Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Impossible Question

I think I have, for the first time, found a record that absolutely I can say I would narrow down to a top five the minute I heard it. Like if I had to go to some desert island, or a dessert island, and could only take five albums. Or maybe I was on a really long plane ride, and I could only listen to five albums or they'd skip me on a double pass-by with the snack cart. Or I was locked in an attic with Emily Dickinson or Anne Rice or some other hermetic and I could only have sex with her again and again and listen to five particular albums for the rest of my life and her attic life.

Some ridiculous hypothetical; how could anyone answer that? Five albums? Why only five? I think if I'm at the tribunal, and they're about to exile me to St. Helene for my political/religious crimes, I think the least I could do is negotiate a fairer number than five records for the rest of my days. But I suppose, to follow one hypothetical with another, if I were at a dinner party, and Norman Mailer or Anderson Cooper insisted I answered that question, I think I could definitely have chalked out one of the five as of today.

Syd Barrett's The Madcap Laughs (1970) would absolutely, at the current moment, make that coveted spot in my frugal castaway listening experience. Rarely have experienced as immediate a recognition of the importance of a record on everything else I cherish in music. It is a gem of eccentric songwriting, wonderful psych-pop creations which sound incredibly fresh even today. I have never been a great Pink Floyd fan, having resisted my father's attempts at drawing me into the fold. The closest I'll get to them is Barrett's output on The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967), which is a much harder beast to appreciate than Madcap, and without Barrett, I have found some value in Meddle (1971), especially the breezy alt.-country airs that surround "A Pillow of Winds" and "Fearless". But with Barrett's Madcap, everything just sort of fell into place, and I could see from a very remote distance his importance on the development of the likes of David Bowie and Brian Eno (whom I have been reading about quite extensively), and also on another favorite, Robyn Hitchcock (particularly in I Often Dream of Trains (1984)).

The album has a similar feel to the Velvet's third self-titled record, wherein they decided to play nice and drop some of the nastier proto-punk leanings (with some exceptions); the straight-forward sweetness of "Here I Go" reminds me of the Mo Tucker-fronted "After Hours", the kind of tune written in cloud. I also see a kinship to Ray Davies work skirting the more well-dressed pop psychedelia, with Andy Partridge in XTC and his stylized pop drama, and with that VU reference, the work of Galaxie 500. Dean Wareham couldn't have written the bulk of Galaxie's dream-pop without lazy opener "Terrapin". There's also an obvious connection with Love's Forever Changes, which like Madcap, is a largely acoustic affair. Without these two albums, I probably never would have imagined that psychedelia could be achieved without distortion and dissonance, but they manage to do so very effectively with simple acoustic melody, which is a testament to their lasting power.

I think ultimately, The Madcap Laughs is the perfect album to enjoy by itself; if I ever needed to imagine the work that followed, I could, its influence so clear and crisp, and yet it is not the sort of album that cannot last on its own without its followers. If I were allowed a guitar in that hypothetical, the album would also provide album material to explore in my own work.

Also, its cover art, with its cool linoleum lines and Barrett's menacing/perplexing pose, is also something I could stare at for hours.

Plus, with "Golden Hair", I get some James Joyce as well. Two partridges with one bicycle.

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