Robert Wyatt is one of Britain’s most underrated talents. For the past fifty years, he’s created music that defies easy categorization. His effortless genre-crossing blends progressive, folk, jazz, rock, and electronica into a mix that can only be described as Wyattesque. Not only has Wyatt a prolific discography of his own records, he’s seemingly collaborated with as many people who would have him; blending his own magical touch with the talents of others has often resulted in some fascinating curiosities along the way.
Of course, with a catalog as vast as his, it would be difficult to sum up his career with a compilation. Thankfully, Different Every Time doesn’t waste one’s time trying to be “definitive.” A two-disc set that’s a tie-in to a recently-published biography of the same name, this set goes for highlights over hits—not that there really were any, mind—and it does a fair job of showing off Wyatt’s talents, thanks in part to its programming being divided between Wyatt’s own work (titled “Ex Machina”) and his collaborative efforts (“Benign Dictatorships”).
Disc one explores his own musical path. The only chronology that the collection contains is found in the first three tracks. The first song, “Moon In June,” by his band Soft Machine, is a twenty minute psychedelic jam, while the next two songs, “Signed Curtain” and “God Song,” are from his next group, Matching Mole. “Moon In June” is a satisfying blast of jazzy psychedelia, baroque in its own way, warm and lush and inviting. “Signed Curtain,” which follows, is minimalist, raw, bare—a very stark contrast to what came before it. The rest of the disc flows through four decades of solo work, not focusing on one era in particular. Interesting is how songs like “Team Spirit” and “At Last I Am Free” sound like contemporary numbers, but date from 1975 and 1982, respectively, while the progressive moments of “Yesterday Man” and “Beware” sound like vintage Seventies-era rock, but are actually contemporary numbers.
Disc two, “Benign Dictatorships,” is a compelling glimpse into Wyatt’s collaborative spirit, and while disc one is excellent, disc two is the more intriguing of the pair. While disc one makes the case for Wyatt the songwriter, it’s here where things get really interesting. A hand-selected collection, the songs weave in and out of the decades. His collaborations with Jeanette Lindstrom and Anja Garbarek are breathy, ethereal affairs, while his collaborations with Bjork, John Cage, and Hot Chip show him to be a master of electronica and alien sounds. Also featured here is “Shipbuilding,” an Elvis Costello number that has since become his signature song; it is included as a collaboration, as Costello wrote the song specifically for him.
Yet in spite of the wonderful music found on Different Every Time, I can’t say that I fully grasp the enormity of Robert Wyatt—nor do I think twenty discs of his work could fully encapsulate the genius and brilliance of the man. That’s too daunting a task, but Different Every Time does a damn good job of demonstrating why people revere him so.