LP Review: Roger Waters, ‘Is This The Life We Really Want?’

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“Who gives a fuck, it’s never really over…”¬†– Roger Waters, “When We Were Young”

Much like when I reviewed David Gilmour’s last solo album, I found myself reflecting on Pink Floyd. How couldn’t I? In the 70s when I first started collecting records, one of the first albums I ever bought was ‘Dark Side of the Moon.’ It was, and still is, required listening. Along with Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd ruled the 70s. They were the greatest, coolest rock bands around. Sure the Stones were very productive in the 70s, but that rock n roll decade was owned by Zeppelin and Floyd. In the waning days of the 70s, Zeppelin fell apart but Floyd soared to greater heights with ‘The Wall.’ By the early 80s both were seemingly gone. One of the joys of being a music obsessive is reading the liner notes of LPs. This comes in handy when bands break up because you’re able to follow those key contributors to the bands you love into their solo careers. I must admit, the guys in Floyd have been tough to follow.

In 1983, Pink Floyd released what was on the surface supposed to be their last LP, ‘The Final Cut.’ It was a sequel of sorts to Roger Waters’ magnum opus, ‘The Wall,’ another of the first LPs I was to ever buy. The album sleeve for ‘The Final Cut’ read “A Requiem For The Post War Dream, by Roger Waters, Performed by Pink Floyd,” which sort of tipped me off that this was more of a solo Waters’ LP than a real full-fledged Pink Floyd record. Waters fired founding keyboardist Richard Wright prior to recording the LP which was another clue. ‘The Final Cut’ was another “song cycle” with a theme but it came across like a bit of a patchwork of ideas to me. The song “Not Now John” was clearly an angry reaction to the crew who made the movie of ‘The Wall” and the superb “Two Suns In the Sunset” while incredibly moving, didn’t fit the theme. I will admit, ‘The Final Cut’ seemed to be the album when Waters was finally able to express his overriding themes with the greatest clarity. Musically, however, ‘The Final Cut’ sounded different than usual Floyd albums. Waters was so obsessed with telling the story he’d crafted lyrically he stripped the musicality from the record. His dictatorial control of the band neutered the rest of the band, even David Gilmour. So while I liked certain tracks on ‘The Final Cut’ (especially ‘The Gunner’s Dream”) and even appreciate the construct of the story, I felt like it was an opportunity missed.

By 1984, Waters had left Pink Floyd, assuming that once he took his brilliance down the road, that would be the end of Pink Floyd (little did he know). He released his first “proper” solo album, ‘The Pros And Cons Of Hitchhiking,’ an album based on a man’s dream cycle. He was so dedicated to the construct of the song cycle, each song is even time stamped. The man dreams of his midlife crisis and all the fears and worries that it brings. Again, I loved the construct but Waters neglected the music side of the equation. It’s akin to what Springsteen did after disbanding the E Street Band, he focused too much on lyrics and neglected melody. Even the presence of none other than Eric Clapton on lead guitar couldn’t save ‘Pros and Cons’ for me. My college roommate at the time brought it home, Drew was always the first guy to have a new LP, but it left me stone cold. Well, I liked the nude chick on the album cover, but I was barely 20, I was allowed a little leeway in that department. I haven’t heard it in years, and frankly I still don’t think I’m missing anything.

In 1984, Waters’ released his second LP, ‘Radio K.A.O.S.’ which I listened to again for the first time in a long while this weekend. I really liked this album despite the fact the back story Waters’ concocted for the music was preposterous. He’s got Jim Ladd, famous LA disc jockey talking between songs, which I could have done without. “Radio Waves,” the hopeful “The Tide Is Turning” and the amazing “Who Needs Information” are all great songs. I will admit, all these years later, the production is very much “of it’s time.” But I still enjoy this album even if Roger doesn’t.

In 1987 Waters released what was to be his final solo album for 25 years, ‘Amused To Death.’ It was another song cycle tied to a theme, this time, basically mankind was going daft watching television, ignoring the real problems of the world. It was many of the same themes he’s been covering since ‘Dark Side,’ anti-war, anti-greed, and anti-media. I didn’t really warm to the album and ended putting it away for, well, twenty-five years. I also listened to it this weekend and was surprised at how well it’s held up. There is some searing guitar on that album by Jeff Beck. At least Roger seems to have realized he had big guitar shoes to fill by splitting with Gilmour.

After ‘Amused To Death’ Waters went silent. Well, that’s over-stating it a bit. He toured almost constantly. He put on several different tours centered around ‘The Wall.’ I’m proud to admit that I was in Berlin when he did ‘The Wall’ at The Berlin Wall in 90, one of my concert highlights. I saw him on the tour that produced his live LP, ‘In The Flesh’ and it was a great show. He had three guitarists with him to replicate Gilmour’s sound but I think I’ve pounded that point enough by now. It’s clear that those two were yin/yang. He also produced an opera, because, let’s face it, everything he’s done is basically rock opera, why not go full on “the fat lady in the Viking helmet is singing.” For whatever reason, perhaps it was the bile he felt toward the rest of the guys in Pink Floyd for carrying on without him, he stopped doing new music for a quarter of a decade.

I was stunned months ago when I heard that Waters was in the studio putting together a new album. I figured this would be another album I’d end up blowing off. But then I heard the first single, reviewed earlier on B&V, “Smell The Roses,” and I realized, wait a minute, we might have something here. I liked “Smell the Roses” immediately and said so. My dearest friend Doug said to me over beers at a ClassicAlbumSunday, “Hey, I read your Waters review. I didn’t love the song. It was ok, but it sounded like Pink Floyd.” Well, isn’t that the point?!? For perhaps the first time in his solo career Waters actually put great lyrics together with great music. There was even a melodic guitar solo in the middle…

I had expected ‘Is This The Life We Really Want’ to be an angry screed full of rage. There is anger here, especially in songs like “Picture This” where he says “picture a President without fucking brains,” which is clearly aimed at Trump. “Bird In a Gale” also musters some good ol’ Roger Waters anger. But to me the overwhelming emotion I get from this album is… despair. Not, I’m giving up despair, just a resigned sadness. It’s as if the narrator can’t believe, this far along in life, he’s having to address these same problems again. The song, “Deja Vu” is one of the most beautiful melodies Waters has written. In the song he imagines, “if I had been God” and all the things he’d have done differently. It’s a brilliant song set to a lovely acoustic guitar.

All the usual Waters’ themes are here: anti-fascism, anti-war, anti-greed, anti-hate but this time he fleshed out the music to match the epic nature of his themes. The music here is more lush and more, for lack of a better word, grand than anything he’s done in his solo work. This is the most Pink Floyd sounding solo album Waters has ever recorded and that’s a good thing. I hear shades of ‘Animals’ and ‘The Wall’ on this album. He’s finally embracing his past musically and the results are great. How much of this can be attributed to producer Nigel Godrich is hard to gauge. I’ve always thought Nigel was a dip-shit, based on his treatment of Paul McCartney during the recording of the ‘Chaos & Creation’ sessions, but perhaps I’ve judged him harshly.

Other standout tracks here are the melancholy “The Last Refugee,” and “Broken Bones” where Roger wonders, “who gives a shit, anyway?” On the title track, after listing a litany of crimes that still occur in society, he describe the current U.S. President as a nincompoop, a term I haven’t heard since my grandparents passed. The song “Broken Bones” laments that after WWII we lost the opportunity to move mankind forward, but we went for the greedy answer. We opted for unbridled capitalism at the expense of liberty… “we cannot turn back the clock… but we can say fuck you to your bullshit and lies.” Heavy stuff. I haven’t heard this much cussing outside of hip hop records in a long time but it’s fitting. The sometimes coarse language helps deliver the message more forcefully. And, well, I like cuss words.

It seems that with the dark times we face in the world, be it climate change, corrupt politicians, poverty, hunger, and greed that we have finally caught up to Roger Waters’ dark vision of humanity. This album feels, to use the cliche, “ripped from the headlines.” That can make this a very tough listen for some fans, especially of a certain political stripe. If you want music to distract you from our current situation in the world, this is not the album for you. This is not an album you’d put on a party. But then, Pink Floyd wasn’t really the type of music you’d put on a party… it was music to get high to. “Headphones music” as we used to say.

With all those caveats in place, I do recommend this album. I think it’s the best, most fully realized, musical album Roger Waters has done since, well really, ‘The Wall.’ There’s no overt story you have to read the liner notes to figure out, which is probably a good thing. This is like a brutally honest newscast, set to music. And despite the despair I hear, underneath it all remains a stubborn hope that maybe, eventually, we’ll get it fucking right. Because Roger is right, “it’s never really over…”

Enjoy!

Roger Waters: The New Single “Smell The Roses,” Uncle Cranky Returns

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In the 70’s and well into the 80’s the true Titans of Rock were Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. You didn’t get much cooler street cred than listening to those 2 bands. Potential friendships could be dashed by the wrong answer to, “Do you own ‘Dark Side of the Moon’?” I was in high school when ‘In Through The Out Door’ from Zeppelin came out. I remember older guys from my high school trying to scrape together enough money to rent a bus to get to Chicago, Zeppelin’s closest concert geographically from Kansas City. Sadly, John Bonham succumbed to alcoholism and died the way all rock stars really ought to, choking on his own vomit, before those concerts ever happened. It was only a year or so later when ‘The Wall’ from Pink Floyd came out. Man, were we obsessed with that album. I always thought the line, “you can’t have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat” was actually, “you can’t have any pussy if you don’t beat your meat” which was really good news for a high school kid, if you know what I mean.

Alas, ‘The Wall’ was the last great record Pink Floyd put out. Shortly after that record, they fired founding-member, keyboardist Richard Wright. Their final album, which didn’t come out until I was in college, aptly named ‘The Final Cut,’ was a somewhat underwhelming album. In retrospect it was a patch work of ideas. It was really a Roger Waters’ solo album as played by the remaining guys in Pink Floyd. Although not many people liked that album, I always loved the great tune, “The Gunner’s Dying Dream.” The problem with ‘The Final Cut’ is the musical chemistry had been knocked out of whack by Wright’s departure and Waters’ totalitarianism within the band. Waters was the lyrical genius but he needed Wright and especially Gilmour for the melodic sensibility they brought to Pink Floyd. They were the yang to his yin, if you will. Joe Strummer was right when he said, “never underestimate the chemistry of the right four guys in a room…”

I wondered back then what the members of Pink Floyd were going to sound like solo. David Gilmour made “About Face,” which I didn’t like. Roger Waters came out with “The Pros And Cons Of Hitchhiking,” which was loosely based on a morning’s dream cycle. It’s always gotta be some weird concept with Roger. I remember my college roommate Drew coming home with “Pros and Cons,” and despite boasting Eric Clapton on lead guitar, the album left me cold. I know Drew dug it and it’s been a long, long time since I’ve listened to it, so maybe it deserves another spin. Drew always has a great ear for music… Shortly after that Gilmour, Wright and drummer Nick Mason reformed Pink Floyd and had the smash hit “Momentary Lapse of Reason” which resulted in years of bitter acrimony and law suits.

While the now Waters-less Pink Floyd soared, Roger’s solo career sputtered. I bought both ‘Momentary Lapse…’ and Roger’s second LP, ‘Radio KAOS’ which was another weird concept album. I really liked ‘Radio KAOS’ but I think I stand alone in doing so. I remember debating both albums with some stoner kid from California I ran into in a train station in Paris way back when. He was pro-Floyd, I was pro-Waters. The problem with Waters’ solo work is he always sounds like he’s singing through clinched teeth, like when my dad caught me sneaking out of the house to meet a girl. His vocals are already nasal-y, add that angry dynamic and it can be off-putting. I saw Waters in concert many years ago and for the encore, he asked for silence – at a time in a show when most musicians are trying to get the crowd to a state of hysteria – he wanted a quiet moment. He was so pissy, he actually folded his arms, stared at the ground and said, “I can wait…” Try the de-caff Rog… That was when I started calling him Uncle Cranky.

I must admit, despite all that crankiness, I was a little surprised when I realized it’d been around 25 years since Waters’ last solo LP, “Amused To Death.” I remember buying that album, it’s long since disappeared, and it had multiple versions of the song, “What God Wants.” While I agree religion can be somewhat maddening, I think I’m safe in saying, what God wants is maybe some different lyrical ideas, Roger. That album wasn’t successful and around the same time Pink Floyd returned with ‘The Division Bell’ and another record setting tour. Those had to be tough times for Roger. I’m still unclear why he chose to disappear for a quarter century. Of course, he really didn’t disappear, he did an opera and has toured almost constantly, often staging ‘The Wall,’ his magnum opus. Even Gilmour showed up for a performance of “Comfortably Numb” in London a few years ago. Nice to see the lads getting along. Now that Wright is gone, I wouldn’t hold my breath for a reunion, however. Some grudges can’t be let go.

Over the weekend I finally heard Uncle Cranky, er, Roger’s new solo tune, “Smell The Roses” from the upcoming LP ‘Is This The Life We Really Want,’ which is a pretty ponderous title for an LP. I couldn’t stop humming the melody. I’ve been traveling for work a lot lately, and I couldn’t wait to get home to listen to this song again. Obviously if you’ve read B&V before, you’ve likely guessed I share a lot of Roger’s political sensibilities so lyrically you know he’d have me, but this is a great TUNE. It boasts some funky keyboards and a great guitar solo. There’s even a break for the sound effect of dogs barking harkening back to ‘Animals’… the guy sure stays true to his vision. But oddly, it all works. ¬†Roger finally put together a great song to go with his great lyrics.

And what lyrics they are… “wake up and smell the roses, close your eyes and pray this wind don’t change.” Set to all the great music these lyrics are full of deep foreboding. This is a rock and roll Cassandra, standing on a hill warning society, whose likely fate is not to be heard or worse, not to be believed. “Wake up and smell the phosphorous, this is the room where we keep the human heir…” I wonder if that was just a pun, decrying fascists elements in world politics today. He works in climate change, “nothing but gold in the chimney smoke, come on honey, it’s real money,” which also harkens back to Pink Floyd’s most recognized song. He even invokes the Doors’ “Light My Fire” when he sings, “throw a photo on the funeral pyre, yeah now we can forget the threat she poses, girl you know we couldn’t get much higher.” Mind blown!

I have no idea what the whole album will hold. Will Roger be able to keep up the musical excellence of this tune over a whole album? Hard to know, but this is a great first single for an album I can now say I am hotly anticipating. Keep your ears on this space!