Review Summary: Pink Floyd's hidden gem - The Dark Side of the Moo.
When a band goes on record to say that an album of theirs sucks, it's usually a warning worth taking heed of - and certainly as close as one can get to a absolutely honest, sentiment-free critical appraisal. However, in the case of Pink Floyd's Atom Heart Mother, the band in question is probably just being a little too hard on themselves.
Indeed, across the years there has been more than a sack-full of derogatory comments from several former Floyd members on the state of their fifth-ever studio effort; the most colourful of them are "Atom Heart Mother is a good case, I think, for being thrown into the dustbin and never listened to by anyone ever again!" (Roger Waters, circa 1985) and "God, it's s**t, possibly our lowest point artistically" (David Gilmour, in Mojo Magazine, circa 2001).
But in all honesty, Atom Heart Mother is seriously not that bad - not by any stretch of the imagination; in fact, it's probably better than your average band's shot at a fifth album. The opening "Atom Heart Mother Suite" turns out to be an incredibly focused and well-written piece of lounge music - despite the band's claims to the contrary. The Suite comes in six parts - all of which have the benefit of diverse and strangely intriguing titles: namely Father's Shout, Breast Milky, Mother Fore, Funky Dung, Mind Your Throats Please, and Reemergence - with each section having a distinct mood and feel to it. Father's Shout, for example, is a progressive piece that impresses with its dramatic use of a brass section and a cleverly utilized Hammond organ; by contrast, the psychedelic groove of the Funky Dung section is propelled forward by none other than the use of an (oddly spooky) choir and David Gilmour's trademark sustain notes alongside a mellotron. Although it does sprawl around somewhat, the "Atom Heart Mother Suite" manages to stay interesting and relevant throughout - an impressive feat for a nearly 24-minute-long track, it has to be said.
Much like the band's double album Ummagumma - which was released a year earlier - Atom Heart Mother is structured such that one half of the record features tracks that contain the full band, with the other half focusing on individual members. The first of these so-called "solo" pieces is Roger Waters' "If", a pastoral ballad which turns out to be strangely reminiscent of the sound presented on "Grantchester Meadows" (another Waters-penned track, off the Ummagumma album). Although not as well-written as some of his later (and even earlier) pieces, "If" still features very introspective lyrics that end up making it a memorable outing: "If I were a rule I would bend/If I were a good man/I'd understand the spaces between friends".
Up next is the late Richard Wright's "Summer '68", which is perhaps the catchiest and most-accessible track on the album. With a groovy chorus that appears when it is least expected, and bombastic trumpet solo breaks at the middle and end of the song, it's hard not to feel some affinity towards this song. Richard Wright's solo vocal performances on Floyd albums have never been particularly memorable - mostly due to his being overshadowed by the singing talents of his bandmates Waters and Gilmour - however on "Summer '68" the bitter and blithe lyrics that are in place end up suiting his indifferent singing style, resulting in a piece that is very compelling overall.
Gilmour's contribution of "Fat Old Sun" is a folksy number that is - bluntly - a bit on the unmemorable side. Behind the vocals are mostly acoustic strummings and a rather simple bass-line - although Gilmour's phenomenal sustain and blues-influenced phrasing do make a brief appearance towards the end. Ultimately it ends up being a bit too similar to "If", and on an album with only five songs, that becomes quickly noticeable. Notable however is the fact that this song was resurrected for both of Gilmour's 2001/02 unplugged tour and his On An Island shows, which probably suggests something about the man's opinion track. Apparently not so s**t eh, Dave?
Atom Heart Mother ends with a "song" entitled "Alan's Psychedelic Breakfast", which is not so much a song as it is an ambient psychedelic sketch. Throughout its thirteen-minute length, the track is driven along by a melange of trickling pianos, loungey steel guitar balladeering and - perhaps most bewilderingly - the sounds of of a man preparing his breakfast and muttering incoherently to himself - all while stuffing his face. Beyond the semi-cognizant mumblings of "Marmalade, I like marmalade...Yes, porridge is nice, any cereal...I like all cereals", there aren't any lyrics to this one. However, despite all this (rather disconcerting) goulash that's constantly going on in the background, the song is still incredibly effective as a form of "wallpaper music" - circumlocutory sounds for those ambient morning shambles and for when a warm summer's heat comes a-calling; the kind of stuff that one puts on when brainless chores like sweeping the patio (or making breakfast, for that matter) need to be completed.
In summary, Pink Floyd's Atom Heart Mother is a piece of work that is thoroughly undeserving of the "only for completists" and "please only buy used" tags that it has been endowed with over its 40 years of record store-shelf time. Instead, it is an album that is probably best remembered (and respected) as a recording which successfully captured one of the greatest bands of all time in their search for a perfect concoction; that pristine musical direction, one which would ultimately end up in them creating timeless classics like Animals and Wish You Were Here.
All told, in the process of discovery the Floyd manage to stumble across a few truly magical moments, and it is those brief flirtations with brilliance that end up making Atom Heart Mother worth checking out. Even more so if the completist in you can find a used copy.
Author's note: This review can also be found on my personal blog (at the address http://snuffleupagush.wordpress.com/2010/09/18/breast-milky/).