By John Short
The very first Syd Barrett solo album, The Madcap Laughs is generally considered to be the best Syd solo outing, and while I may not entirely agree with that verdict, i will concede that it is almost certainly the most honest.
Whatever the “essence” of Syd Barrett post-breakdown was exactly, it is fully on display here, and not on the considerably more polished Barrett. The majority of the songs on Madcap are simplistic acoustic ditties with strange word-salad type lyrics, and even where more complex backing tracks exist, they do so submerged below a patina of grime and murk.
The individual songs are a bit of a mixed bag, representing both some of the best and absolute worst of Syd’s solo career. As someone who prefers dense arrangements in music I tend to prefer the more developed material such as No Good Trying, with its Soft Machine overdubs and fantastic backwards guitar parts from Syd over simplistic and straightforward acoustic material such as Dark Globe, but a more folk or roots-oriented listener might take away the opposite conclusion.
The only real duds on the album are the two penultimate tracks, Feel and If It’s In You, the latter of which in particular stands as the most harrowing moment on this, or any Barrett solo album owing to an excruciating false start in which Syd is painfully off key. It’s a supremely embarrassing and uncomfortable moment, and its inclusion on the finished album reflects remarkably poorly on Gilmour and Waters, who produced the second half of the album as a favor to their old bandmate. The absence of such moments on the Gilmour and Wright-produced Barrett, along with his general unpleasantness makes it somewhat tempting to blame this entirely on Roger Waters, but Gilmour has acknowledged that he was also quite annoyed with Syd during the sessions for the album.
As mentioned before the lyrics are mostly of a word-salad variety, but there are a few sparks of coherence, most of which can be read as thinly veiled digs at the other members of Pink Floyd. (One of the great sea-changes in the posthumous interpretation of Syd Barrett came when the dominant interpretation of songs like “Jugband Blues” and “Dark Globe” shifted from “incoherent ramblings of a mentally ill individual” to “angry tirades at supposed friends who effectively abandoned him when he needed help”.) Both Dark Globe and Here I go have elements of this, although Dark Globe is of course much less subtle about it, with Barrett plaintively singing “wouldn’t you miss me at all?” All in All, The Madcap Laughs is a masterpiece of damaged singer-songwriter music, and a must-listen for any serious Pink Floyd fan.