Monday, March 29, 2010

It All Makes Perfect Sense

It was sunny this past Saturday, the humidity was low, not a cloud in the sky. I did my usual grocery shopping after a morning with extra coffee, a slower pace, some reading and listening to music. After groceries I got in a run. It was breezy but comfortable out. When I got back I had lunch, vacuumed the entire upstairs, and then got out my chainsaws to clear some trees that had fallen in our walking paths since last fall.

I planned to mow after that but, in between, I opened up the windows, let the early spring breeze run through the house and drank a couple of beers while sitting in the sunshine on my front porch. Jennifer joined me for awhile. She was busy weeding and mulching. I have been listening to Roger Waters outside of my classical explorations recently. I decided to crank up Amused to Death and blast it out into the brilliant bird-filled afternoon.

This is the way life ricochets sometimes. Jennifer had gone on a camping trip with some of our friends to Cumberland Island in February. She came back very relaxed and satisfied with having spent time back in that magical place. But, she surprised me with a request for our copy of Dark Side of the Moon (see my March 11 post about this record). That had been a musical selection by one of our friends on the island. So, after she loaded it onto her iTunes, I gave it a listen as well. This translated in my seemingly random mental ways into a desire to listen to Roger Waters’ post-Floydian work.

Amused to Death (1992) is Waters’ best solo effort and his only record that truly compares favorably with the post-Waters Pink Floyd albums, A Momentary Lapse of Reason (1987) and The Division Bell (1994). The comparison must be made on artistic grounds alone, however. Pink Floyd ’87 far outsold anything Waters attempted to create. David Gilmour, Nick Mason, and Richard Wright sold 10 times as many albums as Waters did solo. Waters’ genius for ideas and lyrics is not commercially popular of its own accord.

Pink Floyd ’87, however, while never attaining the height of the original band in 1970’s, sold millions of studio and live records. They played to stadiums filled with adoring fans while Waters went on the road to much smaller venues, often not filling them to capacity. Waters put out some interesting concept albums while Pink Floyd continued to be a mega-money machine. The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking (1984) was an appealing idea, but came off a bit tedious for me except for a song or two. Radio KAOS (1987) was more listenable but, frankly, not that fascinating. Waters’ career was struggling but he seemed to catch his stride again with Amused to Death, only he never toured with that material.

Years later, in 2000, Waters came out with his In the Flesh Tour which was captured on an excellent DVD. Here he gave a very good acquittal of his artistic talent and live showmanship. Pink Floyd ’87 had faded by then, with 1995’s Pulse being their final effort. In the Flesh compares favorably with Pulse in my opinion. Waters serves up a nice mix of old Pink Floyd standards, including the ancient Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun and a wonderful full 17-minute rendition of Dogs (a personal favorite of mine) from 1977’s Animals album, along with a nice set of his solo material heavily featuring Amused to Death, which the sold-out crowd of 10,000 or so seemed to highly appreciate.

I recently watched the DVD again. It captures a lengthy and impressive two and a half hour performance. For Jennifer, I played back just the segment of the live performance featuring several of the better moments from Amused to Death...Perfect Sense Parts 1 & 2, The Bravery of Being out of Range, It's A Miracle, and the title track. But for missing David Gilmour’s vocal abilities and guitar work this could be a Pink Floyd concert.

In turn, this led to me listening again to all of Waters’ solo work (including his opera) recently along with the two Pink Floyd studio albums that came after Waters quit the band. Amused to Death (ATD) holds my interest unlike any of the other albums mentioned. “The Germans kill the Jews and the Jews kill the Arabs and the Arabs kill the hostages and that is the news. Is it any wonder that the monkey’s confused?” Where else are you going to hear a line like that as a lyric? “Why do I have to keeping reading these technical manuals?” is another line that stands out, very melodically presented by a great female back-up singer (see the link above for Perfect Sense Parts 1 & 2). Overall, the album’s lyrics have that great sense of melody that Waters sometimes strayed from in the past but with a certain added depth and breadth when compared with anything Pink Floyd could come up with without Waters.

Whereas Momentary Lapse of Reason (MLoR) is highly listenable musically, the songs really don’t stitch together that well thematically and the lyrics are just mediocre. They aren’t really intended to be heavily conceptual. Meanwhile, Waters work on Pros and Cons and Radio KAOS is highly conceptual and very entertaining from that perspective. But, even I don’t enjoy Pros and Cons that much beyond its rational appeal. Listening to Waters scream brilliant lyrics into the mic for about 20 minutes out of 43 just doesn’t work for me anymore. The Wall was enough of that and I enjoyed it. Then, the last Waters-led Pink Floyd release, The Final Cut, went too far.

Waters needed Gilmour’s musical sense and smooth vocals to make his relevant, puncturing musical clusters listenable. On the other hand, Pink Floyd '87 missed the bite and poetry of Waters. The absence of one in the other clearly demonstrated that in the post-Waters era Pink Floyd was only an imitation of its former self while Waters suffered from too acute a case of “notion sickness” to be popular. Which could be one reason MLoR takes on the title it does. A subtle jab by the band looking at what seemed to be the effects of the Waters dictatorship.

As for the 1994’s The Division Bell (TDB), Pink Floyd returned to the studio with material that was better than MLoR. Tunes like Coming Back to Life , Keep Talking, and High Hopes offer a glimpse of Pink Floyd in their heyday. Once again, the album is easier on the ears than any Waters solo effort. It is the best post-Waters Pink Floyd effort. The material is actually better when featured on the live album follow-up Pulse. Still, very little of it resonates in my mind the way almost all of ATD does.

ATD is hauntingly intimate, soulfully adhesive, and challenging. TDB is easy to get in to with some truly wonderful moments but it fails to linger. I find myself wondering what ATD would have been like as a Pink Floyd record. It sold about a million copies worldwide in 1992. But, a typical Pink Floyd ‘87 effort would sell many millions more...and led to inevitable “live” album follow-ups which generated much more revenue. Nothing in either MLoR or TDB, however, compares with ATD in terms of its content and relevance. But nothing in ATD compares with the melodic easy and outright rocking nature of the Pink Floyd ‘87 releases. Such a shame.

Musical history is filled with egos that clashed in the creative process. Great artists reach a point where they must ask themselves (because the are truly great) “Why should I settle for less than what I envision?” For Roger Waters and David Gilmour – both artists with egos the size of their considerable, though diverse, creative prowess – the answer to that question was incompatible. Neither could ultimately find their vision in the work of the other.

Perhaps that is a good thing. MLoR and TDB are entertaining works that would not have been created had Waters still been running the show. ATD is a powerful record on its own that probably would not have been fully realized without Waters’ dogmatic control of everything about it. For Roger Waters it is his high moment of solo near-perfection. All three albums are satisfying and entertaining though for completely different reasons.

But on Saturday afternoon with my stereo blasting the music out into the sun and sky and early blooms of a spring all made Perfect Sense.

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