Roger Waters has released his first new album in ages, and after a week and a half we’re finally able to ramble something moderately coherent about it. Here goes.
It’s a busy year for fans of Pink Floyd. David Gilmour will release his Live at Pompeii concert film later this year, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is the stage for Their Mortal Remains, a huge Floyd exhibition and Roger Waters, in addition to embarking on his Us + Them tour finally releases his first body of studio work in 25 years (not counting his opera Ça Ira) with Is This The Life We Really Want? Produced by Nigel Godrich (known foremost for his work with Radiohead), it is also the most Pink Floyd thing Waters has done since that band’s The Final Cut, and certainly worth the long wait.
At 73, Roger Waters hasn’t changed much from the angry young man who wrote Animals or The Final Cut. He even says so on the intro When We Were Young. “I’m still ugly. You’re still fat. I’ve still got spots. I’m still afraid,” he says over the sound of clocks ticking. You half expect them to go off at any moment and launch into The Dark Side of the Moon’s Time. But they don’t, and the album begins proper with Déjà Vu instead, a song previously live tested as If I Were God. In it Roger, angry as always, asks himself if he’d do a better job if he’d been God. In the same song, he also wonders how he’d feel if he were a drone. “The bankers get fat. The buffalo’s gone,” he seethes. It’s classic Waters, full of vitriol and completely devoid of any subtlety. Business as usual.
The production, right from the off, is incredibly lush. The arrangements on a song like Déjà Vu are something else, restrained and never in your face, meant to enhance the material where needed. The orchestral flourishes are subtle and stylish without being in your face about it. Most of the songs exude a certain air of danger, a sense of menace you haven’t heard in any Floyd related material, including Waters’ own solo work, since The Final Cut. It’s also very typically Floyd in that there is an abundance of sounds plastered all over the album. From old BBC broadcasts to people muttering in the background, the aforementioned clocks, disconnecting phones, barking dogs in Smell the Roses, it’s an album undeniably steeped in Pink Floyd-ness. It’s artsy in the same way The Dark Side of the Moon was artsy. It’s not as good an album as Dark Side, but no-one will be surprised to hear that. There are melodies, little musical flurries that return all over the album, and the way it starts with Déjà Vu and ends almost with the same fashion with Part of Me Died is a thing of beauty.
The lyrics are as vitriolic as you would expect from an album bearing the concept of “handing mankind a very bad report card.” The delivery is suitably acerbic, as Waters shouts, seethes and hisses through his teeth about nincompoops becoming presidents (take a guess who he means there), journalists left to rot in jail, social media, war and terror. “Picture a leader with no fucking brains” he bites on Picture That. Waters sounds menacing, and so does the music. There is an undertone on Is This The Life We Really Want? that makes this album as potentially uncomfortable as The Final Cut or The Wall. There is an edge here that lacked on the later Floyd albums and most of Waters’ own solo work, including most of Amused to Death. It’s Waters at his most topical and arguable best, and he invited us to think.
If there’s one valid criticism one could lob at Is This The Life We Really Want?, it would be Waters’ and Godrich’s tendency to draw too heavy on nostalgia at times. The material is so full of callbacks to older, classic songs that you can’t help, for example, to find yourself listening to one song and humming into an old Floyd song next. There are lyrics from other songs you subconsciously want to place at certain points. There are hints of classic Floyd all over this album, and sometimes you can pinpoint exactly what something reminds you of. There’s a bit of Mother here, a callback to Dogs there, and Picture That is one big amalgamation of One Of These Days and Welcome to the Machine. It doesn’t matter much since the end result is the most seventies Floyd album we’ve possibly had since the seventies, but if someone would argue that a lot of it sounds sort of same-y, I would be the last to disagree.
Small niggles aside, this is one of the better classic rock albums, and perhaps the most topical one, of the year. It’s old-fashioned without sounding so, it’s classic without sounding archaic and it’s deliciously reminiscent of what made Waters are Pink Floyd so good. The only thing you will miss on this record are the great guitar solos and the drawn-out keyboard spots. Other than that it’s a must-have album for the fan of seventies era Floyd, and a wholeheartedly recommended one for classic rock fans in general.
Release: out now
- When We Were Young
- Déjà Vu
- The Last Refugee
- Picture That
- Broken Bones
- Is This the Life We Really Want?
- Bird in a Gale
- The Most Beautiful Girl
- Smell the Roses
- Wait for Her
- Oceans Apart
- Part of Me Died
- Roger Waters – vocals, acoustic guitar, bass guitar
- Nigel Godrich – keyboards, guitar, sound collages, arrangements
- Gus Seyffert – guitar, keyboards, bass guitar
- Jonathan Wilson – guitar, keyboards
- Roger Joseph Manning, Jr. – keyboards
- Lee Pardini – keyboards
- Joey Waronker – drums
- Jessica Wolfe – vocals
- Holly Laessig – vocals
- David Campbell – string arrangements
Review by Ralph Plug