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Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Pink Floyd: Obscured By Clouds


1) Obscured By Clouds; 2) When You're In; 3) Burning Bridges; 4) The Gold It's In The..; 5) Wot's... Uh The Deal; 6) Mudmen; 7) Childhood's End; 8) Free Four; 9) Stay; 10) Absolutely Curtains.

General verdict: Not really a proper soundtrack: simply the least ambitious of all of Floyd's great albums.

Stuck in between the cosmic awesomeness of ʽEchoesʼ and the philosophical sermons of Dark Side is this minor little gem — a side project, a quick detour to help out an old friend, undertaken at a time when the bulk of Dark Side was already completed and played live, so, clearly, there are certain mood and texture overlaps between the two. Since it is a soundtrack (to yet another Barbet Schroeder movie), it usually gets the same amount of attention as More (close to nothing, that is), which is unjust: if we simply allow the music to speak for itself, without being heavily burdened by an explicit concept or by lyrical invocations, much of Obscured By Clouds might reveal emotional depths that are quite comparable to Dark Side. In 1972, Pink Floyd were on a roll — they had finally found themselves, and pretty much everything they touched at the time was guaranteed to be, if not gold, then at least silver.

The movie itself, although I have not seen it, is usually described as just another hippie flick, typical of the times, about the never-ending search for the meaning of life — this time, seen through the eyes of some rich French gal retreating to the very heart of New Guinea, where she can finally get some glimpses of The Truth by communicating with people living innocent, primal, Rousseauish lives, free from shackles of civilization and phoney morality (so, lucky for all the viewers, there is also a lot of free sex involved). A lot of Castanedan crap, etc. etc. Looking back at this from the cynical (but wisened up) heights of 2017, we probably cannot admire Pink Floyd for going along with the idea, but, fortunately, the only direct and unavoidable connection of the music with the movie is at the very end, where ʽAbsolutely Curtainsʼ finishes with a lengthy «ethno-musical» slice of the Mapuga tribe performing a ritual chant. (By the way, although the movie was truly shot in New Guinea and the natives there are native, I can find no reference to any «Mapuga» in existing literature on Papua — most likely, all the names were changed to protect the innocent and deflect the wrath of the local spirits).

So forget all about the insultingly exotic mysticism of the hippie era, and Obscured By Clouds will simply remain as a short, moody, evocative experience: nowhere near as aggressive on the soul as the classic 1973-79 period would turn out to be, but truly representing a certain «gathering of the clouds» — brilliantly pictured by the electronic and electric guitar soundscapes of the title track, produced in such a way that the listener truly gets the feeling of a steady, unbreakable wall of dark clouds slowly filling up the sky. Together with the following ʽWhen You're Inʼ, which is basically just a variation on the same theme, but with a powerful «martial» riff thrown in, these five minutes actually announce a new era in the Floyd sound — darker, denser, less dependent on folk stylistics, more dependent on electronic ambience, yet never letting that ambience swallow up and annihilate the dynamics: Gilmour may not play a lot of notes, but the ones that he does play are played with fire, and sometimes there is a lot more going on while he is busy bending or sliding along a single string than there is in a shredder running all across the scale.

However, in addition to bouts of hypnotism, there is also intrigue in Obscured By Clouds, as the album wobbles back and forth between these quiet, but stern doom-laden paintings of gathering thunderclouds — and a bunch of pretty pop melodies that run the gamut from cheerfully uplifting to tenderly sentimental. Thus, ʽWot's... Uh The Dealʼ is one of their most touching moments from that period: a very vulnerable, beautifully sung ballad about aging and missed opportunities, co-credited to Roger and Dave and potentially functioning as a softer, more intimate, and maybe even a little sadder companion to ʽTimeʼ — appropriately revived as a live number on Gilmour's 2006 tour with Wright. Less touching, but more curious is ʽFree Fourʼ, where serious stakes are placed upon the contrast between the upbeat, almost care-free, toe-tappy acoustic strum of the verses and the threatening blues-rock punch of the bridges (although the darkness is further per­petuated by the odd «industrial» synth explosions in the verses, let alone Roger's early aphorisms like "life is a short warm moment / and death is a long cold rest"). This could be seen as a highly transitional moment — there were plenty of times in Floyd's earlier catalog where Waters sounded nice and friendly with an acoustic guitar in tow, but it wouldn't be long before the venom would become completely ubiquitous.

On the other hand, ʽChildhood's Endʼ, with its jagged, broken-up guitar chords, leisurely, but mean blues stomp, bitter accusatory vocals and screechy Gilmour guitar, already sounds like prime time classic Floyd — in fact, highly prescient of ʽHave A Cigarʼ from Wish You Were Here, so much so that I could easily imagine a medley of both, where ʽCigarʼ would be the boss man's manifesto and ʽChildhood's Endʼ would be the exploited Floydman's response ("you shout in your sleep, perhaps the price is just too steep" is a perfect retort to "did we tell you the name of the game boy?", isn't it?). One of the two hard-rocking (or soft-rocking, whatever) vocal numbers on the album, it is utterly salvageable — unlike the much less satisfactory ʽThe Gold It's In The...ʼ, which, conversely, sounds a bit too close for comfort to generic middle-of-the-road Seventies rock: too many power chords, too much half-assed breathy screaming from Dave, too much empty, out-of-context optimism. Leave this stuff for Styx or Kansas, I say.

Overall, the album may feel a bit disjointed, especially compared to everything that followed in its wake, but the important thing is that it feels fully autonomous — unless you are specifically informed of its soundtrack origins, you will never suspect that any of the songs were written around specific passages in Schroeder's movie. The compositions may not be as catchy or deep as whatever followed, but — and this is an important butObscured By Clouds is also the very last time where Pink Floyd, the band originally put together by Syd Barrett, would be interested in the macrocosm, i.e. would sound at least marginally psychedelic. Starting with Dark Side, almost everything that Floyd did was about people: sad people, angry people, frustrated people, crazy people, mean bastards, broken down ex-heroes, misanthropes, victims of The System, perpetrators of The System, and so on. Obscured By Clouds, though they probably did not even realize this at the time, was their final goodbye to a world where you could curl up under a tree on a lazy summer day, roll a joint, put on some headphones, and warp away to a previously unreachable dimension in spacetime.

Ironically, it was also the very moment when they began to feel perfectly comfortable in the studio, achieving a clarity and depth of sound that was unimaginable in 1967 and unreachable in 1969. Some of Gilmour's guitar work here (particularly on the heavenly ʽMudmenʼ), at least in terms of purity of tone, blows away pretty much everything they did before, so much so that I cannot help wondering what we might think of the band's transitional period, had they suddenly decided to re-record all of their 1968-71 output after Dark Side. (An issue that would be partially remedied on stage — I already mentioned how Gilmour's later era performances of ʽEchoesʼ pretty much annihilate the studio original). In any case, this is what gives the album its edge: if you want to get at least a small glimpse of how the «cosmic Floyd» would have sounded given the production techniques and accumulated experience of the Dark Side period, your best and only bet is this record — Obscured By The Dark Side, as it should probably have been called post-'73. Not perfect by definition, no, but neither should it be ejected from the consistently great run that started in 1971 and went all the way to 1979.

1 comment:

  1. To me 3rd best Floyd (1st Wish you were here; 2nd Dark Side ...