It’s hard to know through what prism we should even view the idea of A New Pink Floyd Album in 2014. But The Endless River has arrived: the first new Pink Floyd album in 20 years and reportedly their last.
Plenty has already been written regarding the “Post-Waters” era of The Floyd, referring to the mid-1980s departure of bassist and main songwriter/visionary for the legendary British band’s peak run from The Dark Side of the Moon through The Wall and The Final Cut. After legally retaining the Pink Floyd moniker, guitarist David Gilmour took the helm for 1987’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason and 1994’s The Division Bell (with drummer Nick Mason and keyboardist Rick Wright mostly along for the ride in name only for Momentary and much more involved for Division). Many fans and critics bemoaned that this modern-Floyd wasn’t the REAL Floyd without Waters. They weren’t necessarily wrong, if there had to be an ultimate answer to the question of “Which one’s Pink?”
I’ve recently come around to really like both albums, even if the accusations of Floyd-lite or “Pink Fraud” are not entirely false. But Gilmour’s amazing guitar tone, let alone performance, and overall sound quality make the latter-day Pink Floyd worth listening to. And let’s face it, Roger Waters hasn’t made any great solo albums. He made one pretty good one (The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking) and a few painfully average and forgettable ones (a list that technically includes Floyd’s The Final Cut). The only thing missing from the post-Waters Floyd albums is him yelling at us about war and pudding.
Other than a one-off reunion for the Live-8 concert in 2005, more repackaged hits collections, and some remastered catalog reissues, Pink Floyd has been mostly dormant for the last 20 years and keyboardist Wright died of Cancer in 2008. So the sudden news of A New Pink Floyd Album was a bit surprising. Given the band history just summarized, and the considerable time that has passed, if “A New Pink Floyd Album” meant “Let’s throw out something that sounds like Momentary Lapse as an excuse to go on a money-grab tour with just two surviving members,” then it would have been a pathetic disaster. Thankfully, that’s not what this is…
The Endless River is mostly instrumental jams left over from what was originally going to be an “ambient” companion disc to The Division Bell. The band has said it’s basically a tribute to Wright, as his pianos and keyboards are central to these tracks, though Gilmour and Mason added some overdubs and reworked a few things to flesh it out. There’s only one lyrical/vocal track, “Louder Than Words,” tastefully (thankfully?) placed at the end. Of all the things “A New Pink Floyd Album” could have been, I must say a mostly instrumental “ambient” record like this is probably the best possible scenario. Without any lyrics and singing to give the listener any outside preconceptions of what the song is “about” or force tired old comparisons to the old Waters material, the simple grooves and chord changes and wailing guitar sounds that were all very much as central to “the real Floyd” as Roger Waters himself, it’s almost like the dying body of Pink Floyd can finally… breathe…
So what does it sound like? Musically it occupies a few familiar territories, ranging from meditative “intro from Shine-On” type interludes to full-on “Run Like Hell” jams and lots of interesting sounds in between. Certain parts feel like that Floyd-lite sound from the 90s, while other parts get slightly weird and raw and reminiscent of their early pre-Darkside days. Of course in typical Floyd fashion, there’s some trippy sound effects and occasional samples of voices talking. But nothing too cheesy or over the top.
On the appropriately titled “It’s What We Do,” and again on “Anisina,” the band kicks into that familiar mid-tempo groove that made classic albums like Wish You Were Here feel like comfort food. While much of the album is as dreamy and relaxing as you’d think a 21st instrumental Pink Floyd album would be, there are plenty of spots where Gilmour’s guitars crunch, bite, and wail and Mason is at times thunderous, always steady, and livelier than expected. Wright’s chord changes range from his signature evil on some songs to his signature smooth on others.
Turns out The Endless River is a beautiful album that’s never boring. The press releases about “instrumental/ambient” certainly signaled that this could be a snoozer. But don’t sleep on the new Pink Floyd album. Didn’t think I’d be writing that sentence at the end of 2014. It’s not all lush and beauty, “Sum” and “Allons-y (1 & 2)” are fierce and steady rockers that might not be able to run like hell away from comparisons to old bricks in the wall, but they are both crisp and tasty jams nonetheless.
Sometimes “sounding like their old shit” is a good thing.
While the reports calling the album a “tasteful tribute to Wright” are spot-on, it also sounds like a tribute to all three of them, a way for them to go out with a bow and say “hey, we also had a pretty big part in what made Pink Floyd sound so great” without actually saying it. And somehow that makes this whole instrumental approach make even more sense.
For a band so famously fractured by ego, control, and lack of communication, they are still trying to crack the code of the human condition. Their best material, particularly the 3-album run of Dark Side, Wish You Were Here, and Animals, always dealt with themes at the intersection of Man vs. Man and Man vs. Machines. And once again here they sample Stephen Hawking talking about how we must keep talking to each other, and yet they put out an instrumental album. Song titles include “Unsung” and “The Lost Art of Conversation.” Track 1 is “Things Left Unsaid,” the final song is “Louder Than Words,” and the music does all the talking in between.
Leave it to Pink Floyd to put out a Last Album with the word “Endless” in the title; and the meandering, dynamic flow of the music is not unlike a river. And for anyone tired of syncing up Dark Side with The Wizard of Oz and looking for a new secret message from the Floyd, look no further than The Endless River cover art: a lush and mysterious scene of a man rowing a canoe across the clouds… still floating, high, and moving off into the sunset, without Waters.