Syd Barrett

    The Madcap Laughs (Capitol, 1970)
    Barrett (Capitol/EMI, 1970)
    The Peel Sessions (Dutch East India/Strange Fruit, 1987)
   Opel (Capitol/EMI, 1989; Alliance, 1996)
   Crazy Diamond (Harvest/EMI, 1993)
     The Best of Syd Barrett: Wouldn't You Miss Me? (Harvest/Capitol/EMI, 2001)

With Brian Wilson, Roky Erickson, Kurt Cobain, and a handful of others, Syd Barrett is among rock's most egregiously troubled geniuses, a drug casualty whose primary legacy is his crucial role in founding Pink Floyd and steering the band through its initial batch of singles and a monumental debut album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. On that album, Barrett pioneered space rock with his singing, songwriting, and guitar playing only to lose his grip on the band, and reality, as LSD slowly did him in. His subsequent solo recordings—done with the empathetic production assistance of friends such as manager Peter Jenner and David Gilmour, the guitarist who replaced him in the Floyd—provide mere glimpses of what might have been.

At their best, The Madcap Laughs and Barrett can be entrancing. Against muted backdrops that suggest a warmer, more bucolic answer to the Floyd's epic psychedelia, Barrett strums a guitar and gently sing-speaks lyrics that combine nursery-rhyme innocence with nightmare visions. His idiosyncrasies meld with haunting melodies on "Octopus," "Terrapin," and "Baby Lemonade," but the albums contain too many fragments, wanderings, and false starts to qualify as more than cult items—it's like listening to a meltdown in slow motion, with the listener as voyeur. The problem is exacerbated on Opel, which collects leftovers such as "Word Song," in which the singer sounds like he's trying to identify the strange pictures floating through his ravaged mind. Crazy Diamond collects all three albums, plus even more depressing bonus tracks, to create a picture of madness that verges on the exploitive.

The Best of Syd Barrett, on the other hand, plays like a celebration of eccentricity. Bereft of the filler that marred Barrett's studio releases, it's a coherent statement of outsider art, fleshed out with two previously unreleased songs. These include the solo acoustic "Bob Dylan Blues," a witty and charmingly low-key take on a singer that Barrett, who died of complications from diabetes in 2006, might've one day rivaled—in a better world, at least.

Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).

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