Syd Barrett: The Madcap Laughs (1970)

The first (of two) original solo albums recorded by Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett is a difficult listen -- not necessarily on the merits of the music (though a few songs are certainly challenging), but because it's hard to dissociate the album from the circumstances of its creation, with Barrett, recently booted from Floyd in the wake of his mental breakdown, clearly in the throes of mental illness from which he would never recover.

To the extent one can simply listen to this as a piece of music and separate out Barrett's struggles, it's actually a pretty good album.  I'd say both the solo albums have an equal mix of decent post-psychedelic rock songs and more meandering pieces hampered (or enlivened, depending on how you look at it) by Barrett's difficulties.  The stories of the creation of the album are notorious, with Barrett in pretty bad shape, changing the music and the tempo as he went along and burning through a few producers (including former bandmate/replacement David Gilmour as well as Roger Waters).  The extent of those producers' involvement varies, but certainly (especially if one compares this to the later-released outtakes) the musical overdubs give the album a beneficial sheen that makes it a much more manageable (and often outright enjoyable) listen.

Opening track "Terrapin" is nice enough, mostly just Syd and his guitar, a quietly melodic piece.  "No Good Trying" is a surprisingly fulsome psych-rock track, with some great guitars, one of the few here that would have made a key part of the Floyd canon had he remained with the band; "Love You" is buoyant pop, almost a throwback to the first Floyd album (and "Here I Go" find Barrett in a similarly playful mood); "No Man's Land" is pithy and catchy, buried beneath a wall of guitar fuzz; "Octopus" is another poppy tune, a bit more sprawling and unpredictable, but one that holds together as respectably Floyd-ish; and closer "Late Night" is a haunting bit of noir which seems to come from the same place as Barrett's last Floyd song, "Jugband Blues."

The remainder of the album is where it gets tricky.  The songs are dark and introspective, tough to listen to objectively, as Barrett is given freer reign to follow his rattled muse (perhaps most notably on "Dark Globe," with the plea "please lend a hand, I'm only a person" and pained reprise of "wouldn't you miss me at all?").  It can be harrowing, but also arguably great.

And while reasonable people can argue about whether the album would be held in the same esteem had it been released by any other artist, on balance The Madcap Laughs (like its follow-up) has enough great tracks to stand up on its own merits, and even the tougher tunes are frequently fascinating, making it essential listening for any Floyd fan.

Here's a fan-made video for "No Good Trying":
And another video (by the same fan) for "Octopus":