Is This The Life We Really Want?
After about a dozen spins I’m mellowing a bit to Roger’s first release in 25 years. It’s a very different kind of album for Waters mostly due to a production controlled by Radiohead’s Nigel Godrich. It’s a hit-n-miss effort with lush orchestrations to rival Michael Kamen’s previous work with Roger and Pink Floyd.
The opening track, When We Were Young, is a short spoken collage by Roger (that slowly drifts into focus) over a pulsating synth/bass line with a clock ticking in the background. This leads directly into Deja Vu, my favorite track on the album. Godrich convinced Roger edit the lyrics from his poem Lay Down Jerusalem (he wouldn’t allow any Israeli politics on the album since it was deemed “unproductive’) and it serves the song well. It gets right to the point in three verses each from a distinct point of view. It’s beautifully orchestrated (as is much of the album) and structured. I’m still not thrilled with the verbosity of the first couple of lines but I’ve gotten used to it. Still my favorite track on the album.
Next up is the familiar (by now) The Last Refugee. It’s a very “light” song in ¾ time, with not much going for it musically. An opening percussive beat accompanied by piano chords similar to Bowie’s Five Years are the sole instruments for most of the song. Waters soothing vocals give way to him straining his voice into uncomfortable territory at times (as he does throughout the album) but the song never really goes anywhere, as pretty as it is for most of the time.
Picture That could have really been a scorcher, the highlight of the album. The vocals are raw and angry, a nearly 7-minute purge. My problem with the song is that the synch/keyboard in between vocals is to “light” for such a heavy song. If there was one track just begging for a rocking guitar it’s this one. Think Sheep (which this song has been compared to). The final 2+ minutes of the song are wasted on a syncopated rhythm track and the same limp keyboards as the song refused to end gracefully. This one should have ended with a bang! This is one of the first instances where I had difficulty understanding a good deal of the lyrics because his voice was buried in the mix. My other issue is the disjointed, seemingly random unrelated lyrics even though some are wonderful (Follow me filming myself at the show/On a phone from a seat in the very front row).
A coyote howls, Roger clears his throat and an acoustic guitar introduces Broken Bones. This is a very simple melody, also in 3/4 time, supported by his guitar and some more lovely orchestration reminiscent of Southampton Dock from The Final Cut. The serenity of the song is twice interrupted by a brief bombastic chorus (Roger yelling again – and I’d be hard pressed to understand what he’s saying if I didn’t have the lyrics). This is one that’s grown on me after repeated listens.
The title track, Is This The Life We Really Want?, begins with some words from our current (cough, cough) president. Man, I wish he hadn’t put this on the album, I hate hearing his voice. The track is a repetitious drone of keys/guitar/percussion with orchestral accents and flourishes where Roger is pretty much in spoken word mode. This would fit right in on Steven Wilson’s solo debut, Insurgentes. A drone of a song (not that type of drone) that slowly builds tension (the same way that mid-section of King Crimson’s Starless does with Fripp’s repetitive one note guitar playing) and sucks you in once you recognize the hidden melody. Yet another instance where the vocals are buried (you can barely make out Roger talking to himself about ants!)
Bird in a Gale begins like an emergency breaking with a beeping alarm and rapid drumming and it is the percussion that drives this track over the synths. Roger basically yells at the top of his range throughout this song which I still find hard to get through. Another unmusical track where I don’t have any idea of what Roger is yelling about most of the time – the most annoying track on the album that works better in context than as a standalone track.
A syncopated drum, not dissimilar to The Last Refugee, begins The Most Beautiful Girl but in 3/4 time (like Broken Bones). Another song with a very simple melody and sparse instrumentation (the piano/keyboards are by far the most dominant instruments on the album). And just like The Last Refugee is doesn’t go anywhere or really do anything for me. It’s pleasant at best and basically a relief from the previous 2 songs but it carries the same similarities of a lot of the album, one of my problems with this new collection of songs.
Smell the Roses is a wakeup call from the mid-section malaise. I really dig this track with its Have a Cigar vibe and nods to Dogs (the middle sections) and Obscured by Clouds/When You’re In. The slide guitar section during this song is the closest this album comes to featuring an electric guitar solo. You’ve all heard it by now, my favorite track along with Deja Vu.
The album closes with what could be considered a single composition in 3 parts – Wait For Her / Ocean’s Apart / Part Of Me Died. A chordless keyboard and acoustic guitar carry the first song and third songs which share the same simple and repetitious melody, which are briefly bridged by the middle track. The song finally takes flight in the uplifting orchestrated chorus. The lyrics (which are again difficult to make out, especially during Part of Me Died) and structure are again very simple. The final track smashes a plethora of lyrics and thoughts together which feels like a shotgun blast rather than a direct hit, a last ditch effort to offer all his final complaints and to make sure that all his bases/targets are covered.
The part that is envious, cold-hearted and devious
Greedy, mischievous, global, colonial,
Bloodthirsty, blind, mindless and cheap
Focused on borders and slaughter and sheep
Burning of books, bulldozing homes
Given to targeted killing with drones
Lethal injections, arrest without trial
Monocular vision, gangrene and slime
Unction, sarcasm, Common assault,
Self-satisfied heroic killers lifted on high
Piracy adverts, acid attacks on women
By bullies, and perverts and hacks
The rigging of ballots and the buying of power
Lies from the pulpit, rape in the shower
Mute, indifferent, feeling no shame
Portly, important, leering, deranged
Sat in the corner, watching TV
Deaf to the cries of children in pain
Dead to the world, just watching the game
Watching endless repeats
Out of sight, out of mind,
The ultimate crime
But when I met you
That part of me died
Bring me a bowl
To bathe her feet in
Bring me my final cigarette
It would be better by far to die in her arms
Than to linger in a lifetime of regret
In the end the song builds to a crescendo but the final line abruptly peters out, seemingly prematurely ending the song and the album much like The Moment of Clarity did on The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking (Roger’s first solo album – not counting Music from The Body). It’s an interesting juxtaposition to the first part of this song (Wait for Her) which shares the same melody but is much less lyrically dense.
The album is musically simplistic and doesn’t seem to take a lot of chances, being dominated by acoustic guitar and piano. The middle tracks seem to bog down the album and I wish to fuck that he included the wonderful Crystal Clear Brooks in place of… well throw a dart at the middle of the album. For the most part it sounds very one-note and the decision to have “no guitar” solos seems questionable, stubborn, and even foolish. It would be interesting to see what another producer would have created especially one that didn’t steamroll over Roger so much during recording and mixing.
And that’s one of my big grips with the album, Godrich’s heavy handed production which works fine for Radiohead but not a Roger Waters album. The music lacks dynamics (Godrich’s M.O.) and the instruments and vocals aren’t given any room to breathe. It’s as if everything is struggling to be louder than everything else. The CD has a dynamic range of 7 (DR7) which is basically shit for a modern day recording (Amused to Death had a DR13). Even Waters has recently commented that he was unhappy with the mix and would like to remix it one day, an unusual statement to make when promoting a new album, your first in 25 years.
Is This The Life We Really Want? is sure to be a divisive release with fans lining up of opposite sides of the battle field. It’s a different kind of Roger Waters album and once you accept this you’ll probably have an easier time enjoying it. Listen to it with headphones… and make sure that you have the lyrics in front of you.
A Fleeting Glimpse would like to thank Ron for taking the time to send this review into us.