I had long ago accepted that we would likely never get a new album from Roger Waters. His last album, Amused To Death was released way back in 1991. I wasn’t even more than passively interested in Pink Floyd at that point. My obsession with everything Pink Floyd related developed during my high school years. In fact, even his often talked about at the time opera project Ça Ira didn’t surface for over a decade. Roger released a sporadic new tune here and there as a single or soundtrack contribution, but never seemed to get it together for a proper album. And why should he have to? The man wrote the lyrics to some of rock music’s landmark albums with Pink Floyd. Many people saw his solo work as icing on the cake. After a couple decades and some world-changing events, it would appear Roger is fueled up again enough to write a proper album, and oh man was it worth the wait!
Is This The Life We Really Want? A bold question of a title. Roger has made it no secret that he despises the new U.S. president Donald Trump and everything he stands for. He has been extremely outspoken about the events surrounding the controversial 2016 election. Combine that with his feelings about conflicts going on worldwide, and his well known condemnation of war in general, and you now have a recipe to bring back what I call the “old Roger”. I had feared that Roger may be mellowing with his age. He finally came to what he calls a fragile truce with David Gilmour, and didn’t seem as full of anger in interviews of the past decade as much as he did in his 30s and 40s. Not to worry. Roger Waters of today has emerged with a clearer mind to contemplate the state of the world. In creating what may be considered his last hurrah, he put together a stellar team of musicians to properly execute a Floydian record, utilizing musicians who are quite obviously students of classic Floyd. First of all, the production, as well as several instruments are courtesy of Nigel Godrich, Radiohead’s longtime producer since OK Computer. He is also credited for “sound collages”. Because what’s a Floydian album without sound effects to bring the movie in your head to life? Joey Waronker handles drums. He has been Beck’s go-to drummer, and has done session work for R.E.M., Paul McCartney, Johnny Cash, P!nk, Sia, Bat For Lashes and many more. He has just the right amount of not overdoing it to carefully step into Nick Mason’s shoes (as opposed to Graham Broad from the 80s and 90s, who was excellent for some bands, but a little too excited and full of flair to fit the Floyd sound). On backing vocals, we have Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig of the group Lucius, filling in very nicely in what I lovingly call the “woo-woo-chicks” spot. Guitar duties, when not played by Roger, are handled by Jonathan Wilson. His credits include working with Pink Floyd family alumni Roy Harper, Elvis Costello, Dawes and Father John Misty.
The first thing I should note about this album is the way it draws a circle back through sounds and lyrics of all of the classic Pink Floyd and Roger solo material from Dark Side of the Moon until now. At a passing listen this may seem contrived. But on closer listen, this makes absolute perfect sense. In fact, if you listen to The Wall, The Final Cut, and The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking in a row, you will notice that certain chord sequences and lyrics tie the themes to each other. That makes ITTLWRW an album that at times feels like a visit from an old friend, and at times a vivid nightmarish flashback reminding you that in 45 years, some things haven’t changed the way we had hoped for civilization.
WHEN WE WERE YOUNG
Whats’s a Floydian album without an intro piece? Warbled words that slowly become clearer and clearer, to the sound of a ticking clock. But is it a clock like we’ve heard before, or a ticking timebomb akin to “Four Minutes” on Radio KAOS? “Where are you now? Don’t answer that. I’m still ugly. You’re still fat. I’ve still got spots. I’m still afraid.” Roger’s ramblings become stark realization.
We start the first proper song on the album with strumming acoustic guitars that remind us of “Pigs On The Wing”. 40 years later we are still pondering “If you didn’t care what happened to me, and I didn’t care what happened to you…”. Also 40 years later, Roger, who is now a full-blown atheist, ponders “If I had been God…”, and the things he would have done differently. Thus illuminating some of the reasons he does not believe. The second verse turns this to “If I were a drone…”, drawing comparisons between the two and the ability to cause innocent people to suffer and then look away. He also addresses how many people change against their own self interests as they grow older. “You lean to the left but you vote to the right”. The lush orchestral arrangements in the background give us accents of “Comfortably Numb” and the longer live version of “Mother”, which all run adjacent to the the song.
THE LAST REFUGEE
The next song is a quieter one. It is somewhat of a dream for the future, that someday we will not have people fleeing their home countries because of war or persecution. It also sounds like either a post-war world where humanity has stopped worrying about technology, or that there is now less physical humanity, as exhibited by the lines “While bathing belles, soft beneath hard bitten shells punch their iPhones, erasing the numbers of redundant lovers”. The music video created to accompany the song suggests maybe this is about one of the last to survive the downfall of humanity. This one may take a few listens for its message to become clear. However, its sentiment is strong.
Essentially, this song is a sequel to “Sheep”. And what a sequel! It is a vitriolic full-on attack on the current illnesses of our society. Some of the first true goosebumps moments on the album. “Picture a shithouse with no fucking drains! Picture a leader with no fucking brains!”. A chilling portrait of where we are. Musically, this is a pastiche of some of my favorite Floyd moments. The echoes of “Dogs”. The almost funeral-like final synths of “Shine on You Crazy Diamond Part IX”. The bounce of “Welcome To The Machine”. And a lyrical flow that draws slightly from The Beatles’ “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”. Biting commentary like “Follow me filming myself at the show. On a phone from a seat in the very front row”, and the kicker, “Wish You Were Here in Guantanamo Bay” (which he was careful to capitalize it that way in the lyric sheet). We end with a father with his family in a car contemplating the thought of either ending it all, or contemplating what it would be like in that moment if the end were to happen for everyone. If I didn’t know any better, I would think this was a proper Floyd track, with the exception of having a Gilmour guitar solo.
Starting with acoustic guitar and a clearing of the throat (okay, that was an idea yanked straight from “Wish You Were Here”), this starts with Roger at the campfire possibly staring at the sky, contemplating his existence. Then he looks to the bigger picture, specifically how we fail to learn from our past. “But we chose to adhere to abundance. We chose the American Dream. And oh mistress liberty. How we abandoned thee.” This one has shades of The Final Cut tracks such as “Paranoid Eyes”. But rather than feeling helpless and hiding, he offers “But we can say ‘fuck you, we will not listen to your bullshit and lies'”. Oh by the way, that’s Beck’s father, composer David Campbell handling the string arrangements. Like Michael Kamen in the past, he does an excellent job giving a backdrop and just the right flourishes to these songs.
IS THIS THE LIFE WE REALLY WANT?
“It’s not enough that we succeed, we still need others to fail”. Roger first illuminating what problems brought us to where we are. Specifically greed and fear. Fear as a means of control. Control of “all of us”. He then breaks this list down in a non-PC everyday conversation between people style. All of us.. “the old, the young, toothless hags, supermodels, actors, fags, bleeding hearts, football stars, men in bars, washerwomen, tailors, tarts, grandmas, grandpas… ants.” Maybe not ants. Why not? Well we have to draw the line somewhere between where we consider creatures that have feelings. Then you see where people might start going back through that list to find where they draw their line of who they feel is human and who they can dehumanize (Hence the slur. Yes I caught that. Roger is always careful to use slurs only when he is trying to make a point, drawing all the way back to The Wall). He ends this exercise with “Every time the curtain falls on some forgotten life, it is because we all stood by, silent and indifferent. It’s NORMAL!” Specifically highlighting how not-normal life has become.
BIRD IN A GALE
Starting off from the end of the previous track with warning noises and the sound of impending doom, this one seems to be about paranoia and running, or being lost in chaos. Which specific chaos isn’t clear to me. One explanation I’ve seen links this to the National Bird drone. Someone on the run? This one is more of a connecting track is seems to build the mood.
THE MOST BEAUTIFUL GIRL
A love song? From Roger? Oh wait. It starts that way until you realize quickly it is about beauty that could have been, but was snuffed out by war and conflict. While at first the track doesn’t seem to link to any past Floyd tracks, with a slow shuffle of a drumbeat, strings and piano, he mentions “Take a fresh grip on the crucible rune” – a play on “take a fresh grip on your bulletproof mask” from The Final Cut‘s “Paranoid Eyes”. The song is about the love of a couple that was annihilated during a bomb blast. One for the heartstrings.
SMELL THE ROSES
Musically, this one culls from “Have A Cigar”‘s funky bassline. Or is that “Pigs (3 Different Ones)”? Pigs with cigars? Okay now we’re painting a picture. The song has different stages. The first first seems to be a conversation about impending conflict and danger to civilization. But don’t worry, there’s hope at the end of the rope. The second verse is like a peek behind the curtain at the horrible things that go on in the name of “progress”. Nothing to see here but the bombs that can kill millions. No big deal. But look at all the money that war will make for us! After a musical interlude that I can only describe as “Welcome to Speaking to the Dogs Late Home Tonight”, the third verse seems to describe the way warmongers write off casualties as just “another kid didn’t make the grade”. Appalling, yet true.
WAIT FOR HER
PART OF ME DIED
The last three tracks are really a three part suite. As I understand it, “Wait For Her” is a translation of a poem by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. Taking it at its first and most obvious layer, it is a song about being patient in your approach toward your true love. But of course that’s too easy, and that doesn’t make it fit the rest of the album naturally. If you then reread the lyrics as an approach for those who feel lost in the current times, it makes more sense. Many people feel an overwhelming sense of dread and helplessness when it comes to the current state of the world. Particularly with the US and UK politics seemingly turning back the clock on much progress we have made. If the “her” is viewed as mankind’s kindness, it comes as a hand on the shoulder to say “don’t despair, be patient and we will get through this”. “Oceans Apart” is really just a connecting stanza, slightly changing the overlying melody, but keeping the same base. “Part of Me Died” is the finale of the piece. It sums up a lot of the thoughts in traditional Roger list style, in many ways like “Eclipse”. But even with all of those horrible things, the feelings of love and hope can make you see through those awful things. Better to “die in her arms”, whether that be the literal “she” of Roger’s woman, or “she” as in liberty as an ideal, “than to linger in a lifetime of regret…”
And just like that, on an unresolved chord, the album ends. It’s the kind of ending to spike your anxiety just a bit. After all, as he told us at the beginning, “it’s never really over”. And then we find ourselves back at the jarbled rambling we started with at the beginning. Another cycle. “Damn you, Roger!!” I shout at the speakers, smiling and a little teary eyed, knowing he meant it exactly that way.
Like a true Floydian album, this took more than one listen to absorb a lot of what was going on, between the hefty lyrics and taking in the musical landscape this album takes us through. This is not the kind of album you can expect to throw on and immediately be bouncing along to the catchy songs. Like much of his best work, Roger’s talent lies in his words first, then the music. This album is a worthy successor to Amused to Death. If this ends up being the last album that Roger Waters ever records, it is a worthy finale. Especially the way it ties the current day to Roger’s past classics with and without Pink Floyd. Is This The Life We Really Want is the album we need to hear right now.
Pick up your copy of Is This The Life We Really Want HERE:
Check out some videos from the album:
“THE LAST REFUGEE”
“DÉJÀ VU” (Live on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert)