Has it really been 25 years since Amused To Death, the last Roger Waters solo release (not counting his 2005 opera Ça Ira)?
When considering the sum total of a half century’s output, Waters doesn’t owe you a thing. His integrity coupled with renowned hardheadedness likely wouldn’t have allowed for a full-scale Floyd reunion beyond 2005’s one-off Live Aid appearance; conversely a lesser artist (or bandmate) may have opted to wring the udders dry for one final monster arena tour payday.
On paper, the choice of Nigel Godrich as Producer (Radiohead, Beck) could be considered a welcomed infusion of new blood that brings with it the esoteric timbre that shaped and defined Radiohead’s signature sound. But no risks are taken here and the collaboration doesn’t result in anything particularly groundbreaking. The mix throughout is much more out front than any Waters or Floyd endeavors and a bit of a departure from past vocal tracking, as these are comparatively dry. Of the four post-Floyd releases, Is This The Life We Really Want? is Waters’ most straightforward statement to date. Whereas Amused was a foreboding tale of Western society’s obsession with the media (which turned out to be eerily prophetic), Is This The Life is the responding salvo.
Few songwriters can boast of the towering Floyd co-founder’s lyrical economy – he can still be evocatively poetic. His penchant for coloring multi-layered imagery in so few words has always been his strength, underscored here on tracks like “The Last Refugee”, treating us to descriptive brilliance “…under lemon tree skies” and “…wading through dreams/up to our knees/in warm ocean swells.” Superb.
Waters hasn’t gone soft in his twilight years, though, he seems just as angry as in years past — albeit there’s no maniacal screaming about not getting any pudding or Arabs with knives at the foot of the bed. The track, “Wake Up And Smell the Roses” is a rhythmic nod to mid-70s “Have A Cigar” type riffing but not as impactful a tale.
Where heyday Floyd and even The Pros & Cons of Hitchhiking (1984) left you scratching your head at times trying to discern actual meaning, Is This The Life draws some very obvious (and pedantic) pictures. But every time I start to think Waters has become exceedingly pious he makes it up with a linguistic kill-shot like “wake up and smell the bacon… run your greasy fingers through her hair” to remind us all of the trademark sardonic snark that would sound forced and phony coming from any other artist. Pros & Cons was and still is masterful – and plays like a Pink Floyd album, arguably due to the fact that it was originally pitched to the band along with The Wall (1979) as a potential thematic muse – but with the release of that solo debut Waters had obviously emptied much of the magazine, as Radio KAOS (1987) doesn’t quite hold up though at the time it seemed like an ambitious undertaking.
All things being derivative, “Picture That” from the current release borrows quite a bit from “Sheep” [Animals 1977] in both rhythm and tempo, and I’d have had zero problem if it were simply titled “Sheep Reprise,” as the root-octave bass part is nearly identical; likewise, for the synth tones. There also appears to be a hint of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond pt. 6” in there as well, along with a call-back to the climatic portion of “One Of These Days.” All in one track. Intentional? Quite likely. This isn’t a bad thing, these are the ingredients that buttered Waters’ bread. Sonically it’s the closest we come to peak-era Pink Floyd that Waters has traversed since the onset of his career’s solo phase. Was ready to anoint this as my favorite track on the new album but could live without requests that the listener “picture prosthetic limbs in Afghanistan.” When juxtaposed with the subtlety of past political commentary like “Get Your Filthy Hands Off My Desert” [The Final Cut 1983], it just feels like a shock-value iambic pentameter placeholder.
At worst, Rog is intermittently guilty throughout this latest endeavor for being a tad too literal, especially so on “Picture That” in contrast to its allegorical ancestor “Sheep.” And after multiple decades of reoccurring anti-war themes and political barbs you start to wonder if there might be other subject matter to be tackled – in the third arc of Pink Floyd and as a solo practitioner, with few exceptions Roger never really fleshed out as a storyteller beyond son-of-war-casualty pathos; nor does he venture from the comfortable key of G acoustic guitar balladry on down-tempo numbers, like “Wait For Her” and “Déjà Vu”. But one could connect the dots from “Pigs On The Wing” to “Mother” and onward to assert that this is a logical landing point, if not entirely formulaic. The lamentations here on “Déjà Vu” in particular feel a bit like Waters channeling Levon Helm and The Band, whose music we learned in recent years had a big impact on him.
Ostensibly, the tour supporting this release will mark the end of a brilliant live career whose concerts were replete in pioneering sound and vision and conceptual messaging. But I am reluctant to proclaim this is the last we hear from Waters in terms of a full-length studio effort, though I think at his advanced age waiting another 25 years until the next one might not be such a good idea.