The Madcap Laughs, the solo debut from erstwhile Pink Floyd mastermind Syd Barrett, is often treated as little more than a novelty, the chance to derive perverse pleasure from listening to the musical dementia of an unhinged mind in much the same way that one would gawk at a freak in a carnival sideshow.
There's little doubt that Barrett's sanity had largely eroded by this stage of his life, and thus it's this psychosis that, for many, overshadows much of the music on The Madcap Laughs, constituting the main attraction for much of the album's audience.
Given this predilection for dismissing The Madcap Laughs as the feedback of a psychotic mind, one would naturally surmise that the album consists of little more than the unfocused, disjointed, desultory ramblings of a madman. This is quite a misguided notion, but it's even more perturbing that many retain this viewpoint even after having heard the album in its entirety.
What many forget is that Syd Barrett was a profoundly gifted songwriter, and that while his insanity may complicate his melodies it by no means corrupts or negates them. Hooks abound on The Madcap Laughs, and while they may be of a decidedly unconventional, unorthodox and initially inaccessible variety they remain captivating nonetheless.
In order to assist Barrett in realizing his musical visions, the similarly eccentric jazz-fusion outfit Soft Machine (who had, in their early days, played at many of the venues that Pink Floyd had frequented as performers) were called upon to comprise Barrett's backing band.
Operating in this capacity, Soft Machine have been the recipients of a plethora of markedly derogatory, vicious and enraged critiques from critics and fans alike, all too often accused of sabotaging the entire album.
I find this to be a profound overstatement and a rather unfair assessment on the whole. Keeping up with Barrett is a virtually insurmountable task, given that he never played any song the same way twice. Soft Machine even recognized this, accordingly sometimes simply providing atmospheric flourishes when they could tell that following the melody would be a futile endeavor.
Most importantly, Soft Machine never try to hijack Barrett's artistic vision or transfigure his madness into something more straightforward and easily palatable as Gilmour and company attempted on the subsequent album. Soft Machine clearly harbored a measure of reverence for Barrett, and didn't want to risk tainting the purity of his childlike madness.
Despite Soft Machine's valiant efforts at keeping up with Barrett, the album is very much the eccentric genius's own, filled with the captivating fusion of menace and whimsy that characterized Piper At The Gates Of Dawn. Barrett's brand of unsettling childish fancy is as potent as ever on The Madcap Laughs, accompanied by adroit songwriting that's simultaneously off-kilter and thoroughly catchy in its own right.
For someone decried as erratic and unstable, Barrett has made a remarkably consistent album in The Madcap Laughs, with the bland and uneventful Feel constituting the lone instance of filler.
Highlights abound on the album, from the gentle balladry of Terrapin to the playful Love You to the plaintive Dark Globe. The apex of the album, however, arrives with Octopus, with a melody so tangled that it's a miracle that it manages to be extremely catchy and memorable. Mixing surreal, fantastical lyrics, tricky time signatures and energetic vocals the song contains every staple of Barrett's work, and the result is one of the finest entries in his post-Pink Floyd catalogue.
Elsewhere No Good Trying is tremendously catchy and infectious, No Man's Land and Late Night are a pair of standouts that sport a more serious tone without sacrificing Barrett's classic sound and Golden Hair, with lyrics borrowed from a James Joyce poem, is simply gorgeous, one of the few moments of true beauty in Barrett's canon.
While I stated that Barrett's cheerful insanity shouldn't be emphasized at the expense of his accomplished songwriting, this doesn't mean that I feel that the unmistakably prevalent trappings of madness should be ignored altogether. Barrett's decidedly unconventional artistic voice, and all of the quirks that it encompasses, do imbue the music with a truly unique feel, which helps add another layer to an already technically strong album.
The allure of this madness would be all too ephemeral were it not grounded by catchy, well-written melodies, just as The Madcap Laughs would be an entertaining but unspectacular affair were it not for this inviting insanity. It's the juxtaposition of this skilled songwriting and Barrett's irresistible larger than life character that truly makes The Madcap Laughs a masterpiece, two seemingly irreconcilable elements that prove to be the perfect match.
While it naturally cultivated a modest cult following, as any sufficiently quirky and offbeat work of art is bound to with time, The Madcap Laughs was also largely met with dismissive condescension, as many were apt to write off the idiosyncratic opus as the meaningless drivel of a madman.
Thus many were simply unwilling to expend the necessary effort to appreciate The Madcap Laughs. With an experience as off-kilter and inaccessible as an undiluted Syd Barrett album one truly has to meet the eccentric genius halfway, and many weren't inclined to devote the time or energy to develop a rapport with a figure as unhinged and intimidating as the erstwhile Pink Floyd frontman.
Ergo it's unsurprising that when a streamlined, normalized and sanitized version of Syd Barrett's psychosis was released to the record-buying public, many flocked to embrace what amounted to a far less taxing experience than wading through the tangled, unorthodox demi-songs that constituted The Madcap Laughs.
The saviors who came to the aid of casual listeners were Pink Floyd members David Gilmour and Richard Wright, determined to make Barrett more easily digestible for a mass audience. Together they added tight arrangements and more conventional instrumental breaks to Barrett's work, also smoothing out the rough edges and correcting the myriad 'mistakes' inherent to the madman's artwork.
Gilmour and Wright even went so far as to heavily modify the album after each performance in production sessions that Barrett didn't even attend, thus ensuring that the final product would be something that even the Barrett-uninitiated could enjoy.
Treating abnormal artwork as if it were normal, which is precisely what Gilmour and Wright did, essentially creates an absurdist farce that's bound to end disastrously. Syd Barrett music isn't meant to be technically immaculate, nor should it adhere to the rules that dictate more mainstream fare. Smoothing out the rough edges ultimately dilutes the irresistible personality of Syd himself, dispelling the one-of-a-kind magic that animated The Madcap Laughs at its best.
Gilmour and Wright tend to keep Barrett's vocals and acoustic strumming low in the mix, as if the creative voice of the very man whose album this is supposed to be is an embarrassment that needs to be buried beneath layers upon layers of faux-Floyd, an insult that strips many of the tracks of their personality and charm.
The Soft Machine may not have been up to the task of keeping up with Syd Barrett, but at least they never imposed their own will upon the work, aiming to complement the music as opposed to controlling it. They recognized that the purity of Barrett's voice takes precedence over accessibility and commercialism, something that was apparently beyond Gilmour and Wright's ken.
The most frustrating aspect of the album is that Barrett is still in good form as a songwriter, and any given track in the set-list could, under better circumstances, be a solid entry into his canon. This even applies to the much maligned Rats, a song that I feel is by no means bereft of merit.
Virtually every track is marred by the extraneous production techniques and clinical, incongruous instrumentation employed by Barrett's patrons. Be it the completely superfluous, overlong jam at the end of Gigolo Aunt or the irksome ambient noises added to Effervescing Elephant, Gilmour and Wright's contributions sabotage what by all rights should be an extremely entertaining experience; if this is what the duo believe Syd Barrett should sound like, then they truly don't understand Syd Barrett at all.
Some of the tracks are sufficiently strong that even with these chronic misinterpretations one can still derive a modicum of enjoyment from them. Baby Lemonade boasts a catchy melody, Dominoes is genuinely moving (though its melancholia is somewhat undermined by overproduction), Maisie is worthwhile if only for the novelty of Barrett penning a blues song, Wined And Dined is an infectious tune and the aforementioned Gigolo Aunt is a superb pop-rocker before it degenerates into a self-indulgent, incongruous jam.
Any given one of these tracks would be vastly superior without the 'help' of Gilmour and Wright, but one shouldn't allow the pair's overly normal, conventional arrangements to rob one of what can still be an entertaining, rewarding listening experience.
Even so, there's a limit to how much of the album can really be enjoyed. The arrangements compose a nearly insurmountable obstacle toward enjoying Barrett, and thus the listener must be persistent and diligent in order to find ways to educe at least some entertainment from the proceedings.
Thus Barrett is a frustrating experience. While it's not without merit, it would probably be considerably less frustrating if it actually was a thoroughly bad album, as that would make it far easier to simply ignore. As it stands there's still far too much that's worthwhile about the album to dismiss it completely, resulting in a listening experience that mixes enjoyment, anger and righteous indignation to create a final product that will propel the listener from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other with a regularity that will likely be vertigo-inducing.
The genesis of Opel is clear. There had been a drought of new material from the largely burnt-out Barrett for nearly two decades, so some record company executives must have surmised that, deprived of the madman's unique charisma for so long, the record-buying public must be rabidly awaiting a new album to alleviate the chronic Syd-withdrawal that was doubtless afflicting them.
Obviously Barrett himself was incapable of producing new content, so the only recourse left to the record company if they wanted to educe the last bit of cash from a largely dry well was to release a rarities compilation. Unfortunately Barrett's vaults had already been depleted decades earlier by The Madcap Laughs and Barrett, so the execs were forced to dig yet deeper to find anything that could be remotely construed as releasable.
Thus Opel, as opposed to a collection of lost gems, is essentially the dregs of Barrett's catalogue, an array of superfluous alternate takes and wisely discarded misfires. Given that it's Barrett there's at least a modicum of content that holds a measure of interest for longtime fans, but certainly nothing that even a Barrett aficionado could muster genuine enthusiasm over.
The title track is a fan favorite, a fact that truly mystifies me. Opel's melody is so primitive, generic and repetitive that it borders on nonexistent, leaving the lyrics the primary attraction. Many have lauded the song's lyrics because of their allegedly more personal nature, but truth be told I believe that Barrett's usual chimerical imagery is as personal and real to him as anything that he could pen as an introspective singer-songwriter, leaving little appeal for the track at all.
The other unreleased songs fare little better. Milky Way is colossally awkward, Word Song is avant garde gone badly awry and Dolly Rocker is so nondescript that it barely amounts to anything.
The alternate cuts fail to hold any degree of fascination for me as well. The tracks culled from Barrett have the advantage of being untainted by Gilmour and Wright's misguided and ill-conceived intervention, which somewhat ameliorates numbers like Rats and Wined And Dined, the latter of which thus may very well be the best song on the album.
Unfortunately the material that overlaps with The Madcap Laughs is woefully inferior to the final versions, leading to extraneous content of little use to anyone. Clowns & Jugglers is far better as Octopus, Wouldn't You Miss Me would subsequently be much improved as Dark Globe and no matter how many renditions of Golden Hair are added to Opel they still fail to measure up to the standards of the Madcap Laughs version.
As much as one may long for new Syd Barrett material there simply isn't much on Opel to appease the desires of his hardcore fanbase. Opel is indeed a transparent attempt to exploit the passion of Barrett devotees, but nothing here is apt to arrest their attention for very long.
Thus Opel is comprised of twenty-year-old music that was deemed unfit to be released at the time, and very little has changed in the intervening years. Barrett's backlog is thoroughly exhausted, and it seems in poor taste to parade the man's mistakes around to be gawked at by curious onlookers.
Nothing short of a genuine new Syd Barrett album could truly please the erstwhile Pink Floyd frontman's fans, but a worthwhile rarities comp could still have had an impact on the contemporary music scene. Opel is anything but a worthwhile compilation, however, and thus it's not likely to please anyone at all. The traces of Barrett's unique persona that can be found on the album prevent Opel from being completely useless, but after a couple of listens I can't imagine anyone wanting to hear this record again.