Pink Floyd’s best album, Obscured By Clouds is also their least heard. Despite being their first album to crack the Billboard Top 50, it took 22 years to turn gold, in contrast to what they had begun working on, Dark Side of the Moon, which was released in 1973. After going platinum fifteen times, Dark Side spent a record 741 weeks in the Billboard charts, “Eclipse”-ing the two weeks of work they invested in Obscured By Clouds in early spring 1972.
Sonically Obscured By Clouds serves as a bridge from their youthful psychedelic impulses of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and the mature blues-rock of the Dark Side.
It’s as if the record’s title, named after the lead-off instrumental, became a self-fulfilling prophecy for this soundtrack to the French film La Vallée. This was the quartet’s second soundtrack for director Barbet Schroeder, and much like the first, More, it’s been dwelling in obscurity since.
That’s a shame as there’s a lot going on here and, out-of-focus cover notwithstanding, it’s a much more focused effort than More. Sonically it serves as a bridge from their youthful psychedelic impulses of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and the mature blues-rock of the Dark Side. However, Obscured By Clouds is superior to the former: It exhibits evolution from their ’60s playfulness and preferable to the latter in that it never dissolves into histrionic self-importance.
Indeed, the compositions have a focus and thrust counter to the whimsical experimentation that characterized their early releases and certainly served as a prototype for Dark Side of the Moon and much of the rest of their recorded output.
While there are moody instrumentals, they don’t meander—they craft a sonic space, paint a picture and conclude without wearing out their welcome. The title track begins ominously with a synthesizer buzz and Nick Mason’s first use of electronic drums, before an angular bluesy guitar knifes through the atmosphere, and “When You’re In” serves as a rocking sequel that jams along a riff and Hammond organ part. “Mudmen” beautifully ripples its organ and vibes before pulling out all the stops, and “Absolutely Curtains” draws the record to a contemplative and somewhat abrupt close with recordings of chanted vocals from the natives of New Guinea, where the film is set.
Likewise, the sung songs have a direction and a momentum that carry them forward. Guitarist David Gilmour and late keyboardist Richard Wright share stereo vocals on “Burning Bridges” over the top of plaintive instrumentation. Gilmour’s blistering “The Gold It’s In The …” rocks so hard it’s worthy of being played over WKRP end credits, featuring electric power chords and a solo that blazes bluesily without becoming self-indulgent.
While it can be argued the album lacks a cohesive theme and thus is inferior to albums like Dark Side, Wish You Were Here and The Wall, the thematic elements are there, yet not as overbearing. The record is not just about their coping with losing founding member Syd Barrett to seclusion from mental illness and drug abuse and not just about the death of bassist Roger Waters’ father, but about the mid-life crisis and aging. Hence there is no operatic warbling like “The Great Gig In The Sky” nor is there an album side worth of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” there is only a collection of six songs sung and four instrumentals in the forty minutes here.
It is precisely because the album does not take a concept album approach that it succeeds as a whole and as a fine collection of songs. Every track stands on its own, with its own sound ’scape, yet they are all “of a piece” with each other.
It’s a truism that the original is always better, and in many ways the songs here seem to be early versions of songs that would later be “perfected” in Dark Side of the Moon, but they should have been left alone. It’s telling the Dark Side material was debuted live in February 1972 and Obscured was recorded in France a few weeks later, a process that took only two weeks. Dark Side music was endlessly fussed over and grandiose in many ways, but simplicity has its own charms and worth, and therein lies the value of this, Pink Floyd’s finest 40 minutes.
While it can be argued the album lacks a cohesive theme and thus is inferior to albums like Dark Side, Wish You Were Here and The Wall, the thematic elements are there, yet not as overbearing.
That’s not to say the themes explored are simple—that is not the case—but it’s done in a way that is not heavy-handed. Throughout this record, Pink Floyd is searching for “something” and trying to overcome ennui at the prospect of youth slipping away and death approaching. They are trying to get past the routine of everyday life to that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Gold itself is a lyrical thread, from “breaking the golden band” in “Burning Bridges,” to Gilmour’s “along for the ride rocker “The Gold It’s In The …” and allusions to alchemy are also present. Even in the final vocal track, “Stay,” “midnight blue” burns gold and “a yellow moon is growing cold.” The theme is most clearly communicated with the plea in “Wots… Uh The Deal?” to: “Let me in from the cold/Turn my lead into gold/‘Cause there’s a chill wind blowing in my soul/And I think I’m growing old.”
Growing old is also a recurring theme; Waters’ “Free Four” was the first of many penned by him addressing his father’s death. Gilmour’s composition “Childhood’s End,” inspired by the Arthur C. Clarke novel, features lyrics along the same theme, with more metaphysical alchemy: “Some are born/Some men die/All the iron turned to rust/All the proud men turned to dust.”
While it’s hard to gauge the impact or influence of a record so, ahem, obscure, amidst the considerable critical acclaim afforded the canon of Pink Floyd and their record sales after its release, echoes of it can be heard in the work of today’s artists who came to view music as a soundtrack to a movie that may not necessarily exist. Acts like Scenic, Beulah, Black Moth Super Rainbow and the Flaming Lips (Lips’ recent version of Dark Side of the Moon notwithstanding, their earlier Clouds Taste Metallic is reminiscent of Obscured By Clouds).
Obscured By Clouds is a record that should not be a footnote in the Pink Floyd pantheon. It won’t eclipse the sales of the releases that followed, nor will it garner as much critical attention, but it is still worth a listen and serious consideration as an excellent album, if not their finest.