Rwrockbottom“Sea Song”, the first track on Robert Wyatt’s highly regarded second album Rock Bottom, has the feel and memorability of a classic rock ballad, and yet at the same time it doesn’t shy away from using the experimental techniques that characterize the rest of the album. That “classic” feel has something to do, I think, with the implied descending bass line that underpins the verse material (compare “Whiter Shade of Pale”, “All You Need is Love”, “Stairway to Heaven”, “All the Young Dudes” and countless others). Here it descends over four bar phrases and is repeated a full six times, before being interrupted on the sixth repeat as the melody moves into a “bridge passage” that leads not to a chorus but to an extended instrumental section.

Here especially, but also throughout the song, the synthesizer and piano instrumentation and Wyatt’s strange vocals have an unearthly, meandering quality that, as Edwin Pouncey memorably put it, sounds “as though [Wyatt] is chorusing from the bottom of the ocean and playing his piano with octopoid arms.” Eventually we return to the second, shorter section of verse material that leads on to a coda before disintegrating once more into an instrumental section featuring agonized submarine yodeling and overlapping synthesizer waves, gradually fading away. There’s never really anything like a chorus.

Given Wyatt’s unconventional vocal delivery, it’s all the more surprising that the lyrics, poetic and ambiguous but still conversational, come across so clearly and so powerfully. It’s a love song of sorts, but one where the lover is re-imagined as some kind of amphibian that comes out of the sea in the moonlight. And the love is changeable and susceptible to outside influences – the sea, the moon, the seasons, night or morning, but also alcohol and (presumably) drugs. This clarity is aided by the opening phrase of both verse sections being sung a cappella: “You look different every time” and “You’ll be different in the Spring”. The central lines of the piece, though they come round only once, are sung in a much higher register to mark their impact:

But I can’t understand the different you in the morning
When it’s time to play at being human for a while. Please smile.

That “please smile” is far from the phrase of conventional jollity as used in more typical love songs – here it sounds like a desperate plea to a mermaid out of water who is struggling with severe depression. However, the second verse and coda reminds us that there will be plenty of occasions when moods and empathy coincide, even if the danger of things getting completely out of hand remains a threat.

So until your blood runs to meet the next full moon
You’re madness fits in nicely with my own
Your lunacy fits neatly with my own, my very own