Deep Shleep : Robert WyattPuts New Soul in Old Machine

In all the talk about electronica in the last year, what has gotten lost in the major-label P.R. campaign is exactly why this so-called new use of circuitry is notable. Are we hearing anything new? Do our molecules vibrate at a different frequency when we listen to DJ Cam? Do we elevate ourselves to prideful sexual violence when force-fed the Prodigy? Will we lose our capacity to understand the English language after exposure to DJ Spooky?

I’m nailing up a straw man, of course; if people listened to music for reasons , I’d finally be able to make a living at this business. But it strikes me as odd that so much of the hullabaloo concerning this robot stuff engages discourses of progress with the language of escape, as if going into a trance, losing one’s mind, giving up free will, etc., were the next evolutionary thing. No doubt much of this talk of futurism is actually nostalgia for a time when misunderstanding the future could be a grand gesture-like, say, the space age.

But I also wonder if this release from acumen isn’t also tied into the technology of the music, the way it is used and the way we have acclimated to listening as a passive experience, particularly in the last 15 years or so. Music used to be something that people did , with varying skills. But skill wasn’t necessarily the point. The family didn’t gather round the parlor piano to sing hymns in order to create masterpieces, and they didn’t really do it praise God, either: It was a part of living.

The history of music in the 20th century has been one of sad decline from doing to listening. The CD, a hard, dead little object, has only exacerbated this. Karl Marx defined a fetish as the mysterious “extra” value an object possessed that superseded its creation, and his take (if not his emphasis) was not so different from Sigmund Freud’s. Capital needs a fetish, of course-why buy a soda otherwise?

One thing electronic music (and the totemic CD) does is take the responsibility of participation off our shoulders, convincing us that we are not capable of creating music. (Something is not real until it is processed and tarted up into the illusion of pop.) I don’t denigrate dancing as a participatory element; it’s obviously very important. But when it comes to electronica-whether you’re listening to it at a club, or shaking at a rave, or grokking it in the privacy of your own hovel-all this talk of trance is talk of escape, of nonparticipation.

Which leads us to the monumental musician Robert Wyatt, whose latest wistful release, Shleep (Thirsty Ear), has been taken up by electrophiles, particularly the British sort who love coldness and opposition. Mr. Wyatt is not cold, but eagerly languid, and a populist, a socialist in the best of all senses. He speaks of simple humanity in both his words and his methods. He is a musician whose method deeply involves his listeners. He works with us to get to another place.

The escapism of trance music aside, one of the words often used to describe Mr. Wyatt’s music is “hypnotic,” and that would not be inaccurate. Starting with 1974’s Rock Bottom (which I’ll hyperbolically offer as one of the 10 finest “pop” LPs of all time), Mr. Wyatt, who started out as the original drummer with the seminal dadaist jazz-rock band the Soft Machine, has put intensely tranquil keyboard drones together with his fragile voice, worked in his interest in various world musics, and created a singular sound made up of static rhythms and harmonic shifts. Thirsty Ear will be reissuing Mr. Wyatt’s slim solo output over the next several months, starting with Rock Bottom , and it’s an early contender for reissue project of the year.

It is not surprising that a former drummer would have an interest in the music of trance. Mr. Wyatt’s work on drums has been limited since 1973, when a fall from a window left him paralyzed from the waist down. But he claims not to have been much of a drummer in the first place.

“I consider my career as a drummer a complete disaster,” he said in an interview. “I consider the whole period a long and misspent youth. I never found a Coltrane to play Elvin Jones with. But I really wasn’t Elvin Jones. I didn’t really feel that I found my own voice until Rock Bottom , really. To be actually in charge of the texture of the keyboard was the breakthrough for me. I found somewhere to put my voice only when I was in charge of the keyboards.”

The reference to John Coltrane is not an arbitrary one. “I saw Coltrane live with [Eric] Dolphy. They were getting some kind of trance going, an Americanized Indian classical music,” he said. “I do like a sense of harmonic movement, of a kind of shifting. I like a certain amount of vagueness and ambiguity in the sound. That’s where I’m least connected with the rock group tradition, which is clear, declamatory power chords and so on. I get claustrophobia with the rock format on the whole, and I like something a bit more smoky, a bit more aerated, a bit less solid, a bit more gaseous.”

Yet Mr. Wyatt has drawn very different conclusions from this sort of quietude than the lulling banality of, say, Andreas Vollenweider, focusing instead on its experimental, as well as approachable, side. Shleep pulls from a diverse cast of characters, including several who have worked with Mr. Wyatt in the past among them electronic godhead Brian Eno, the British soprano sax player Evan Parker and aging soul-punk Paul Weller.

Mr. Eno produced the album’s opening track, “Heaps of Sheeps,” which lacks the morose recessiveness of Mr. Wyatt’s usual work. You can definitely feel the progressive rock touches of Roxy Music’s Phil Manzanera (whose studio was used) and Mr. Eno, who, despite his idiot-savant-like-a-fox reputation, has always hid a technophile’s heart behind a primitive’s brain stem. Mr. Wyatt still comes across as the saddest man with something to live for on the planet as soon as he opens his mouth; his voice possesses the English equivalent of bluegrass’ “High Lonesome.” This is, in other words, the blues, although the blues as an esthetic choice. “The idea of suffering is not a be-all and end-all of meaningful music,” Mr. Wyatt said. “I think that when you really got the blues, you can’t sing-you’re too fucking sad.”

Shleep nods toward bits and pieces from other songs, a touch of Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” here, a smidgen of Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman” there. Although the lyrics wane from the political thrust of recent recordings, there is an insightful surrealist humanity informing them. Curiously, the sole cover on the album is “The Whole Point of No Return,” a song from Mr. Weller’s old Style Council days, which Mr. Wyatt reduces to a few airy trumpet and keyboard vamps, completely ignoring Mr. Weller’s dime-store socialist lyrics (e.g., “Rising up and taking back/ The property of every man/ Oh, it’s so, so easy”). Mr. Wyatt may be a socialist ideologue, but he keeps a proper perspective.

“If you think of Brian Eno and Evan Parker, we have very little in common in terms of political analysis,” Mr. Wyatt said. “Parker works for Leo, a record company run by a fanatically right-wing Russian exile. If Evan has any allegiance at all, it’s to Sufism. And Eno lives in what I still call Leningrad, involved in the new Russia in a way that I couldn’t ever be. I find it depressing that everyone wants to be like us and have given up trying to be something different. But, you see, it’s difficult to tie ideology and music. I think the connection between esthetics and politics is the same as sunshine and Tuesday. Many great figures of the avant-garde, from Arnold Schoenberg to Andy Warhol, are bourgeois conservatives. That’s what they would say.”

This gentle irony could do all of music some good. After all, Mr. Wyatt’s the sort of experimentalist who climbed the British charts back in the mid-70’s with a cover of the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer”-evidence of a self-awareness that is our greatest weapon against the sort of techno-trance encouraged upon us.

Now Hear This…

Mr. Wyatt underestimates his drumming, which can be heard rather loudly in the mix on Virtually (Cuneiform), a fine concert recording of Soft Machine from 1971, made a few months before his frustrations with the increasingly wanky direction of the band led him to quit. Mr. Wyatt’s bandmate in the Softs, bassist Hugh Hopper, wrote some music for Shleep , and has also struck an alliance with producer Kramer (who also contributes music to Shleep ) and his Shimmy Disc label, now reborn as part of the Knitting Factory family. The second Kramer-Hopper record is out now, and joined by former Softs-Gong freakazoid Daevid Allen, they’ll be recording as Betaville this summer.