Friday, 7 July 2017

Roger Waters' 'Is This the Life We Really Want?' - Album Review

I think it is fair to say that Roger Waters' music has really become part of British culture over the years. While his solo work has never really permeated into the mainstream as his work with Pink Floyd has obviously done, he still remains a true superstar and many of his recent tours have been among the highest grossing of recent years. As a founding member of Pink Floyd, arguably 'the' progressive rock band, Waters found success that few can rival. From being a willing participant in the band's songwriting in the band's early days, Waters over time became the band's de facto leader, often single-handedly driving the band's image, themes, and lyrical concepts. Few will argue that the run of four albums released between 1973 and 1979 - which included The Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, Animals, and The Wall - is one the greatest runs of albums released by any band, and Waters was a huge part of that greatness. Not to degrade the inputs of the other three members of Pink Floyd, particularly guitarist David Gilmour who to me was just as important to the overall Pink Floyd sound as Waters was, but it was Waters' concepts, songwriting, and lyrics that really made those albums such complete pieces of work with flawless concepts and themes. It is also fair to say however that Waters and Gilmour never really saw eye to eye and their eventual split was inevitable. Pink Floyd's twelfth album, 1983's The Final Cut, was in truth the start of Waters' solo career and the album sits better with his solo catalogue than the rest of the Pink Floyd canon. The sparser, more lyrically-driven style would come to define Waters' studio output during the rest of the 1980s and onward. Sadly however, for me at least, it has been diminishing returns from Waters ever since. He got away with the sparser style on The Final Cut due to the excellent guitar work of Gilmour, but 1984's The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking and 1987's Radio K.A.O.S. both suffer from having little changes in style and are both fairly dreary. While I do enjoy The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking on occasion, I find Radio K.A.O.S. to be nothing but a dirge and it is not an album I can see myself reaching for again any time soon. He hit gold again in 1992 however with the release of the truly excellent Amused to Death, an album which should be seen as a classic in the same light as some of those masterful Pink Floyd albums. Since then however, Waters has been content with long breaks of semi-retirement punctuated with nostalgia tours featuring mostly Pink Floyd material. Fans have been calling for a new album for years and, last month, twenty five years after the release of Amused to Death, Waters released his long-awaited fourth solo album Is This the Life We Really Want? (not counting 2005's opera Ça Ira). I was not sure what to expect from him after so long, but it is fair to say that anyone expecting a radical new sound will be disappointed. The album is a return to the sparse sounds of his 1980s output, with acoustic guitars and piano dominating the album's musical make-up. Amused to Death definitely made a few changes to his established sound at the time, and went for a much grander overall style, but Is This the Life We Really Want? really strips everything back again and goes for a raw, lyrically-driven piece that rarely focuses on the music as it merely serves as a backing for the lyrical delivery. It is perhaps telling that Waters' regular musical collaborators, including guitarist Dave Kilminster and keyboardist Jon Carin, are totally absent from this recording; their places instead filled by relatively unknown session musicians. This album is almost 'anti-music', but that is not to say there are no redeeming qualities here also. This album is no classic, and it has certainly received mixed reviews since it's release, but fans of Waters' lyrics and themes will certainly find things to enjoy here.

The opening instrumental piece When We Were Young, with it's ticking clock and overlapping spoken lines, instantly recalls The Dark Side of the Moon. Classic Pink Floyd moments are referenced throughout the album, but Waters' aged voice roots this firmly in the modern day. Seguing directly into Déjà Vu, with a sparse acoustic guitar chord sequence, introduces Waters' singing voice for the first time on record for twenty five years. While allegations of miming sometimes haunt live reviews of his concerts these days, it is clear from his performance here that he still possess a voice which is reminiscent of the glory days. He has always employed a hybrid singing style that almost sounds like talking at times, and that is pushed to the fore here as he croons over the same acoustic guitar passage, which is soon joined by a simple piano arrangement and a dense string section. Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig, who are co-lead vocalists for the indie band Lucius, harmonise with Waters throughout the album to add extra melody and depth to the vocal arrangements. In classic Waters style, the songs on this album often run into each other, with The Last Refugee opening with a slow-paced drum beat, provided by Joey Waronker, and a suffocating washings of keyboard that create a foreboding atmosphere as snippets of radio broadcasts fill the speakers. Waters sings a little more melodically here, and while cracks do start to appear in his voice, he still manages to convincingly carry the melody and gloomy lyrics. Piano is the song's dominant instrument, but a strong bassline that fits in well with the hypnotic drumming also provides grounding and extra rhythm. The Pink Floyd similarities return in Picture That with spacey keyboard sounds and ringing guitar chords that recall the more discordant sections of The Dark Side of the Moon. Subtle keyboard melodies replace the iconic guitar leads however, and add a more atmospheric overall feeling. The song soon picks up the pace however, with an urgent drum pattern and a multiple layers of keyboards that clash together with good effect. This is one of the songs on the album however that is really crying out for a strong lead guitar presence, and I would have loved to see what Kilminster would have added to it if he was given the chance. The more upbeat rock vibe that is created during the song's mid-section soon drops out again to let Waters' voice sit atop some dry keyboard sounds. It does ramp up again however, and makes excellent use of Wolfe and Laessig's voices with powerful wordless melodies that soon lead into a keyboard-led and bass-heavy instrumental section that even includes a few choice guitar leads that are subtly buried in the mix. Broken Bones returns to the sparse themes established early on with a cutting acoustic guitar pattern that is backed up with some dense strings. String sections have always been a big part of Waters' solo sound, and that is no different here with a gloomy and almost soundtrack-esque feel that is a good backing for the almost-spoken lyrics. The song also acts as a tease on the guitar front, with a few seriously powerful note bends that you feel should launch into a solo but just act as an intro for a line of vocals that sees Waters spitting the lyrics with a venom only he can muster. The album's title track is up next, with a well-placed quote from President Donald Trump to herald it's arrival. A snaking bassline initially drives the song, but a subtle discordant guitar melody soon takes over as the drums rumble away beneath at a heartbeat's pace. Dramatic strings help to add atmosphere, but the song soon descends into a lyrical rant with Waters sounding like a bitter old man mumbling to himself in the corner of a pub. Sadly he has always been prone to those moments, and this album is no different.

The almost-electronic rhythms of Bird in a Gale manages to break the rot that the previous song finds itself in towards the end. A strong drum presence keeps the song interesting and the bass playing, presumably from Waters himself, is extremely melodic and really cuts through the mix with ease as Waters howls the lyrics with some of his old spirit shining through. While not a heavy song, the sound certainly has a 'loud' feel with a few screeching guitar chords and layers of dense keyboards to create an unsettling feeling. There is a part of the song which is almost stolen from the Pink Floyd classic Dogs however, even down to the echo-effect on the vocals, which is a shame. There are a few moments throughout this album where the songs are far too close to things Waters has written in the past and I wish that he had not felt the need to do this. The Most Beautiful Girl is another piano-led piece with a drum pattern that is almost identical to that seen in The Last Refugee. It provides a nice link back to the earlier song, but this song is a much lighter affair without the moody keyboards. The piano playing here is excellent and provides a perfect backing for Waters' aged voice. There are definitely similarities that can be drawn between this song and the quieter songs found on Amused to Death and it definitely has that album's feel for strong melodies - something which is not always the case here. Smell the Roses, which is up next, is basically a re-recording of Pink Floyd's Have a Cigar but with different lyrics and a weaker overall guitar performance. While this might be an over-simplification, there is no doubt that the song's main riff is almost identical to the one found in Have a Cigar and the overall structure is also extremely similar. While the song itself is not bad, it just makes me wish I was listening to Have a Cigar instead. It does make me wonder whether Waters was struggling for ideas for this album at times, or whether his musical vision these days is so narrow that he does not have the will or scope to really try anything new. The album's final three songs almost feel like one long song, without any obvious breaks, as the album returns once again to the tried and tested acoustic guitar and piano combination. I think Waters produces his best vocal performances over these kinds of backings these days, so I can understand why they are so prevalent, but it does create a very samey feel - especially towards the end of the album when this style has already been exploited quite liberally throughout the rest of the material here. Diversity is always part of what makes many of the great albums so good, and this is something that Is This the Life We Really Want? lacks. Oceans Apart is a little bridge, again acoustically dominated, that links the previous song to the album's closing number Part of Me Died. The piano starts to dominate a little more in this final number, and the strings swell up for a bit more of an emotional punch. Unfortunately however, the song never really picks up which means the album falls flat at the end. It does ramp up a little, but this is so short-lived that it almost acts as a negative as the album comes to an abrupt and unsatisfying close. Overall, Is This the Life We Really Want? is an album I have mixed feelings about. The first half in particular is quite strong, and the album overall creates a good atmosphere, but I feel the really runs out of steam towards the end, and resorts to overusing the same ideas and even self-plagiarism. I think I had hoped for more from Waters after twenty five years, but deep down I knew this is exactly what the album was going to sound like. Disappointment aside, I think this is an album that fans of Waters' past work will want to pick up, as there are still a few really good songs that show he can still write powerful and emotional material.

The album was released on 2nd June 2017 via Columbia Records. Below is his promotional video for The Last Refugee.

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