Pink Floyd — Atom Heart Mother (1970)

Someone who’s read my blog up to this point (not that anyone has, of course!) might wonder if I have some order that I’m doing album reviews in, or if I’m just going at random. The answer, as you might guess, is that it’s totally, completely random and spontaneous. I might eventually try to implement some kind of structure, but I might not. I like being able to pick this blog up when I want, and write about the album that I feel like writing about. Now, when I’ve burned through all the albums I know well enough to review, everything might change.atomheat

Today, we’re returning to early 70’s Pink Floyd, the first time I’ve reviewed an artist twice. As I mentioned in my King Crimson — Discipline review, Pink Floyd are one of my two favorite prog-rock bands, so it’s to be expected that I show them a bit of favoritism time and again.

I like that Pink Floyd form a sort of duality with my other favorite, Yes. Let me elaborate on that: I once read that in China, they don’t talk about “the greatest writer of the dynasty,” but about the two greatest writers of a given dynasty, so that they can talk about the contrast between them. One was lively while the other was thoughtful; one was moody while the other was even-keeled, and so on. It works for talking about Pink Floyd and Yes, because there are so many keen points of contrast. That said, I don’t know if that idea is an accurate generalization about Chinese culture, because it’s an off-handed recollection I have of a foot-note in some book*.

Hey, now that I think of it, Yes once did a whole album based on an off-handed recollection of a foot-note in some book. I’m not making this up; Jon Anderson, the singer and songwriter of Yes, had read a book on a Hindu yogi, and there was a foot-note about different types of Hindu scripture that inspired him to make a massive four-part double album that was, for me, the kiss of death for Yes’s best period.

But where Yes were prone to flights of imagination, such as making an album based on a single footnote, Pink Floyd were keenly grounded in the everyday reality of the band

Bowman1

It’s lonely up there…

members’ lives. From the very beginning, they wrote psychedelic music about the ugly side of reality. To use a very ugly metaphor, Yes is an upper, and Pink Floyd is a downer. I’m not saying that I find Pink Floyd depressing, but I am saying that Yes draw the eyes upwards to the heavens, so to speak, and Pink Floyd make you look around down on earth. Pink Floyd may have a very cosmic style to their music and lyrics, but it’s more of an altered awareness of real life, I think; it reminds me of David Bowie’s acute awareness that even astronauts get lonely and feel helpless. Tom Petty knew it too, in his songs about flying (which are not about drugs, or at least, not just about drugs), and so did Bernie Taupin when he wrote “Rocket Man.”

And I love that aspect of Floyd, perhaps more than anything else about them. When it’s done right, it imbues the music with real power. When overdone, like on Dark Side of the Moon, it can make me feel like they’re trying too hard to win the approval of the kind of fan that I am. And when they wrote their rock opera about the perils of stardom, the lack of relation to the mundane world alienated me completely.

I like one song, tops, from “The Wall.”

So if I don’t love “Dark Side,” and I despise 99% of “The Wall,” I’m not really a PF fan, am I? But I am. I like everything they did from the beginning of the band, up to and including Animals, right before they jumped the singing, depressed shark. More than that, I’m a hardcore fan of more or less everything from their second album, Saucerfull, to what is increasingly my favorite of their albums, Meddle. I earlier gave Meddle a middling review, but that was penned a long time before publication and my tastes have shifted since then.

And that, finally, brings us to today’s album, “Atom Heart Mother,” which is almost certainly the album where Pink Floyd collectively came of age as musicians. If I’ve front-loaded this review, it’s because I don’t actually have a ton to say about this album. One whole side of it is completely wordless, if not actually instrumental, and the remaining side has only four tracks.

The title track, sometimes called “The Atom Heart Mother Suite,” is a towering orchestra-backed jam session in six movements. And this is frustrating, because I’m not a classical music critic, so I can’t say that much about it. Sure, I listen to classical music, and sure, I remember enough about classical form from college to say a few things, but it’s not who I am as a critic. It’s enough to say that this song is written in a sort of avant-garde classical form, with themes introduced, explored, then recapitulated at the end. A good deal, but not all, of the weight of this song is carried by brass, cellos and choir, arranged by an outside composer named Ron Geesin. Some of the movements or sections in this piece are credited solely to band members, but most are credited as collaborations between one or two members and Geesin.

It’s an academic question whether this really counts as a PF song, given the sheer amount of it that was composed, arranged and performed by outside musicians, but you know what? I don’t really care all that much. If I get bogged down in this argument, it’s going to bother me every time I hear a string orchestra part on a rock album (and that’s a lot of great albums.) The suite is enjoyable, and Dave Gilmour and Richard Wright get in some very nice solos. I’d even say that as a whole it’s as listenable as or more listenable than the slow middle section in my favorite PF song, Echoes. 7/10.

The next song is acoustic ballad If, at a short 4:31. Perhaps that only feels short by comparison with the suite. If is a very conventional PF song, harping on the same theme that would later be at the center of “Dark Side,” “Wish You Were Here” and arguably parts of that hot mess they call “The Wall:” the insanity and turmoil of Syd Barret.

You may know the story or you may not. Poor Syd was the band’s original front-man, who apparently lost his sanity to overuse of LSD. To hear the other members of PF tell it, Syd became anti-social, paranoid, unable to behave himself on stage, and had to be supplemented and then replaced with Dave Gilmour. This is the open emotional wound that gave Roger Waters much of his fire as PF’s primary songwriter. Only the death of Waters’ father even approaches the same level of importance in understanding Waters’ lyrics. If is sung from Barret’s perspective. It feels like a tamer, less angry rehash of Barret’s swan song, “Jugband Blues” from “Saucerful of Secrets.” “If I go insane,” the singer pleads, “please don’t put your wires in my brain.” “If I go insane,” he asks later in the song, “will you still let me join in with the game?I find that last line very touching, in a way. If I went insane, I’d still want to be able to make music with my friends. There are some other lines in this song that seem very telling of Syd Barret’s last days with the band, albeit probably slanted to Waters’ side. The song also has some nice steel guitar work from Gilmour, so I’ll forgive it for dragging a little. 6/10.

Next is a true oddball in PF’s catalogue, “Summer ’68.” It’s driven by Richard Wright, the keyboardist, both with his piano line and with his vocals. He rarely sang lead, so this is kind of like the “Ringo sings” song of the album, if Ringo only sang on two Beatles songs, tops. The song is about sleeping with a groupie, but with the rarely-seen and much-needed twist that, halfway through his tryst, the song’s narrator realizes how sad casual sex between strangers really is. There’s a wall between the two people in this song, and the narrator yearns to break it for even one moment. He tries for a moment of emotional intimacy when he asks “how do you feel/how do you feel?” We never hear her answer, though, and we’re led to assume she never gave one. Between a particularly poignant moment of PF’s signature yearning and sadness, and a very nice psychedelic meltdown with distorted vocals, I can’t rate this song highly enough. It actually pairs nicely on playlists with Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ’69,which is a really cool coincidence. 8/10

The last really significant moment on the album is “Fat Old Sun,” and even this is lightweight. On “Summer ’68,” the narrator says “my friends are lying in the sun/I wish that I was there,” and as if on cue, we have a song about lying around watching a sunset. It’s in a sort of poetic genre called “pastoral,” which talks about the pleasant things in life, like fields (pastures, hence the name “pastoral,”) sunsets, and so on. It’s still full of stoic yearning for something unreachable, I think, but perhaps that’s only because of the context given to it the preceding songs, or because the vast number of Pink Floyd songs have conditioned me to expect that kind of tone. 6/10, because it is nice, even if it is fluff.

Next is the often-maligned “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast.” This is a doctored-up recording of a PF roadie talking to himself while making breakfast at home, with a couple of miniature instrumental jams superimposed onto it. It’s weird as hell, but I don’t hate it, mostly because of the roadie, Alan Styles’ pleasant, every-man personality. The instrumental parts aren’t bad. 5/10.

So while it’s an unusual album even for Pink Floyd, one that rests a lot on the strength of instrumental sections and solos, it has a handful of shining moments that make it one of PF’s flawed early masterpieces like “Meddle.”

High Point: “Summer 68′”
Low Point: “Fat Old Sun”
Whole Album Average: 6.5/10
Bonus Point for being one of the classic five song PF albums: 1.0
Bonus for album art: 0.6
Bonus for being their first truly great album: 1.0
Penalty for being so damn weird: -0.5
Final Verdict: 8.5/10

 

 


*”Poems of the Late T’ang” by various, tran. A. C. Graham. I was wrong, it was a headnote, not a footnote.

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David Bowie — Station to Station (1976)

David Bowie was one of those figures who are quite impossible to describe. If someone described him as a sexually ambiguous, flamboyant glam/punk/pop/prog-rock singer with a cocaine problem and a golden voice, they’d have all of the facts and none of the essence. You couldn’t guess from that description that one day in the mid-70’s, he’d suddenly begin dressing as a languid, pompous aristocrat, flirting with fascist ideas, and make a hard-to-analyze, hard-to-classify album with themes of Jewish mysticism, modern occultism, and religious yearning. Now, to anyone really familiar with the earlier Bowie, it’s not quite as huge of a jump as it sounds, but it’s still a bleak, unusual period for him. To me, it’s far more significant than the more popular “Young Americans” that preceded it.index

The album is “Station to Station.” It’s not a genre piece.  I’ve seen it called “blue-eyed soul,” and I’ve seen it called a pop album, and I’ve seen it called prog-rock, and it’s pretty telling that all three work equally well. Somebody once told me that the best music gets made when people awkwardly shove multiple genres together and then kind of jam with it until it sounds right. I’m nearly sure that’s how rock-and-roll was invented in the first place, with blues, gospel and country elements coming together and losing whatever aspects were incompatible.

Here, Bowie and his band combine pop, the genre he’s arguably most comfortable working with, with soul, funk, prog-rock, and whatever else came into their heads, apparently. Does it work? I think it does, but it’s not an stellar album on an instrumental  level. Bowie’s constant self-reinvention prevented this sound from enduring onto a second album, but if he’d stayed with it it might have matured into something better.

How are the songs?

Well, the title-track is Bowie’s very longest at 10:14. It’s also one of his darkest and proggiest, and is notable as the only time the words “Thin White Duke” appear on a Bowie song. This was the pseudo-fascist, elitist aristocrat in a baggy white tuxedo shirt and a dark vest who was Bowie’s brand-new stage persona at the time. Bowie was bone-thin and, like the character, was actually taking mind-blowing amounts of cocaine, so the line between persona and reality is blurred quite a bit, even more than is typical for Bowie.

Is it a good song? I like it alright. The long buildup to the actual music, with synthesized train noises, could have been cut. The organ part for the slow, plodding, doom-rockish A-section is very nice, reminding me somehow of ELP, and the B-section is still filled with dread, but more upbeat. The lyrics and vocals are definitely the strong point, as you might expect with Bowie. He sings from the point of view of this aristocrat, who is on cocaine, engaged in occult activities, and thinks he’s in love. I mean, what did you expect, a normal song from Bowie? It’s no Life on Mars, but it’s a good song. I especially like the repetition of “It’s too late,” throughout the last part of the song. Repeating the same line over and over is an interesting technique, which makes the line bear a lot of weight, but can capture obsession, passion or dread very well, depending on the line in question. This is a technique that Kurt Cobain would later perfect, in my opinion. “All in all is all we are…” I give it 7/10.

Next is the funky pseudo-love song of the album, “Golden Years.” This is the only song from this album that classic rock stations seem to play. In fact, it’s one of only three Bowie songs that my local station plays, and some of you can probably guess the other two. It says something about Bowie that such a weird song is the album’s most “normal.”

It’s based primarily on a funk vamp, more or less the instrumental equivalent of repeating the same line over and over. It portrays passion very well at the musical level, but can get tiring. Thankfully, it’s well executed here and never grates. The lyrics and vocals are average for Bowie. He sings about wanting to guard the object of his affections for “a thousand years.” He also has an emotional breakdown later in the song and shouts to heaven “O, Lord, I believe, I believe all the way,” which stands in stark contrast to some thing he says in the very next song. It’s passionate, danceable and, honestly, quite fun to sing in the shower, so I like it a lot. 7/10

Then comes a vaguely soul/gospel-influenced song along the same general thematic lines, “Word on a Wing.” In this, Bowie prays for his love to return to him, but doubts that it would fit into God’s “scheme of things,” showing that his religious declaration in “Golden Years” has been replaced with doubt and a certain level of cynicism. It has a very nice melody and some good lines, but Bowie’s voice wears thin here, as though he’d recorded it in one session with the first two songs. I like that the refrain “my prayer flies like a word on a wing” is probably inspired by a similar line in Paradise Lost. (Don’t make me look up this reference.) I give it 6/10.

So the album’s been arty and emotional so far, but it really hasn’t been that weird. It’s not like there’s a piano-driven boogie-woogie number about a man worshiping a TV that ate his girlfriend, right? Oh, wait, there is, it’s “TVC-15.”

Cocaine, ladies and gentlemen, is a hell of a drug. Later, Bowie barely remembered this time in his life, saying that he could listen to Station to Station as though a different man had made it. He claimed he only knew that he recorded it in L.A. from reading the liner notes. Moreover, he recalled that this was a time when he pondered such philosophical questions as the existence of God and whether he could turn on a TV telekinetically. At around the same time, Iggy Pop, a long-time close friend of Bowie’s, had a bad trip on something no doubt a little stronger than chamomile tea, and hallucinated that a television was eating his girlfriend.

And that’s the song. It’s Bowie singing that scenario. It’s catchy as hell, and Bowie’s band somehow managed to make psyched-out doom-rock over a substrate of honky-tonk boogie piano, which earns them major points with me. 6/10.

“Stay” just isn’t notable to me. It also has a funky main riff, more of the half-spoken lyrics that Bowie went in for during this period, and really, it just sounds like “Golden Years” and “Word on a Wing” rehashed. I can easily understand how someone might really like this song, but it does very little for me. 4/10.

Then for the finale, Bowie covers a 1950’s song popularized by Joe Mathis*. “Wild is the Wind.” Like an antique Timex that still keeps time, the song holds up. Plus, covering a song from the 50’s is always a classy move. It reminds me of the White Stripes covering “I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself,” which worked as well. Bowie’s version is passionate, but shaky and perishing. He sounds as old here as he would on his final album, Blackstar, but even more driven. And more than Joe Mathis, I believe him when he says “we are creatures of the wind…    and wild is the wind.”

I appreciate that Bowie can pull off reverb’d-up vocals so well. Only Porter Wagoner does it better, I think. 7/10.

(*Being from the South and not quite old enough to be very familiar with Joe Mathis, I naturally confused him with the country singer “Joe ‘Country’ Mathis,” and wrote a heart-felt aside about 50’s country. When I realized that this was not the case, I almost left it and pretended I didn’t know better.)

So while any number of very strange artistic choices were made here, Bowie shows he can pull off almost anything. More than that, he shows that he can do a stark and dramatic performance as much as he can a flamboyant and colorful one. My only complaint is that some of the production sounds sloppy.

Average track rating: 6.2/10
Bonus points for good album-craft, overall weirdness, et cetera: 3.0
Penalty for occasional sloppy production: -1.0
Overall rating: 8.2/10


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