Transcribed by Zombiezee
What Pink Floyd are telling the world in official communiques and presumably telling themselves – is that their first new album since 1987’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason has taken them back to their golden age, before The Wall and before the war with Roger Waters. Dave Gilmour, Nick Mason and Rick Wright began work a year ago by “improvising together” for two weeks. “The three of us actually played together. It’s like the Floyd again,” says Wright, once sacked by Waters, later restored by the others.
This recovery of the past is more than a matter of propaganda, though. Wright has the first lead vocal since Time, on Dark Side of the Moon, in 1973. The band’s old sax associate Dick Parry makes his first appearance since Shine On You Crazy Diamond, the Syd Barrett tribute on 1975’s Wish You Were Here. In fact, Parry’s re-emergence came like a symbolic seal on the middle-aged Pink Floyd’s retrospective yearnings. He quit music after his last session with them and lived quietly in a caravan near Cambridge. Then, last Christmas, he sent Gilmour a card saying he wanted to play again and within days found himself back in the studio and part of the new world tour band.
This may all have a fancifully nostalgic ring but there does seem to be a sound, strong emotional impetus behind it. The opening three tracks certainly suggest it’s so. They are hallmarked, unmistakable Pink Floyd.
In the time-honoured vein of Floyd meditations, the overture, Cluster One, murmurs in quite mystifyingly. The initial ambient sound might be raindrops pattering, eggs frying or a stylus battering a blank groove. No explanations follow, as the crackle and hiss is joined by an electronic pulse, one finger picking out a piano melody, and a seagulling guitar, before the drums at last supply a tangible beat. The get-out adjective is “atmospheric”. Instrumentals like this are Pink Floyd’s new-fangled tango – they just sort of stand there and just sort of do it. Audience speculation is encouraged and that may very well be the point.
The aural dry ice is dispersed at once by What Do You Want From Me. Strident and angry, Gilmour the rock star bitches at his audience. They demand so much it seems, and yet he doesn’t know what it is. With a lyrical assist from his new partner-in-life Polly Samson (as on most tracks) he asks, “Do you want my blood, do you want my tears/…Should I sing until I can’t sing any more/Play these strings till my fingers are raw.” With his guitar in a most stately fury and the “girls” soul-choiring along, it’s just plain weighty.
Patented Pink Floyd melancholy returns with Poles Apart, a song of three verses, no choruses and an unpredictable, tumbling melody which might make it one of those rare Floyd hit singles. Addressed to a friend now distanced, it could refer to Waters or Barrett according to how you take it: “Why did we tell you then/You were always the golden boy.” The initial simplicities are followed by a departure into dreamy fairground hurdy-gurdying, and then by an outro which becomes the album’s first fall from grace.
Maybe Gilmour’s wide responsibilities had to lead to a loss of intensity somewhere. While his every vocal move reflects both care and a sense of adventure, his guitar playing falls too often into the expected patterns, identifiable but not distinguished. The sonorous, yet tame, ending of Poles Apart moves into the routine grandeur of an instrumental called Marooned and the album never again captures the powerful progression of those first three tracks.
Even among the best of the remaining songs, A Great Day for Freedom, Wearing the Inside Out and High Hopes, the fizzle factor crops up as big finishes focused on guitar solos go walkabout, then stop.
Still, The Division Bell does have many more of those Pink Floyd moments to come. Thematically, they spring from Gilmour’s bold-to-arrogant way of yoking together global and personal issues as if they were all of a piece. Musically, it’s that immutable Floyd style, awash with reminders and back-references.
For instance, the electronic pulse of Keep Talking cues folk memories of slowmo surf from Crystal Voyager while Gilmour groans that he’s “drowning” in a sea of failed communication. (With his ex-wife? With Waters yet again? Autobiographical singing contrasts with clips of Stephen Hawking’s computer-generated voice ruminating about “the power of our imagination” – a tacit irony being that this is the speech the great man sold to a recent British Telecon TV ad campaign.
The church bell tolling and bees buzzing through High Hopes put you in mind of Floyd’s ’70s FX adventures. Wright plays solemn piano and Gilmour grapples with that most vexed of questions, What became of the 60s generation? How ought he to see it from the “dizzy heights” attained “by desire and ambition”, not to mention “a hunger still unsatisfied”? he wonders, while generally giving it some Meaning of Life.
A Great Day for Freedom and Wearing the Inside Out pull a lot of strands together. Being triggered by “the day the wall came down”, the former starts from a position of potent ambiguity available to very few artists: the Berlin Wall/The Wall album/the Waters performance of The Wall in Berlin after the Wall came down. Not only that, but Gilmour/Samson also bung in love (their own, whomever’s) as the healing balm which can make all the hell of the world “slip away”.Written by Wright and Anthony Moore (late of Slapp Happy and collaborator on A Momentary Lapse of Reason), Wearing the Inside Out has a hero similarly battered by the world. It benefits from the keyboard player’s diffident voice and draws on classic Floyd mannerisms dating back to DSOTM; the immemorial English reserve frozen at the heart of the song is exposed to the naked flames of musical passion embodied both by female soul voices and by Dick Parry’s sax. It’s a measured tension, never resolved.
Bar the odd meander, most of The Division Bell is certified essence of Floyd. However, there are also three tracks on which, for once, they don’t sound like themselves.
Lost For Words survives the loss of brand identify very well. It seems Gilmour adopt a distinctly Dylanish drawl, matched by Wright’s country jangle on piano, to chronicle another tale of relationships gone rotten so irredeemably that when he offers to forgive and forget, “They tell me to please go fuck myself.” (Waters must fume at how much his enmity has inspired his ex-oppo).
But if slightly Nashville Skyline Floyd proves acceptable, the sub-Simple Minds, not-nearly-U2 version wheeled out for Take It Back might better have been withheld from public gaze. Despite an obsessively wound-up vocal from Gilmour, it’s a clumsy plod, as is Coming Back to Life. Big rock anthems? If this is retrospection, it’s Pink Floyd mistaking someone else’s past for their own future in the most inept way.
These misjudgements apart, The Division Bell should be just the job for Floydies and a striking listen for anyone else who bumps into it. They remain unique and uniquely enigmatic. Consider how peculiarly hard it is to imagine what reactions this album would provoke if Pink Floyd were unknown and this were their debut.