Is This The Album We Really Want?

We are a Democracy and what we say goes.

As of the time I write this…Roger Waters is 73 years old.

As of the time I write this…Roger Waters is one of the most successful “rock stars” on the planet.

As of the time I write this…Roger Waters is still one very pissed-off man.

And if I were to write this same piece again in a year, two years, five years…Roger Waters will still be one very pissed-off man.

Success, accolades, fame, money, respect, none of these things are going to soften ole Roger. No, Roger still wildly stares at the world and doesn’t like all that he sees. And he is going to let you know about. And subtlety is not his strong suit.

It’s 2017 and it’s safe to say that no one was running around asking for a new Roger Waters album. His most recent solo effort (Amused to Death) was released over 25 years ago and was met with a collective ‘meh’ by fans and critics alike. Since then, he has toured the world as a solo artist (with amazing pick-of-the-litter backing bands), bringing his audiences along for the nostalgic classic rock trip of a lifetime. He’s played Dark Side of the Moon in it’s entirety, he’s re-created The Wall as a multi-media live experience (props, sound effects, and puppets included). Why wouldn’t he? Those are two of the biggest and most widely recognized rock albums in history. No one was going to those shows to hear songs from Radio K.A.O.S.

So what’s the point of a new Roger Waters album? What does he have left to prove? His place in the rock cannon is well secured. Pink Floyd (or what’s left of them) released their final “album” a couple of years ago (pretty much a bunch of outtakes) and no one was comparing that or any other post-Waters Floyd output to the great Floyd albums of the 70’s. So there was no need for Roger to compete with his old mates, no reason to add to the Pink Floyd lore.

Which leads us to Is This The Life We Really Want?, released in June 2017 to a surprisingly receptive and anticipatory audience. Perhaps its a combination of Roger playing Desert Trip in the summer of 2016 for 8 billion people (and probably a paycheck equal in size) and his relentless touring schedule of the past 10-15 years that has led some fans to actually look forward to hearing a new album. Roger has made sure he didn’t disappear into the sunset as many of his brethren have chosen (or were forced) to do. He has kept up his end of the bargain by maintaining a credibility and by putting on highly entertaining, well-produced, and well-performed shows. He wrote an opera! No one would ever accuse him of “mailing it in.” He has the desire to remain relevant and the current political climate is ripe for Roger to chime in and do just that.

Is This The Life We Really Want? is a political album and an angry one at that. The Final Cut was also a political album, the anger replaced by contemplation, suspicion, and loss. Animals was a political album, the anger hidden by deep conceptual correlations between men and pigs, dogs, and sheep. So it’s to no surprise that Is This The Life We Really Want? most closely resembles these two Floyd albums. Producer extraordinaire Nigel Godrich seems to have compelled Roger to combine the best elements of these works with an updated production technique while still holding on to the obligatory Floydian sound effects (heartbeats, ticking clocks, radio/tv stations…check). Godrich is most known for his work with Radiohead and it’s hard not to hear how he infused some of their recording aesthetics into Rogers orbit.

First, there are the strings. Floyd has been using them since The Wall and Roger, more notably, used plenty of them on The Final Cut and Pros and Cons. Their lushness throughout the album are spine-tingling at best, overwrought at their worst. Strings and rock music have a very capricious relationship but Roger has found a way to enable the orchestration to enhance his music without overwhelming it. Throughout Is This The Life We Really Want? it is the strings that add the moodiness, the depth, and the cinematic tension and release.

Secondly, there are the drums. Pink Floyd were never really known for their drumming. Nick Mason is a fine player, his biggest strength being his ability to always play to the song. It’s no secret that compared to his peers at the time, Nick was low on the totem pole of “great rock drummers.” As well, I was never a big fan of the drum sound on Floyd albums. Their early works compressed the drums to almost inorganic levels and their later works over-produced the hell out of them. Here is where Nigel Godrich really shines. By no means is this a “drum” album but the drum sounds here are amazing. I can’t help but think of the Radiohead song “Nude” when I hear Is This The Life We Really Want?. The sparse reverb, the tight kick/snare, the efficient offbeat fills. At no point do you really notice the drums unless you are actually listening for them but it’s nice to hear that Roger finally allowed them their place in his sonic palette.

So here we are, all the way into this write-up and what hasn’t been mentioned? Guitars. If there is one thing that most folks will say defines “The Pink Floyd Sound” it’s the roaring guitar solos. Guess how many guitar solos are on Is This The Life We Really Want?? None. The synthesizer has replaced the guitar in many modern bands and Roger seems just fine with that (sans the occasional acoustic strum/volume swelling sound effect). After all, this is a guy who has now recorded with three of the greatest guitar players of all time (David Gilmour, Eric Clapton, and Jeff Beck) so it’s understandable that he would want to move on from that sound. He doesn’t need it, or, he think’s he doesn’t need it. Part of me has to wonder if perhaps deep down, somewhere in his sub-conscious, Waters has never gotten over the fact that Gilmour is most associated with the classic Pink Floyd sound (or that he went on to put out Floyd albums without him). It’s Gilmour’s solos on “Comfortably Numb” and “Money” that people remember while Roger stews in the background about concepts, naming rights, and it being “my fucking pig!” Was the exclusion of the guitar solo calculated or something that was organic?

Lyrically, well, Roger is Pissed Off. Whereas Animals, The Wall, and The Final Cut all had elements of political rebellion and ire in their lyrics, no one has ever really considered Pink Floyd a “political band” like U2, Public Enemy, or Rage Against The Machine. Is This The Life We Really Want? does not hold it’s tongue on the state of American politics, the environment, famine, war, the refugee crisis, selfies, reality TV, technology, or any of the other obvious modern social ills. “Drug music” right? Let’s get high and talk about the current state of Syria or the never-ending crisis in the Middle East that Roger hopes to solve by releasing politically scathing albums. I consider Roger Waters one of the greatest lyricists in rock music. He has the capacity to paint a picture with words and his clever ability to turn a phrase or drop a one-liner has always been one of his strongest assets. He is also widely considered to be one of the least modest actors in music. When he sings, “If I had been God…I think I could’ve done a better job.” I can’t help but picture his previous band mates coyly smiling to themselves and thinking, “You see, world? See what we had to deal with?” Only Roger Waters would sing such a line without a hint of irony.

Here is a question to contemplate: can an artist bite off themselves? The best moments on Is This The Life We Really Want? are the familiar ones, the songs that sound like classic Pink Floyd. And if there is one song most represented/repeated/bit off of it’s “Sheep” from Animals. A few tracks borrow quite liberally from the Animals upbeat rocker (mainly “Picture That” and “Bird In a Gale”). “Smell The Roses” and “Pigs” share the same DNA and the chord structure from “Mother” is well adapted throughout. We also hear plenty of The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking style acoustic balladry and The Final Cut/The Wall emotive chord structures. You could probably replace the lyrics/melodies on a few of these songs with previous Floyd works and some in the audience wouldn’t have a clue. Roger has successfully bitten off himself and that is not necessarily a bad thing, especially when ‘yourself’ was responsible for some of the most uniquely original music ever created.

If there is one song that sheds some of its Floydian pounds and embarks into somewhat new sonic territory it’s the title track. Lyrically, it’s classic Waters: witty and sharp, damning in nature, and meant to make you crack a slight smile while thinking about just how fucked up what he’s saying really is. Musically, it’s scant use of guitars, sliding bass, and deep strings keep the song idling along at a menacing pace only equaled by it’s lyrical content. Roger loves his lyrical lists (“Brain Damage” comes to mind) and it’s segue into “Bird in a Gale” is perhaps the albums finest moment.

In an era where most of his peers have glided into “soft middle age” (or in their cases, “soft old age”) it’s invigorating to hear a new, relevant, and actually listenable Roger Waters album. He still does have something to say and I, for one, am still willing to listen.

The Endless River: Pink Floyd Floats On

Great Gig in the Sky: Pink Floyd's Endless River.

Great Gig in the Sky: Pink Floyd’s The Endless River.

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…

pink-floyd-the-endless-river-cd-pic

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? Continue reading →

Roger Waters Performs The Wall in Washington DC

That’s my fucking pig!

If you were to judge by the chatter I heard around Chinatown last night after Roger Waters performed The Wall at the MCI Verizon Center then you would conclude that most people just witnessed one of the greatest rock concerts of their lives. “That is how a concert is supposed to be!” my friend said to me post-show. It was hard to disagree.

If you want your concert experience to include explosions, fireworks, flying pigs, puppets that drop from the ceiling, wild animations, flashing lights, surround sound systems that thunder in your ear, impeccable musicianship, and songs performed from an album that sold about 789 billion copies than The Wall did not disappoint in any fashion. Never one to short change his audience (at least when it comes to giving them a great show) Roger Waters produced the most fantastical, spectacular rock concert I have ever been witness to. It was Cirque de Waters.

If the punk rockers in the mid-70’s were back-lashing against the excess’ of their classic rock band brethren then this show would be the poster child for that movement. But isn’t that exactly what we, as an audience, want from The Wall? To this day, I still don’t understand how such a gloomy record became a staple of rock radio and embedded into our common musical collective. Songs about war, love lost, isolation, anger, madness, and megalomania don’t exactly jump off the shelves, eh, I mean, get downloaded in today’s market. Yet, when I looked around the arena I saw 65 year old tucked button down shirt into the shorts with socks and sandles on rocking out next to 16 year olds lighting up their first public joints. I saw metalheads and hippies, meatheads and squares, young and old all brought together by music that, when at it’s most uplifting moments, perhaps will get you to tap your feet a little bit. This is not Paul McCartney singing love songs or The Foo Fighters post-punk angst. It’s Pink Floyd‘s music as mass consumption. And it works brilliantly in this setting.

The note-for-note band (let’s face it, we want this album played note-for-note. Do you really want someone improvising the solo on “Comfortably Numb”?) was incredible and Waters can still hit all the notes. Was Gilmour missed? Perhaps, but the solid musicianship on exhibit made you quickly forget that this piece of music isn’t necessarily about the performers themselves. I would love to see this executed by high school theater groups around the country. Were there some overwrought moments? Yes. Do I really want to watch Roger Waters singing with mic in hand, bassless, roaming around the stage and “acting” out the lines from songs? Did the audience “understand the music” or the overall anti-war message? Were the loud claps for the Mercedez Benz logo dropping from a B-52 bomber pro or anti the company? I know Waters stance, but does his audience grasp what he is trying to say?

You know what? Who gives a fuck? People, including myself, went to this show to see one of the all time great pieces of music performed by it’s original author. Something you will probably never be able to do again on this scale. The show delivered in all aspects of the word. I was not going to see my favorite indie band shoegaze at The Black Cat. There is a time and place for that. This is one of those rare performances that you prefer to see in a large setting. I don’t want to see a pig flying around the 9:30 Club (but it would be quite cool). Floyd, whether they liked it or not, were eventually built for large audiences, large arenas. Though I still can’t fully understand how such a “weird” band became so mainstream I do understand why people loved this show so much.