One Track Mind: Robert Wyatt, “Shipbuilding” from Different Every Time (2014)

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A Top 40 UK hit for Robert Wyatt in 1983, “Shipbuilding” remains this devastating, strangely contemporary rumination on how the Falklands War simultanously bolstered England’s sagging seafaring communities even as it took their boys away to war.

Clive Langer co-wrote “Shipbuilding” with Elvis Costello, and was said to have had Wyatt — famous for his work with the super-way-out Soft Machine — in mind as the vocalist from the first. Listening again, it’s easy to see why. Singing with a ruminative Costello in the background, Wyatt gives this song an unshakeable Englishness, something that remains stoic even when so badly damaged. “Shipbuilding” is made complete by bassist Mark Bedford, of Madness fame, and pianist Steve Nieve, who add a mutteringly conversational interplay.

Costello clearly recognized that something magical had happened. He made his own pass at “Shipbuilding” for 1983’s Punch the Clock, with Bruce Thomas on bass. Nieve — a consistent presence with Costello — returned only to see his solo replaced by a gorgeous turn from trumpeter Chet Baker. Even so, it never quite bested Wyatt’s take, a moment of artistry that’s so complete it became definitive — both for the lyric and for the man himself.

What better way to herald the forthcoming Different Every Time? This multi-disc Wyatt retrospective also features “Moon in June” from Soft Machine’s fusion-focused 1970 album Third (and, more recently, the terrific ’68; 1974’s “Yesterday Man,” produced by regular musical partner Nick Mason of Pink Floyd; “Frontera,” with Phil Manzanera of Roxy Music; “La Plus Belle Langue,” with Nieve and Muriel Teodori; and “Free Will and Testament” from 1997’s Shleep, co-produced by Brian Eno.

Other highlights include 1981’s “Siam,” which finds Wyatt collaborating on Nick Mason’s Fictitious Sports, and “Submarine” from Bjork’s 2004 album Medulla. The compilation, which will be available in multiple formats, is being released as a companion piece with a new Wyatt biography of the same name by Marcus O’Dair.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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