Sunday, June 11, 2017

Roger Waters Rocks Pink Floyd Style

Proof of Purchase
Roger Waters successfully channels the classic Pink Floyd aesthetic with Is This The Life We Really Want?, his first album in 25 years.  I have listened to the record several times now.  It has grown on me, although it isn't as good, in my opinion, as his 1992 Amused to Death and he comes off as just an angry old man on a couple of tunes.  Nevertheless, at 73, Waters shows he still has plenty of passion and lyricism to justify the effort.

Is This The Life We Really Want? has most of the trappings of the classic Pink Floyd sound.  The album begins with a sound montage of a beating heart, clocks ticking, and looped background voices, mostly radio announcers.  So it starts out with that wonderful classic feeling.  “When We Were Young” and “Déjà Vu” are rather nostalgic. They are interesting, if uninspiring, pieces of music (well, the opening track is a “sound collage” rather than music).  “Déjà Vu” is the album's best attempt at Waters' cynical sense of humor - an avowed atheist singing about being God.  His vocals begin on the record with: "If I had been God, I would have rearranged the veins on the face to make them more resistant to alcohol and less prone to aging."  Funny stuff.

“The Last Refugee” (music video here), while more contemporary in content, is also nostalgic in the same way as the first two tracks - all three songs feel like out-takes from The Final Cut.  It is with “Picture That” that the listener first encounters a tune that is worth hearing repeatedly.  The lyrics are up to the usual high standards of a Waters song (“Follow Miss Universe catching some rays, Wish you were here in Guantanamo Bay”); in this case, as with other tracks on the album, the tune is filled with "explicit" language; every line in one stanza contains the F-bomb.  But it is still an strong number, a synthesizer heavy, semi-rocking litany of the postmodern world's ills with marvelous female backing vocals.  You can read the lyrics at your discretion here.

Broken Bones” is also explicit.  This one is mildly impressive but too reminiscent of the cynicism from his early post-Pink Floyd work, Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking come to mind. The instrumentation is excellent, however, featuring a cello and other string instruments that give it an atmospheric quality punctuated with Waters briefly shrieking the words though the song is generally soft and tender.  The lyrics are highly relevant.

The title track begins with Donald Trump talking about how his administration: "There's zero chaos, we are running, this is a fine-tuned machin..." Cut. Nice, easy instrumentation with brooding undertones.  I really like this song.  It serves as a summation of what Waters intends.  If there is a concept for this collection of songs, this tune threads it all together, wonderfully produced and mixed.  A balance of empathy, social criticism and uncertainty as only Waters can create. “Fear.  Fear drives the mills of modern man.  Fear keeps us all in line.  Fear of all those foreigners.  Fear of all their crimes.”

Without pause we slam into “Bird in a Gale” which is evocative of “Dogs” from 1977.  With all the mixed background effects and vocal loops, this might be the song in the most Pink Floydian style on the album. This one gets better every time I hear it; there is so much layered into this tune - plenty to chew on as it rocks in a multi-textured, atmospheric, cerebral style.   About two and half minutes in it briefly morphs into true sonic magic.

Unlike that track, however, “The Most Beautiful Girl” does not get any better the more you hear it, making it probably the weakest link in the chain.  It occurs to me listening to this one that really this album is more a collection of loosely associated short "anthems" of music rather than songs of related conceptual content.  This one is an accessible listen even if it is not particularly noteworthy.

Next we come to “Smell the Roses”, the best of breed on this album.  This is a funky tune, it has a nice groove with barbed lyrics.  The song stops about two minutes in for a sound collage in the traditional Pink Floyd sense.  After another minute it picks up again with a really nice slow-driving guitar leading the way through all the synthesizers and percussion. Give this track a try if you wonder whether you can handle this album at all. Awesome lyrics, great energy and feel to it without compromising the biting critique Waters infuses throughout the album.

Wait For Her” is also a terrific song, a somewhat surprising authentically touching piece.  The lyrics here are actually based upon "Lesson from the Kama Sutra (Wait for Her)", a poem by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish; mildly suggestive sexually and extremely beautiful.  It serves as the first part of a a rather softly introspective trilogy that concludes the album.  “Oceans Apart” is the bridge that fuses “Wait For Her” with “Part of Me Died”. Not a bad way to end the album though the climax of whatever "conceptual" content there is at work here is, well, rather anti-climatic, musically speaking. 

In reality, ironically, “Part of Me Died” probably reveals the silver lining in Waters' work with the album's final lyric: “It would be batter by far, to die in her arms, than to linger in a lifetime of regret.”  Human empathy and love seems to be the simple counterweight to the detailed, bitter critique Waters hammers throughout the rest of the album upon the reality of living in the modern world.  But, of course, all that is conjectural and open to interpretation.  As it should be.

Producer Nigel Godrich shines as much as Waters on this effort.  He does a really excellent job wielding all this material into a cohesive, largely accessible, album construct.  He takes a minimalist approach, reining in the overindulgence and pretentiousness that troubled most of Waters' other solo albums.  As I mentioned, this is not a concept album in the traditional Roger Waters sense.  It is more of a tapestry of anthem-accented rants and discontented angst about our contemporary world than a singular, themed idea. But the record does not feel disjointed at all. Everything develops nicely from start to finish. The instrumentation choices are superb in most cases, even if the songs themselves are not as spectacular as the performances seem to presume.

What is missing here, of course, is David Gilmour. His knack and uncompromising drive for melody would both soften that Waters edge while also providing some catchy guitar riffs that would have made good songs like “Smell the Roses” even more powerful and popular.  But, that isn't ever going to happen.  So this is not pristine Pink Floyd.  Rather, this is Waters manifesting as Pink Floyd on his own terms. What the album lacks in terms of catchy hooks and riffs it partially makes up for with excellent production and content. It has the Pink Floyd vibe.  Waters is not simply imitating Pink Floyd nor even himself.  No, he successfully becomes a worthy version of “Pink Floyd” on this record, even without the brilliant and energetic Gilmour yin to the sorrowful but profoundly poetic Waters yang.  Overall, this album is a success in the Pink Floyd tradition.

The answer to the title's question is obviously "no." But, as usual, beyond a handful of mild, sweet references to love and passion and compassion, Waters doesn't provide any hope or suggestion on what the life we really want might be.  It is far easier to cast stones than it is to build a foundation with them.  But Waters seems to think we have to attack and destroy the current state of things even if he doesn't offer a clearly articulated alternative. Is This The Life We Really Want? is not a bad effort.  If not particularly inspiring there is enough good music here to justify the self-proclaimed "genius behind Pink Floyd" to take another contentious swipe at the apparently dehumanizing and indifferent world.

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