Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Endless River is (Likely) the End of Pink Floyd

Proof of Purchase.  A handsome package.
Pink Floyd is my all-time favorite rock band.  I have blogged about, among other Floydian things, their final set in 2005 and about their final bow in 2011. Now comes their final studio album (as Pink Floyd).

The Endless River is almost 55 minutes of mostly wordless musical conversations, jam sessions taken from many hours of recordings unused in the band's excellent 1994 record The Division BellDavid Gilmour and Nick Mason revisited this material which heavily features the keyboard work of Rick Wright who died in 2008.  Roger Waters, the driving force, lyricist, and visionary behind the band's best works, quit in 1985.  Earlier this year the two last men standing in Pink Floyd went back into the studio, sifted through the unused recordings, picking the best parts of what were at the time (in late-1993) hours of improvised musical doodles created while laying down more established songs for The Division Bell.

The resulting new music is not actually a new idea. Back in 1994 the band was toying with the idea of using some of their recorded jam sessions as a compliment to The Division Bell. At the time they referred to the potential music as The Big Spliff. But nothing ever came of the idea until this year when Gilmour and Mason reworked some of their playing, added parts for other vocalists and musicians, and came up with 18 tracks of new music surrounding Wright's remastered keyboard work.  The only song with lyrics is the final track, "Louder Than Words", which features Gilmour's still superb vocals singing the lyrics written by his wife, Polly Samson.

Like most of the best Pink Floyd albums there is a concept or underlying theme to The Endless River which simultaneously ties it back to The Division Bell and yet is distinctive in its own right.  The result overall is an accessible, meandering album, handsomely packaged, that has that classic Pink Floyd feel.  I was not blown away by anything on the record. It is not one of their greatest efforts but it appropriately punctuates the improvisations of Wright and the band in what is apparently their final musical offering, released some 20 years after the original recording sessions.

"Keep Talking" is an important track on The Division Bell. And the theme of human communication, understanding, and relating to one another ties much of that album together. That theme is carried forward on The Endless River which is rather ironic.  There is hardly any words on the new album though the importance of human dialog is not dismissed, rather the new album seems to transcend the previous theme by uplifting the power of things left unsaid, of understanding without words.

This is underscored at the very beginning of the new album with the usual Pink Floyd affinity for background sounds, layered effects, and spoken words laid down underneath and supporting the musical development.  The Endless River starts with Wright's voice stating "We certainly are under-spoken and understanding...But there's a lot of things unsaid as well..."  As the opening music slowly develops we hear what I think is Gilmour chime in with "...ah well we shout and argue and fight and work it on out..."  The importance of understanding without words is held in equal esteem with the often necessary friction of dialog to come to an understanding.

Though I have rationalized The Endless River so far in this post, the truth is that it is very listenable and immersive without any thought given to it at all. In fact, Jennifer and I both enjoy the music but we agree that it works just fine as something in the background establishing an ambiance. There is no need to concentrate so heavily on it to find deeper meaning as with, say, The Dark Side of the Moon or The Wall.  This is certainly not a thematically "heavy" album though, as I said, there is a thread of concept here.

For me, the best tracks on it are "Sum" and "Skins." These tunes are a bit more sophisticated and rock a bit more than the rest of the collected tracks.  I enjoy a nice rocking Floyd and you do not really get much of that on this record.  Which is fine, as I said, it all strikes me as more music you drift in and out of rather than something you dance to or sit and ponder within.  Some critics are disappointed by the album. But most reviewers of the record seem to have accepted it as valid and decent if not artful.

"Autumn '68" is another track worth mentioning. Here Wright performs on the great Royal Albert Hall pipe organ. To my knowledge, that great cathedral organ does not appear on The Division Bell, which means the band rented the Hall organ one day back in 1993 and let Wright air it out, yet they never used any of that work on the final studio album.  So, it seems especially important that we get to experience the previously unheard work of Wright with this grand instrument of 10,000 pipes.

The title The Endless River is the last lyric sung on "High Hopes,"the last song on The Division Bell. This new music is definitely integrated with the more vocal and more rocking album released two decades ago.  Another stitch that ties The Endless River with The Division Bell is the electronic voice of renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, who was featured on the "Keep Talking" track back in 1994. In 2014 we have a track entitled "Talkin' Hawkin'" where the scientist once again briefly discusses the importance of spoken dialog in human history.  He says:

"Speech has allowed the communication of ideas, enabling human beings to work together; to build the impossible. Mankind's greatest achievements have come about by talking.  Our greatest hopes could become reality in the future, with the technology at our disposal, the possibilities are unbounded. All we need to do is make sure we keep talking."

But, overall, this album is more about the potential power of human understanding beyond words. Perhaps we could go so far as to say that words are necessary to achieve understanding but the actual understanding, empathy, compassion, love, whatever you want to call it, really resides in the unspoken, almost wordless realm.  That is where all this instrumental music comes in.  These three guys were improvising and achieving a form of musical understanding 20 years ago that required no lyrics nor was any written music needed.  The music emerged out of just slow jamming and understanding where one another wanted to go with the music, sometimes led by guitar, sometimes led keyboards with percussion providing the backbone.

My deluxe Blu-ray edition of The Endless River is a piece of art in terms of the packaging.  The cover art is by a previously little-known Egyptian artist filling in for Storm Thorgerson, who produced such outstanding album art for the Floyd for many years.  (Thorgerson died last year.) The album's presentation contains a thin hardbound book of lyrics, credits, and photographs from the original recording sessions.  There are three nice photos included each in a heavy-stock postcard format. One is a photo of a simple abstract sculpture of two heads talking (you can see it in the middle of my pic above), connecting us back to the main artwork for The Division Bell.  Another is a really cool reflective hologram vibrant sphere that pulses and glows as you move the card stock around.  The last is a nice photo of Gilmour and Mason sitting on a dock probably on the Thames River.  The sleeves for the Blu-ray and CD are decorated with a techie looking circular and intricate almost spaceship looking symbol that pervades the disc labels and other places in the packaging.  Each component is of the highest quality.

The Blu-ray also features a number of interesting short videos capturing these extended jam sessions. Some of the music presented here is actually on The Division Bell.  The band seems to have been working out variations on the tracks presented on that album. You get to see Wright and the other band members working alongside several studio musicians in trying out different forms of musical expression on the various established ideas.  They are not talking with words here.  They are talking with their instruments, occasionally making eye contact and nodding at one another, communicating either a shift in the music or bringing things to conclusion for that particular jam.  I enjoy video features on music Blu-rays and many of these particular cuts rock harder than anything presented in the 18 tracks on the album.  I like some of this spontaneous music a lot.

Upon its release,  the album reached number one in sales in its initial release in the United Kingdom. This warm reception is more a reflection of the band's solid reputation than the specific music on this effort.  The album is decent but not outstanding. The album has received mostly mixed critical reviews.

Hearing this new Pink Floyd inspired me to go back and listen to their previously final studio recording from 1994 from which this music emerged. "Wearing the Inside Out" and "Coming Back to Life," like "Keep Talking," are great Pink Floyd songs.  The Division Bell is their best post-Waters album, but in itself it is not as good as any of the Waters-led Pink Floyd of the 1970's.  The Endless River is not as good as The Division Bell.  It is only significant because it contains the final fine keyboard stylings of Wright as a member of Pink Floyd.  And with Wright gone now, with this recording apparently, so goes the Floyd.  

The ultimate irony, perhaps, is that The Endless River is the end of Pink Floyd's musical journey. Things are not "endless" at all. This is the end. Or perhaps the music goes on.  Perhaps that's the point.  I don't know. I still enjoy most of Pink Floyd's music. (Nick Mason still holds out hope that Roger and David will join him on stage somewhere again.) But it seems in this case it is the Floydian world coming to an end, as T. S. Eliot proclaimed, "not with a bang but with a whimper."

Repeated Note to Readers: The title of this blog comes from Pink Floyd’s fourth album. It is a double album with one record devoted to the band’s early live performances and the other devoted to various experimental pieces of music by the individual band members. As such it is a collection of scattered personal ideas linked to a record of the band in life. Kind of like this blog itself. Hence the name. Legend has it that the word also has certain erotic connotations which I find clever and are somewhat revealing about myself. Don’t tell my mother.

Late Note:  The Endless River debuted at #3 on the Billboard 200.  Here is an article on how all Pink Pink Floyd studio albums fared upon their initial release.  Here is another article speculating on why The Endless River is so popular.

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