Roger Waters – “Is This the Life We Really Want?”

(Photo Credit: JamBase)Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “Picture That” “Is This the Life We Really Want?”

It feels dishonest to talk about the solo works of Pink Floyd members and compare them to “The Wall,” but in this case, Roger Waters might want us to do that. This album is reminiscent of that behemoth in many ways, most obviously in a political sense. Waters hasn’t released an album in nearly a quarter of a century, and for a while he seemed more than content doing tours of both his own work and Pink Floyd’s. But in the age where fascism has seen a sudden, scarily impressive rebound, Waters followed closely behind.

People talk about Pink Floyd’s politics, but it’s still often obscured by (clouds) talk about the more avant-garde, experimental music that dominated their discography. Still, their tenth and eleventh albums, “Animals” and “The Wall,” feel eerily relevant in 2017 (“Animals,” as it happens, turns 40 this year). “Animals” is easily the bleakest album the band put out, a deeply anti-fascist album with a famously grayscale cover and extremely long, grinding songs. “The Wall,” as we know, is a much more cinematic album (and literally a movie), but hardly less political. Both albums were rooted in anti-authoritarianism, something Pink Floyd did even more than other classic rock bands.

Waters exploits the albums’ best qualities for his new work, wonderfully titled “Is This the Life We Really Want?.” Waters, even more than most musicians, is not shy about his personal politics, and they are on full, angry display across the album’s twelve tracks. Even the opener, “When We Were Young,” is miserable in its worldview. “I’m still ugly, you’re still fat,” a man says flatly to an unknown listener. “Was it our parents who made us this way, or was it God? Fuck it.”

Waters goes past the point of being blunt and gets downright confrontational on the album. The best example to go back to is “Mother,” from “The Wall.” That song includes direct lines like “Mother, should I trust the government?” Musically, much of this album resembles that song – airy guitar, strings, a lot of acoustic elements. The music is not nearly as urgent and frantic as the lyrics, which turns out to be effective, because it comes off as more honest and less theatrical. Waters’ voice also sounds similar to that era, almost like he’s been frozen in time. His sort of powerful-whisper thing is still front and center, only sometimes allowing itself to grow huge.

Again, to drive this home, this is the fiercest political work we’ve seen since the Trump campaign started, and I’m not forgetting YG’s song “Fuck Donald Trump.” This album is absolutely littered with profanity and extremely specific references to all of the world’s current ailments. Nowhere is this as direct as on the title track, which has a set of lyrics that go: “Fear keeps us all in line / fear of all those foreigners, fear of all their crimes / is this the life we really want?” Soon after, he sings, “every time a Russian bride is advertised for sale / every time a journalist is left to rot in jail / every time a young girl’s life is casually spent / and every time a nincompoop becomes the president / every time someone dies reaching for their keys / and every time Greenland falls into the fucking sea.” The whole song is a direct message to those who are blind or ignorant to the problems in the world. The song also opens with a brief Trump audioclip. Sure, calling Trump a “nincompoop” ranks down with Kendrick Lamar’s “Trump is a chump” as a pretty low-level insult, but it still gets the job done. And it’s okay, because on the equally great “Picture That,” he sings “picture a shithouse with no fucking drains / picture a leader with no fucking brains.” While not directly about Trump, he’s absolutely one of the potential ‘leader’s mentioned.

The album ends on a beautiful three-song suite that comes kind of out of left field, but works as an effective finale nonetheless. “Wait For Her” is an emotional pseudo-ballad centered around a heavy guitar crunch. The song transitions into “Oceans Apart,” a minute-long interlude that changes pitch and sheds most of the instruments, before bringing them all back in and returning to the central rhythm for closer “Part of Me Died.” Although Waters all but sheds the politics that infiltrate every other track, it’s still a beautiful addition. Otherwise, the album is all about the bleak state of the world today. “Smell the Roses” starts off sounding optimistic, before diverging into lyrics about terrorism ruining the world’s beauty.

I mentioned stylistic similarities to “The Wall,” and there’s definitely some easter eggs throughout that will please Floyd fans (like myself). “The Most Beautiful Girl” is one of the album’s lesser tracks, but it does feature Waters painfully sing “I’m coming home,” just as he did on “Hey You.” “Bird In A Gale,” one of the album’s most urgent tracks, has Waters repeat the word “floor” just like how David Gilmour repeated the word “stone” on “Dogs” back on the “Animals” album. “Déjà vu,” a brutally confrontational song, has the sound of a wall crashing in the middle. And, lastly, “Smell the Roses” has references to money and a rhythm similar to “Money.” Some or all of these may be unintentional, but when multiple major powers have descended into the world Floyd sang so strongly against on “Animals” and “The Wall,” it makes sense for Waters to pat himself on the back for the 40-years-early predictions. A lot of this album is “I told you so, now here’s what happened.” The album isn’t so much an emotional roller coaster as much as it is an abrupt freefall. The album is immediate, outright, furious, and downright necessary. It has more urgency and necessity than many of Pink Floyd’s albums, and even outranks some of them. Necessary times call for necessary measures, and sometimes, just like with A Tribe Called Quest last year, we have to call on the veterans to fully ground us. Waters is about as anti-Trump, anti-Brexit, anti-everything bad as they come, and this album is a lyrical ground-pounder that we need to level us in 2017.

-By Andrew McNally

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Pink Floyd – “The Endless River”

 

Grade: C+

Key Tracks: “Skins” “Anisina” “Allons-y”

Let’s get this out of the way – in high school, I owned or had a burned copy of every Pink Floyd album. I knew every album, it’s themes and intricacies. I was with the band in the highs (“Dark Side of the Moon,” “Animals”) and the lows (“Obscured by Clouds,” “The Final Cut”). I was on-board for big hits and deeper, 20+ minute cuts. So when I heard there was a new release, I was understandably a bit tentative. It’s worth noting, before anything, that the album is almost entirely instrumental and comprised of outtakes from sessions recorded for their proper swan song, 1994’s “The Division Bell.”

This album has eighteen tracks, but really only 4. It channels some of their crazier 70’s albums that only had 4 or 5 tracks, but maintains a steady, standard and more traditional post-Waters calmness. The four tracks are broken up every few minutes, as the members saw fit, and are further broken up by record side. I don’t personally think that David Gilmour and Nick Mason would want you to think of this as a great Pink Floyd record, it’s more self-serving to fans. And it acts as a sequel to “Wish You Were Here,” in that it’s a proper sendoff to a past member. Richard Wright, longtime keyboardist, was the only member besides drummer Nick Mason who was with the band for their entire run. He passed away in 2008, but this album’s strongest points are his.

Pink Floyd had a long, legendary run. It started with “Astronomy Domine,” in 1967, and ended with “High Hopes” in 1994. The biggest problem with “The Endless River” is that it upsets this legacy. The band never went more than a few years without releasing an album, even in the midst of a bitter Waters v. Gilmour feud. And while “The Division Bell” wasn’t a great send-off, “High Hopes” was a decent closing song. So, twenty years later, when the surviving, recording members decide to release an album of unused, ambient tracks, it seems a little tarnishing.

But, isn’t that a Pink Floyd thing to do? Think about their discography – they followed up two of the biggest rock albums of all time – “Dark Side of the Moon” and “Wish You Were Here” with the almost utterly incomprehensible “Animals” – and pulled it off. “The Division Bell” was disappointing because it was too close to normal post-classic rock classic rock. What better way to follow that up than with an almost entirely instrumental album? One that’s four songs, split up into eighteen?

I’ve been pretty back and forth so far, so let’s review this album, idea to idea. The first three tracks make up the first side, and although they’re little more than a dreamy intro, they’re Wright-heavy. His presence is felt, and it feels like a proper tribute, recorded by the man himself. At points, the opening tracks sound similar to “Welcome to the Machine,” in their frozen, abrasive keyboards. The next section, four tracks, is a little less ambient and gazy, and a little more rock oriented. It’s cool overall, although it strongly favors the odd-numbered tracks. “Skins” features some energetic contributions from both Mason and Gilmour, and “Anisina” is backed by an unexpected horn section.

Side three is the strongest, if not the most bogged down in tracks. It takes up seven tracks in just under fourteen minutes. It would work a lot better as just one thirteen minute song, but in this day and age, this isn’t the Pink Floyd we get. There’s two tracks called “Allons-y,” two parts, and they’re similar to the “Another Brick in the Wall” segments, in that they’re small segments of a bigger rock song. And they both have that tremolo guitar, too, going after that 1979 sound. It closes with the track “Talkin’ Hawkin’,” which features Stephen Hawking on a vocal sample. It’s weird simply because it isn’t fully pulled off, and you know it should work better. The album’s last section, four tracks, are another more ambient section. But the section closes with “Louder Than Words,” the album’s only song with lead vocals. Gilmour sings lead, and it has a semi-unintentional effect of building up to it.

Floyd fans, read this: this album is no better or worse of a send-off than “The Division Bell.” Casual fans, read this: this album is an experimental work, focused solely on music, that was released 20 years later not as a reminder but as a requiem for the former keyboardist. Either way, although it isn’t a great album, it’s nice to simply hear from the guys behind it. Without Wright or Barrett, or Waters, Floyd is simply Gilmour, Mason and supporting characters. So to hear these throwbacks to a time when they were winding down, but not closing out, is a little special. “The Endless River” has almost no lyrics, but for a band that once put out “Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict,” that’s not much of an issue. So Pink Floyd’s swan song isn’t the masterpiece they deserve, but it is at least a solid collection to go out on. RIP Floyd, thanks for defining high school for me.

-By Andrew McNally