Is This The Life We Really Want?
Oh look, Twin Peaks is on tele, people are going apeshit for cassette tapes and record players, terrorist fuckwits are attacking London, and Roger Waters has a new solo album out! Is it 1992? Nay, comrades! ’Tis a new Roger Waters album, a quarter of a century after his last!
And yet, upon hearing the album, it doesn’t seem to be 1992, it seems to be the mid-70s. Or at least, a rough facsimile of the Glory Years. That’s the sound that Roger and his gang of trendy new sidekicks are aiming for. Whether they entirely succeed or not is debatable, and a question for people with more expensive hi-fis than I. On first glance, many of the major Roger-tastic ingredients are there – clocks, spoken voices, a heartbeat, lovely understated synths, simple piano and guitar arrangements, lush strings, shouty bits and whispery bits, bird noises, and Grandpa Rog in his armchair, sitting next to the listener’s ear lamenting the state of the world. His voice is as unlovely as ever, though fortunately has lost the “gargling razorblades” sound that it had on Amused to Death.
Interestingly, in the face of all the harking back to the Good Ol’ Days, there are no guitar solos. Apparently this omission is at the behest of hot (relatively) young producer Nigel Godrich, and one has to wonder if it’s really for the best. Perhaps the age of guitar hero worship is over with, but it seems odd to do away with one of the hallmarks of Roger’s career, both solo and with Pink Floyd (did you know he was in Pink Floyd?! Because it doesn’t actually say so on the album cover’s sticker, which is another odd omission considering Rog has been inclined to heavily advertise it in the past), when so much else has been painstakingly replicated. Perhaps Roger is a fan of Metallica’s St. Anger album? Or maybe he decided that if you can’t have dear old Dave, then no one is worth having. Or perhaps solos are just not hip enough for shiny new 21st century Roger?
There’s also no proggy artwork, which is slightly irritating given that the vinyl gatefold edition could have been more lavish. But hey, there’s a picture of nauseating British politician Nigel Farage, and it’s reassuring to know that Roger thinks the guy’s enough of a dick to be a target for his ire.
Aside from the absence of noodly guitar solos and pretty artwork, all the major ingredients are there, but perhaps they are too obvious? Roger is so prone to self-referencing throughout that it becomes a Where’s Wally (or Waldo, for the non-Brits) of nods to his previous works. The references are littered throughout, to the extent that they become somewhat jarring. Lyrically, there’s electronic eyes, bleeding hearts, wish you were here, take a fresh grip… And musically, the listener finds themself thinking, “Oooh, that’s the echoed voice from Dogs, the driving bass from One of These Days, the strings from Comfy Numb…” We get it, Roger, your past glories were immense. We would happily salute you for them, but there’s no need to beat us over the head with them.
Speaking of beating us over the head with repetition… Roger seriously needs to learn some more chords. The guy has been in bands with David Gilmour and Eric Clapton, for fuck’s sake, surely he knows more chords than G and C? I literally sang Two Suns in the Sunset along to Broken Bones. There were times, in amidst the barrage of nostalgia, that I wished Roger had sought inspiration from further back in his past and resurrected the spirit of Syd to throw some off-key lunacy and psych-guitar into what is a very bland palate, musically speaking. Perhaps the album would have benefited from Nigel and Roger dropping acid together?
Also on Nigel’s advice, allegedly, Roger has done away with overt references to Israeli politics (though a “bulldoze their homes to the ground” still snuck in there)… Oh to be a fly on the wall for that conversation! Nigel must have balls like sledgehammers. Fucking hell, it’s not that long ago that Roger would have fired any dissenters without a second thought! Having said that, I’m kind of glad that he’s avoiding the subject on the album, because he’s so prone to putting his foot in his mouth whenever he talks about it in interviews. But on the other hand, I don’t exactly like the idea that Roger’s message is being diluted by a third party in order to make the album more commercially palatable. It’s just not very punk.
So, as much as I’m enjoying the album, I feel that it’s more of a regression than a logical progression, compared to the bombastic, narrative-driven works that Roger has become known for from The Wall onwards. Honestly, I’m curious about the Irish Granddad concept album still! Roger doesn’t need to try to be conventional, so I don’t understand what his motivation is here.
Really, I’m surprised that he’s chosen to go in this direction (though it’s probably much welcomed by his label, management, concert promoters, and a large proportion of his fan base), because there’s the whiff of uneasy compromise, given his reputation as a guy who has repeatedly confessed that he has no interest in creating things by committee. And yet here is reigning in his vision to appease… who, exactly? Hipsters? Moneymen? Yooooofs? The producer he’s paid oodles of money to for a second opinion? I don’t get it. Perhaps I’m wrong to be cynical, and Roger is merely trying to get his message to a wider audience, which would be far nobler than trying to get played on Radio 4.
Don’t get me wrong, for all that I’m questioning Roger’s decision-making process, I confess I FUCKING LOVE THIS ALBUM. There are synths! Glorious 1970s-bedroom-in-Sheffield synths. There’s the ethereal presence of female vocal duo Lucius – particularly welcome on the closing of The Most Beautiful Girl, rescuing what is my least favourite song on the album from being crushingly tedious. And there’s Roger’s ongoing theme of love overcoming cynicism – who can disagree with a sentiment like that? He’s a miserable prick but at least he can still get poontang! It’s a beautiful message of optimism and affection that closes the album, much as it did on Outside the Wall and Pigs on the Wing.
Hell, the album might not have Magic Billy in his wheelchair, but it does have Roger putting on his best mockney accent to sing to us about the nature of ants on the title track. And for all Roger’s pondering of global issues, he’s still a Brit at heart, for there are some gleefully anglocentric moments – pissing up the boy’s bog wall, nincompoop and knickers. His acerbic humour and quirky imagery are still in full-force, unrepentant and undiminished by the pressures of modernity (and by modernity I mean earnest young producers patiently explaining to a notoriously grumpy septuagenarian why he’s not allowed to bring Slash in for a squiggly guitar solo). Lines like “This is the room where we keep the human hair” make me shudder at their creepy brilliance.
Perhaps the most interesting and unexpected moments, lyrically, are the ones where Roger shows emotionally vulnerability – we’re so used to his political views that they lose impact. There are only so many times a 70-odd year old multi-millionaire white guy can tell me what’s wrong with humanity before I run out of fucks to give. Joking aside though, I think the personal can often have more resonance than the geopolitical. I mean, it’s easier to relate to the Roger who wrote Wish You Were Here about losing his friend to mental illness than it is to the one who shouted a list of things that annoy him at me.
I see wildly conflicting opinions of this album, and the discourse that has been incited by ITTAWRW has been in some ways more entertaining than the album itself. I feel it’s preferable for a Roger Waters album to simultaneously arouse great adoration and raging hatred than to merely inspire shrugging indifference.
I suppose that one’s opinion of ITTLWRW depends on what one wants from a 21st century Roger Waters album. The political references and overly verbose rants have been curtailed to some extent, there is no impenetrable narrative a la Radio KAOS… but is it really a good thing for an artist to water down his vision? I suppose this is dependent on Roger’s motivation, and on the subjectivity of the listener. Ultimately, I feel it’s a flawed work, but it’s one that I can get behind and enjoy. And Roger wouldn’t be Roger if he wasn’t pissing off scores of fans in some way.
Thanks to Natalie Lyons for the review