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As good as it gets
on 17 November 2003
After 30 years I still listen to this one every week or two, and it grows with familiarity. The album contains 4 very different sides, and was a mystery to me when I first heard it. Side one is a live piece and despite the average recording is somewhat extraordinary.
Nothing can prepare you for "Slightly all the time", however. It's as though everything Soft Machine was before this track came together to culminate in their masterpiece. Certainly, the track contains themes heard fleetingly in earlier songs, and live performances stitch the parts of this album together in other ways but this piece goes beyond anything that preceeds it.
In fact, this particular performance has a cool qulaity that most live renderings lack. The buzzing organ and compelling bass notwithstanding, the brass playing is an unusual mix of lively jazz and cool, reflective, lyrical playing. It's at once emotional and thriving.
The song structure is complex, with a memorable bassline and 'jazzy' brass section interspersed with Ratledge's wonderful organ playing, but the highlights on this track are like all the other highlights of the album, moments of true bliss from Elton Dean's lyrical sax.
On "Slightly..." the highlight comes around the 10 minute mark with the most beautiful sax solo I can imagine.
On "Out Bloody Rageous" the same applies. The track starts however with a Terry Rileyesque tape loop that gradually gathers intensity over 5 minutes but then resolves into some Keith Tippett style jazz for a couple of minutes... It's after that the track takes off, however and after a piano figure that will live in your mind forever, Elton Dean transforms the piece in a way that didn't seem possible.... Again, the sax playing is slightly melancholy but not sentimental, transforming but very much based in this world, not some Coltrane spiritual dimension. I can't think of words that describe Dean's playing on this record, but I will tell you this, repeated listening will never wear the impact down.
Finally, a word about "Moon in June". The forst half of this is all Wyatt, the organ the bass the singing the drumming everything... and it is a glorious achievement. His lyrics here are funny and mundane, but he does not sacrifice art for honesty, somehow managing to achieve both. The track is very different to others here, but no two of these tracks are alike anyway, and when the rest of the band join in there are some lovely moments too.... I know, as repeated in numerous liner notes since, that there was a lot of tension in the band at the time they made this record, and that Wyatt was very much at the centre of this, but as a record I think "Third" succeeds because of that. By the time Soft Machine 4 came out, the creativity had petered somewhat.
This record isn't for everyone. I wouldn't unreservedly recommend it to someone without knowing what other music they enjoyed. But after 30 years of collecting records by acts from all categories and styles, this remains to me the most extraordinary record of all. If you have any interest in Soft Machine, I wouldn't bother with any other record. This is their pinnacle, it's better than anything produced by any of the participants before or since.