Michael Mantler: The Hapless Child (WATT/4)

The Hapless Child

Michael Mantler
The Hapless Child

Robert Wyatt vocals
Carla Bley piano, clavinet, string synthesizer
Steve Swallow bass guitar
Jack DeJohnette drums, percussion
Terje Rypdal guitar
Alfreda Benge speaker
Albert Caulder, Nick Mason additional speakers
Recorded July 1975 through January 1976 at Grog Kill Studio in Willow, New York with the Manor Mobile at Robert Wyatt’s house and Delfina’s farm in England, and at Britannia Row in London
Engineers: Michael Mantler, Dennis Weinreich, Alan Perkins, and Nick Mason
Mixed January 1976 at Britannia Row by Nick Mason
“The Hapless Child” mixed November 1975 at Scorpio Sound by Dennis Weinreich
Produced by Carla Bley
Release date: June 1, 1978

Our sojourn through the shadowy periphery of WATT-induced slumber presses onward in The Hapless Child. Michael Mantler’s lovingly crafted ode to Edward Gorey (1925-2000) deepens the dream in which we find ourselves, making it seem more real by every sung (and spoken) word. Those who adore Mantler’s soundscapes might already be familiar with Gorey’s words and illustrations. Macabre though his themes often are, there’s also a childlike wonder to his gallery of apparitions, misfortunes, and uncertainties that lends itself beautifully to Mantler’s uniquely sonic stagecraft.

Gorey himself once said, “It’s well we cannot hear the screams we make in other people’s dreams.” And perhaps we are given here a glimpse into that very possibility, as if every scream were re-clothed as a poem that everyone can relate to. Aiding in this psychosomatic translation process is a band that is itself the stuff of fantasy: Carla Bley on piano and keyboards, Steve Swallow on bass guitar, Jack DeJohnette on drums and percussion, and Terje Rypdal on guitar. Standing at the top of this pyramid is vocalist Robert Wyatt, who drinks in all the sunlight and spews out morbid parables for the lost below.

The most convincing turns of this subarachnoid maze are found in three dense scenes. “The Sinking Spell” opens with what sounds like the tail end of an in-studio conversation, reminding us from the start that what we are about to experience has been fashioned as an object of fascination for our voyeuristic ears. Wyatt transitions into the deceptive simplicity of rhyming couplets, telling the story of something “morose, inflexible, aloof” appearing and disappearing. Ever closer but ultimately ephemeral, this unidentified presence looms with a feeling of unsettlement as intense as Wyatt’s matter-of-fact delivery. “The Insect God” conveys the frantic story of a child’s disappearance and the dismay of a family who will never know the ghastly sacrifice for which she has been taken. It is also one of the most disconcerting masterstrokes of prog rock these ears have ever encountered. Then the title song, in which a girl falls into destitution following the death of her parents, only to be fatally run over by her war-wounded father (alive after all), who no longer recognizes a daughter battered beyond recognition by fate.

Rypdal and DeJohnette provide glimpses of gold in these otherwise silver-toned dramas. Bley’s piano and string synthesizer up the quotient of creepiness, while Swallow’s bass is the perpetual mobile of time that stops for no one. Other shards in this bag of broken memories include “The Object-Lesson” (a recitative laid on an extraordinary altar of guitar, bass, and drums), “The Doubtful Guest” (for which Wyatt’s brogue is uncannily suited), and “The Remembered Visit” (about a promise destined never to be fulfilled). Each of these is a path we might very have wandered ourselves, but against which Mantler has constructed a strangely alluring warning sign for us to read in full before heading forth to brighter pastures under opened eyes.

Though The School of Understanding will always be my favorite Mantler piece, The Hapless Child might just as appropriately wear the crown of his highest achievement.

The Hapless Child back

4 thoughts on “Michael Mantler: The Hapless Child (WATT/4)

  1. I remember buying the original double LP with its amazing art work on the cover. Glad you included the front cover at the bottom of your piece (the art at the top is the original rear cover).

    1. A great album indeed. I was hearing all of these WATT albums for the first time as I was reviewing them and was trying to imagine the feeling of holding them in my hands at the time they first came out.

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