When this LP was originally performed live some music critics derided the group’s decision to blend art-rock with orchestration. That Pink Floyd had wandered off course in comparison to their earlier more psychedelic period with Syd Barrett must have seemed as a betrayal. Ultimately this album is more famous for its cover than for its contents. That didn’t stop it from going to number one in the U.K. (their first number one record as a matter of fact), which meant that while everyone under the age of thirty had it in their vinyl collection, didn’t necessarily mean that they were listening to it more than once or twice.
Atom Heart Mother was Pink Floyd’s fifth album, and one which saw them in a seemingly endless state of transition after their founding member dropped out and struggled to keep his head together. And while Syd wasn’t himself all that ambitious, that didn’t stop the other members from attempting to find a niche for themselves, musically speaking, and in a way that was meaningful, not only to them, but to their audience. Because if there was one thing Pink Floyd could never be, it was a traditional pop band.
The title track, which opens side one, is pretty tedious of you ask me. There are some moving and tender aspects certainly, but it’s not until David Gilmour’s mermaid sounding slide guitar comes in after four minutes that I stubbornly become interested. There are moments of beauty to be sure, but the whole thing just comes across as nothing but a precocious wank, at least from an album perspective. As a soundtrack, that’s entirely different. But what is this, Emerson Lake and Palmer? Fortunately Gilmour saves the day (again) with some atmospheric notes which certainly hint at greater things (Echoes?). However at 23 minutes even I’m beginning to grow bored. Maybe it’s the horns, or maybe it’s the choral vocals, or perhaps it’s simply the whole damn thing itself. One thing’s for sure, I’m glad I got through it without having to dash off to the toilet thinking that I might have missed something.
The second side consists of more traditional oriented songs, the first of which, “If”, written and sung by Roger Waters, is the sort of ditty which floats out of your speakers and into your ears before floating back in again from where it came. The Rick Wright penned “Summer ‘68” strives to recapture some of the nostalgia of the Barrett days, yet fails in the attempt – not that it doesn’t have a few nice moments here and there. It’s really not until we get to David Gilmour’s “Fat Old Sun” that the album begins to make sense. For once the listener is entreated to a guitar solo, because let’s face it, not all of us are so stoned that we can’t get off the couch and change the record.
It all ends with “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast”, the first few minutes of which involve some old English geezer announcing what he wants for breakfast, while the whole band break off into a wonderfully wistful and pastoral jaunt into the atmospheres of their minds. Unfortunately all this delightful beauty is despoiled by the sound of Alan eating his breakfast, which at some moments resembles that of a pig gouging his morning feast. The song does improve, and builds into a lovely almost jazzy interlude before the composition eventually fades out quite pleasantly.
Atom Heart Mother was one of those evolutionary steps the group would make leading up to their opus magnum just a couple of years later (and we all know which one that was). Within its grooves lie the clues to their future greatness, unknown to them at the time.
Ultimately this is an album which can be appreciated on different levels. If the listener is completely sober then good luck to you. On the other hand, if the listener is stoned out of his or her mind, then that’s an entirely different story. It’s all in the ear of the beholder, as soon as one presses play. In my own view, I have no idea what to make of it, because it’s all a bit of a muddle if you ask me. It’s almost as if the band were caught between some sort of musical twilight zone searching for their own way out to create a few constellations of their own. Atom Heart Mother was yet another cynical step in the direction that would soon lead them to The Dark Side of the Moon, what is undoubtedly the band’s masterpiece and most enduring monument to popular music. Atom… is tight yet sprawling, and something of an acquired taste.