An unfortunate reputation as a curiosity
Alabaster Jones | earth | 04/17/2010
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This collection of songs, while certainly not the most well produced in the world, are, I think, some of the most compelling. Unfortunately, many people seem only willing to look at it on the surface, and see it as a sort of novelty. Even many of the reviews on this site are focused mainly on the supposed state of mind Syd Barrett was in while recording this album. And indeed, it is a very compelling legend, that of Syd. Pink Floyd has made their entire career on selling Syd's legend as art.. so I understand the temptation to see this album from the point of view of a man losing his mind.
However... I think that it is only a small part of the picture, and I think that it does a disservice to the legitimacy of this material as art. There is a book called "The Making of The Madcap Laughs" by Malcolm Jones, who acted as producer on a large chunk of Barrett's solo output, including much of the material from the Opel CD, as well as many tracks from this album. In the book, Jones describes the sessions as productive and relatively trouble free. He mentions briefly the lack of studio time for The Soft Machine to adequately rehearse and learn the abrupt changes in the songs, and Jones laments that he was not able to book more time for them. He describes Barrett as being enthusiastic, lucid, upbeat, and very inspired.
This is quite a different picture than what Waters and Gilmour have had to say about their brief three session wrap-up of the production.
I bring this up because I obviously think that too much emphasis is put on Syd's supposed "madness" when discussing his music.
I think these songs are brilliant. For a variety of reasons, many of the sessions were rushed, and probably could have been recorded better. There is no denying that. However, Jones also mentions in his book that Syd had a tendency to become less enthusiastic in performing his songs after doing multiple takes, so often they would stop after 3 or 4 takes and leave them for overdubs later. I think if they had been recorded to perfection, they would have lost much of the charm that these recordings now possess. The lyrics on this album are some of the most evocative and baffling that I've ever heard... particularly on Octopus, Dark Globe, and Feel. It's clear that Syd has been influenced by his experiences with drugs, but it's also clear that he isn't just talking nonsense. The imagery that he uses is certainly deliberate and focused. After hearing the album, you may never want to hear another song from it for the rest of your life, but I bet if you were to listen to it a few more times and start picking up on the lyrics, you'll find that you won't be able to get it out of your head.
This is one of my favorite albums. For whatever reason, Syd lost interest in music after one more album. It's a shame, but in a way it also makes his few recordings unique and special. The emphasis on his mental illness is, I think, highly overblown... but if it helps to get his name out there so that others can enjoy these recordings for years to come, then I guess it is a small price to pay. I just wish more people took his albums seriously."