Roger Waters’ new LP ‘Is This the Life We Really Want': a review by Pink Floyd’s biggest fan
OK, maybe BV's own Klaus Kinski isn't THE biggest Pink Floyd fan, but he's up there. He's certainly the biggest we know. Also the tallest. Here's his take on Roger Waters' first proper solo album in 25 years. Don't miss Roger on his US+THEM tour, which hits the NYC area this September.
Aside from his three-part opera Ça Ira which came out in 2005, Pink Floyd's Roger Waters hasn’t released an honest to goodness Roger Waters solo album since 1992’s as-relevant-as-ever masterpiece Amused to Death. The technological, social, and political nightmares Waters addressed there, as well as in his earlier work with Pink Floyd, have only become more dire in the quarter-century that has elapsed since. This week, Roger’s latest solo work Is This the Life We Really Want? will hit shelves and deliver listeners a scathing and beautiful 12-song, 55-minute indictment of the state of the global union. I’ve been unpacking this monster for a few weeks now. With its dense lyrical content, subtle and not-so-subtle nods to previous Pink Floyd tunes (bear with me on that one), Is This The Life We Really Want? finds Waters in prime, fightin' words form.
As mentioned the other day, Waters has surrounded himself with new musical personnel both in the studio and on the road. Joey Waronker (Beck, Walt Mink, REM, Elliot Smith) has much lighter touch behind the kit than previous Waters drummers such as Graham Broad and Ray Cooper, employing a simpler style more akin to Pink Floyd's Nick Mason. The same goes for the guitars. In previous solo efforts, Waters had enlisted big names like Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck, insuring that the listener would be treated to epic solos and signature licks. With Jonathan Wilson taking the reigns on guitar (and vox) there’s none of that showboating anywhere to be found on Is This the Life We Really Want? and, again, sonically, it leads to way more cohesion. Lastly, the contributions of Jessica Wolfe and Holly Laessig (who you might know from Lucius) create a vocal sound that hangs back and almost comes across as another phylum of instrument. With Nigel Godrich at the helm, all of these minimalistic approaches to sound are corralled to create a sonic experience that hits the ears in ways that are at times terrifying and at times shatteringly beautiful.
As a whole Is This the Life We Really Want? is heavy with message and narrative, but for me the first four songs meld together in my brain and feel like a suite of their own. The jarring and dissonant opening track "When We Were Young" finds multiple concurrent tracks of Roger discussing literal childhood pissing contests and hormonal awakenings slowly filling the listener's ears. There's a heartbeat/ticking clock motif that immediately had me thinking of the first moments of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of The Moon. It takes about 40 seconds to understand what the hell is going on, but eventually the message is clear; the head games and the posturing we endured as children are the same games we play as adults in all levels of society. "I'm still ugly. You're still fat. I've still got spots. I'm still afraid. Our parents made us what we are. Or was it God? Who gives a fuck; it's never really over." From there the album takes off in earnest, with "When We Were Young" seamlessly segueing into the instant classic "Déjà Vu." The first three stanzas open with the line "If I had been God" and finds Waters pondering what he'd do differently had he been God. But the tone eventually shifts and Waters ponders "If I had been a drone," essentially trading in one violent all seeing eye for another, though in the case of the drone he finds opportunity for remorse, lamenting the possibility of striking the domicile of an innocent soul cooking dinner.
The third track, "The Last Refugee," is not only one of the most beautiful songs on the album, both musically and lyrically, but it is one of many where I really hear aural nods to previous Roger Waters and Pink Floyd classics. The song is packed with radio chatter, shipping forecasts, and other soundbites, but the synth and piano riffs throughout the song recall the piano/synth from the song "The Thin Ice," from The Wall. This tune is very somber and could exist perfectly alongside Side 1 of The Wall or even The Final Cut. As he did for Roger Waters The Wall, Waters enlisted the help of Sean Evans on a video for this tune. Check it out:
As the album progresses, listeners can really begin to glean nods to earlier Pink Floyd tracks. "Picture That" brings to mind "Sheep" from Pink Floyd's 1977 classic Animals and even bits of "Shine on You Crazy Diamond Parts VI-XI" from Pink Floyd's indispensable 1975 masterpiece Wish You Were Here. As a matter of fact, "Picture That" even includes the line "Wish you were here in Guantanamo Bay." One of the most famous "blink and you'll miss it moments" in Pink Floyd's canon happens about 25-seconds into the song "Wish You Were Here" from the album Wish You Were Here. Shortly before David Gilmour is about to rip into one of the most famous guitar riffs of all time, you can hear him in the background unleashing a really gross and phlegmy cough. "Broken Bones," track five of Is This the Life We Really Want?, opens with a very Floydian acoustic G-chord wherein Roger proceeds to unleash his own super loud throat clearing. If this wasn't a deliberate call-back to Gilmour, I'd be damn surprised.
"Bird in A Gale" could literally be an outtake from the 1977 Pink Floyd album Animals. with synths and voice echoes that seem to be straight from that album's "Dogs." "Smell The Roses," is an absolute Floydian cornucopia; the tune incorporates elements of "Have a Cigar" from Floyd's Wish You Were Here as well as the instrumental jam that kicks in about seven minutes into Pink Floyd's 1971 epic track Echoes. But that's not all! It also employs the beats and phrasing from the verses in "Dogs" from 1977's Animals, the heartbeat/clock element from Dark Side of the Moon's "Speak to Me/Breathe" and even the dogs barking from "Sheep" which can also be heard on Animals. Hell, it even has elements from the end of "Shine on You Crazy Diamond."
Superficially, Is This the Life We Really Want? delivers exactly what Roger Waters fans (and detractors) expected; that is, a scathing treatise on the current human condition with razor sharp lyrics, swelling musical compositions, and lots of sound effects and heavy diegesis. But there is nothing superficial about this album. As a fan, I knew what to expect, but I didn't know what was coming. From beginning to end, it plays to and exploits all of the musical and narrative strengths that have made Roger Waters and Pink Floyd one of the biggest acts of all time. He marches confidently down the familiar avenues of war, loss, corruption, love, lust, greed, politics, religion, fragility, surveillance, and disenchantment and barks and snaps in ways only Roger Waters can. If this were to end up the final Roger Waters album, it would not only serve as a blazing final word, but with its nods to his past musical exploits, it'd wrap up his recorded career perfectly.