nonsense lyrics are repeated in the next track, but with no emotion or even melody. The dry quality of these vocals is countered by dark, heavy organ drones, pounding piano and screeching interjections of saxophone. Tension builds through the song, culminating in a suddenly clear moment in which Benge herself declares that she is not, in fact, his larder.

All the tension built throughout the first two tracks of Side Two is released in the album’s finale, “Little Red Robin Hood Hit the Roadâ€. Brief vocals from Wyatt give way to a soaring solo from Mike Oldfield, which in turns fades into a surreal, almost comical final statement. Ivor Cutler, in a thick Scottish accent, delivers a monologue, accompanied by his accordion and a viola played by Fred Frith. The two instruments give an open, resolved-feeling drone, finally realizing all of the emotions built up through the album. As the final note rings away, you are left with a feeling of contentment.

Rock Bottom has had a major emotional impact on me in the time I’ve been listening to it. Wyatt laid bare all of the emotions in his life, and I have yet to hear a more intimate piece of music.

My personal feelings aside, Rock Bottom is highly original, and features many of the greatest musicians of the time. While I would recommend it, I must warn that it is not an easy album to enjoy. It takes a lot of patience, and many of the sounds, while they build emotion, and not at all pleasing. That being said, I would encourage everyone here to give it a listen, preferably on a rainy day in a melancholy mood.

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