Friday, 28 October 2011

Wish You Could Hear

Anyone who has the temerity to call themselves a music writer without having heard The Dark Side Of The Moon needs a good excuse. I don’t have one.

I’m by no means a classic album refusenik and I don’t automatically assume new music is better than old. In fact, I grew up in a family where there was a copy of this album in the house. So I haven’t gone out of my way to avoid it and yet it has somehow eluded me. Until this week, that is.

When Pink Floyd recorded what is widely regarded as a masterpiece, between 1972 and 1973, they probably imagined the work would be obsessively examined, with ardent fans drinking in every note. It may be a stereotype, but its reputation means it’s always struck me as the kind of record you’d listen to in a candle-lit room, sitting on a beanbag, repeatedly reading the liner notes while a plume of oddly sweet cigarette smoke hung just above eye level. What Waters and co. probably didn’t envisage is that nearly forty years after its creation, their album would be the accompaniment to a journey on the 22:45 from London Waterloo to Portsmouth Harbour.

The way we consume music has changed immeasurably since the seventies. For better or worse, the ubiquity and instant accessibility of music mean it’s often background noise or competes with other ambient sounds for your full attention.

A corollary of having music on-demand at any time is a rapidly shrinking attention span. I pressed play on ‘DSOTM’ for the first time and two minutes in, where my 1973 compatriot would have fully immersed themselves in the thrill of hearing virgin music, I was logging into Twitter to tell people what I was listening to. This isn’t to say I didn’t give the album a fair hearing; that was only the first of several listens this week.

A waning of attention means ‘DSOTM’ comes across as a very anachronistic piece. You’d be unlikely to find a 2011 release stuffed so full of “mood pieces” which mean it takes a considerable time to progress from song to song. I was shocked to discover that, in a ten-track record, there are only five you’d call ‘songs’. You may say I’m wilfully missing the point; I’d argue that it’s short changing the listener. Some of the interludes are perfectly pleasant, but they’re not natural links between tracks and mostly appear to be one good idea stretched over three or four minutes. As a general rule, any music which sounds as though it would be more fun to play than to hear is best avoided.

This isn’t intended as a Floyd bashing exercise though; ‘DSOTM’ contains some wonderful, transcendental moments. The opening couple of minutes of ‘Breathe (In The Air)’ are utterly gorgeous, giving the feeling of floating peacefully in another world entirely, and Us And Them is simply stunning. It’s bizarre, given the volume of filler, that ‘Us And Them’ sees Pink Floyd give the perfect demonstration of how to write a seven minute epic that doesn’t get boring and makes full use of every second.

Elsewhere, the overriding feeling is that the album just hasn’t dated particularly well. ‘On The Run’ may have sounded impossibly futuristic at the time, but it’s nothing remarkable now, while the liberal use of sound effects throughout is less than appealing. ‘Money’, for example, is a great track with wonderful sax and choppy guitar stabs, but the sound of cash registers and the literal lyrics hammer the point home so aggressively you feel you’ve been preached to. And, with the benefit of hindsight, to hear Pink Floyd grumbling about the evils of capitalism is really quite amusing.

So, am I a convert? Not exactly, but I’m certainly glad I gave it a chance. Maybe too much time has lapsed between the present and its release, for it to resonate with me in the same way it touched the generation that grew up with it. That said, I’ve never had that problem with Forever Changes or Abbey Road. It has certainly been a useful exercise in history; there were several times where it became clear where Radiohead gleaned many of their ideas. However, like Radiohead, I found myself wishing they’d break off from the indulgent noodling and really unlock their guitars.

For now, I’ll resist the lure of the other re-mastered Floyd albums, recently released. Maybe I’m just more of a Piper At The Gates Of Dawn kind of guy.

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