As I write in seemingly half the reviews of albums I write, expectations are a terrible thing. I have heard about Rock Bottom for perhaps as long as I was aware of Wyatt’s existence, which dates back to my first encounter with Soft Machine maybe 20 years ago (or slightly less than that).
It’s hard to separate this record from its story, and it’s worth wondering about how much the initial reaction to the record was coloured by the story. (Wyatt became a paraplegic before recording this record.)
I generally like how Wyatt approaches songwriting in that he both writes somewhat conventionally and absolutely unconventionally, and decides that both things should be on the same record. That kind of approach has long appealed to me. “Sea Song” acts like a bit of a trick as it might fool you into thinking you’re getting something relatively conventional, an idea which is soon dispelled but most of the rest of the record.
I am used to Wyatt’s voice – which is likely a problem for many – because I have listened to The Soft Machine way too many times. But the interesting thing about this record is how he uses that voice, in ways you might not expect, such as a solo instrument (scatting, essentially), and at other times I can’t tell if he’s singing really weirdly or if his voice is being played backwards (or both!). I mean this as a complement.
And I think the arrangements are creative and fairly unconventional. His music certainly doesn’t fit into any of the tagged categories very easily.
But I find the production kind of dated, particularly the reliance on tape effects on some songs. They are integrated in a relatively clever way but this is just a sound I’ve never particularly loved. Backmasking was an important step forward in record production but it can get annoying and it was no longer innovative in 1974.
And the mixing is also not always ideal. With someone with such a quavering voice like Wyatt, I kind of feel like he needs the spotlight a bit more. (This was probably a deliberate choice, though.)
So, I find myself thinking it’s pretty good and certainly extremely unique, but not quite seeing it as the masterpiece I was led to believe but everything I’ve read about it. It could be that it’s impenetrable enough that I just need to give it more listens before I fully “get it” or it could be that, once again, hype has gotten in the way of my enjoyment of something.