Robert Wyatt Needs A Bigger Boat

Jess Harvell | February 1, 2008 1:30 am
There are days (especially when it’s drizzly) when I think British art-rock godfather Robert Wyatt’s version of Elvis Costello’s “Shipbuilding,” where a shipyard laborer reassesses his livelihood in the face of his hard work being used for wartime purposes, at least according to loose talk around town, first released as a single on Rough Trade in 1982 and later collected on the essential Nothing Can Stop Us, is the most haunting song ever recorded. On a musical level, Wyatt’s mournful reading of Costello’s last truly great song is pure comfort food, as near a traditional (if tweaked) “beautiful” ballad as he got, from the wracked cocktail bridge to his sprained-heart performance. But the songs comes with an uncomfortable socio-political aftertaste, thanks to its core moral ambiguity. (Despite its rep as a readily acknowledged anti-war song, it doesn’t offer many hard-and-fast answers to the still-relevant, underlying question of how much one should/can ignore the wider social/political/environmental effects of their daily grind in order to stay financially afloat, whether there’s a war on or not.) The ingratiating sonics of “Shipbuilding” offer a certain kind of solace; listen past the surface pleasures of Wyatt’s voice, however, and you may walk away feeling gently indicted 26 years later. [YouTube]