"Partly fish, partly porpoise, partly baby sperm whale."
Rock Bottom is an album that many have attempted to emulate over the years, but few have succeeded. The genesis of the album’s creation, delayed by Wyatt’s accident that led him to spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair and its subsequent reputation as an avant-garde classic, is well documented and this album and Wyatt himself have been held in increasingly high esteem by ever more ‘highbrow’ music fans in the last decade or so.
All of which makes it a really difficult album to review, if like me you’re a fan of traditional pop song structure and lyrics.
Where Rock Bottom follows more conventional song structures this album is certainly a winner, however, when it starts to explore less mainstream sounds I find it a little more challenging. Despite this, I can’t help but admit that it’s a beautifully strange soundscape that Wyatt has created, but it’s somewhere I’d rather than visit occasionally than live. Wyatt’s vocals are cracked, tender and really rather moving and as such it’s easy to appreciate just why he has remained such a compelling artist and enjoys the highest profile of any of his Canterbury Scene peers.
What is often overlooked is how good Rock Bottom sounds. For all Wyatt’s idiosyncratic percussion and clever arrangements, much of the kudos for this should go to producer Nick Mason, who could have built a whole secondary producing career on the results of this album alone. Sadly, aside from The Damned and a few lesser known acts, Mason’s career in production never really took off, which is a great shame as the results here should have seen his reputation flourish.
For all its wilful weirdness, Rock Bottom isn’t beyond occasionally dispensing with the meandering and gets a little more straightforward from time to time, and it is a relentlessly pretty album throughout, making it easy to hear why Wyatt has enjoyed a reputation as the experimentalist’s experimentalist since its release. Where his contemporary Brian Eno has taken the ‘look at me, I’m a bit weird!’ electronic route, Wyatt is considerably more organic and soulful, pacing himself since his success with Rock Bottom (indeed, what else could he do?) and becoming an affable creative godfather figure to the likes of Björk and other such soundscape loving artists.
After the crushing awfulness that was 1970’s The End of an Ear, Rock Bottom was Robert Wyatt’s true solo debut and the world of 70s music was a far better place for it.