Barrett's 'Madcap' needs informed listening

In the age of the single download, Jeff Harford rediscovers the album.

Listening to The Madcap Laughs can be an unsettling experience.

Someone who knows nothing of Syd Barrett's mental unravelling might hear it with different ears from one who understands something of the former Pink Floyd singer/lyricist/guitarist's personal history, perhaps blenching at its numerous clumsy moments and wondering why any producer would leave them in.

A cynic might consider the inclusion of the album's several frayed sections a deliberate choice to present Barrett as a battered and nearly beaten poet-genius whose every utterance, however imperfect, is treasure. Others might consider it exploitative not to have employed a more discerning filter.

Barrett's producers for the 1968-69 Madcap sessions, five in total including Barrett's former band mates David Gilmour and Roger Waters, have at various times spoken of their difficulties in focusing Barrett's attention on the task at hand. Gilmour and Waters have made no bones about the fact they felt they simply needed to deliver something on Barrett's behalf, for the sake of his career and because they felt they owed him something after cutting him loose from Pink Floyd.

What is clear is that Barrett was long past caring about fame and good form. His songs invariably toy with structure, timing and melody in such a way as to suggest he could no longer live with making conventional choices. It would simply be boring. That in itself is no sign of mental illness, nor is the wild imagination that spawned sometimes-unfathomable lyrics. He was, after all, the poster child for English psychedelic music.

Madcap should therefore be relished for its raggedy beauty, its spontaneity, its quaintness, the fluting Englishness of Barrett's delivery, and for its oddness. Embrace the production and performance inconsistencies as challenges to your preconceptions about what makes for compelling music and you'll be going some way towards understanding where Barrett was in his life - by most accounts frustrated, occasionally blindingly lucid, often obstinate and increasingly overwhelmed. Painting was more his thing.


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