Roger Waters and David Gilmour have spent 40 years playing this 1970 album down, labeling it pompous, overblown, embarrassing—a low point in the band’s creative history. They’re not exactly wrong, but they’re not exactly right either. Yes, the album stretches its six-part title track across an entire LP side, and yes, that suite meanders wildly and seemingly without purpose, as though they’re making it up as they go along but getting distracted almost constantly. But “Atom Heart Mother”—all six movements—at the very least shows the band developing and entertaining new ideas, consciously moving away from the space rock label they’d been saddled with. In this case, they cast an orchestra and a choir as the leads, and the horn fanfare and choral harmonies hint at the even more ambitious arrangements throughout that decade.
The second half borrows the least productive idea from Ummagumma and divides songwriting duties among the band. The results are somewhat better, though, and almost uniformly folksy. In particular, Waters’ “If” stands among his best compositions, and with his low vocals and Richard Wright’s breezy piano, the song actually brings to mind Nick Drake’s first two records (trivia: Drake’s producer, Joe Boyd, also helmed Pink Floyd’s first single, “Arnold Layne,” in 1967). Oddly, Pink Floyd never made a full psych-folk album in the vein of “If” and Gilmour’s “Fat Old Sun,” which becomes even more of a shame when they end Atom Heart Mother with “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast,” a cut-and-paste assemblage of sounds that never coalesces into much of anything.