I’ve been thinking a lot about the many broadsides I’ve seen launched against Roger Waters now that he’s released a new album, Is This the Life We Really Want?. I’ve mostly been thinking about how I’ve always found myself in the position of defending Waters, ever since the release of The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking in 1983. It’s always been somewhat exhausting. I’ve never understood the jumping up and down where Roger Waters is concerned.
Here’s the thing. People have always either been whining that he sounds too much like Pink Floyd, that he doesn’t sound enough like Pink Floyd, or that “all his music needs is David Gilmour”, or they’re blathering on about how he didn’t proverbially wash the feet of his former band-mates, or they’re basically complaining about the content of his music, or bashing him because of his politics. Clearly, he’s polarizing, but I’ve never really understood the level of vitriol which gets leveled at him. It’s almost like he left a cult when he left Pink Floyd, and in some circles he has been “he who shall not be mentioned” ever since (and it pisses some people off that he dares to breathe).
As for the new music, I was initially a little disappointed with “Smell the Roses”, but it’s hard to ignore the groove in that song. If Gilmour’s solo efforts as Pink Fraud showed us there was one thing Gilmour & Company couldn’t pull off, it was a genuine Pink Floyd groove. That’s present in spades in “Smell the Roses”. Of course, after repeated listenings, I quickly came around, and really love the song, albeit in the same kind of way I love “Not Now John” from The Final Cut.
Here’s the thing about Roger Waters’ music. He doesn’t do anything by accident. While some people are bashing him because “Smell the Roses” has shades of Floyd, they’re not asking why that might be. No one who knows anything about the music Roger Waters has made in his solo career could believe he’s just living in the past. There’s a purpose to everything he does. But what he does not do is try to write a collection of dance-able pop songs. He writes albums, and each song on the album has a purpose with the overall narrative. In that context, given the subject matter of Is This the Life We Really Want?, “Smell the Roses” makes perfect sense.
But that’s not the only song on the album. There are lots of great songs. Among my favorites are “Déjà Vu”, “Picture That”, “The Last Refugee”, and especially the beautiful “Wait for Her”. There are many songs on this album which already feel like a part of my DNA. I’ve heard people complain that some of these other songs have hints of Pink Floyd (even as they complain, ironically, that “what they’re missing” is David Gilmour’s guitar playing), and it’s true. There are touches of Floyd here and there on the album. But they’re intentional, used as statements. Like one line, where Waters says “Wish you were here in Gunatanimo Bay”. Waters uses Floydian touches here and there because Floyd is a part of the cultural landscape now (in Europe, Pink Floyd is regarded with the same reverence as Beethoven). So Waters uses those references to lead the conversation somewhere else.
That’s the thing. Listening to Roger Waters is like reading J.R.R. Tolkien. Using that analogy, whereas Waters’ work as Pink Floyd might best be compared to The Hobbit or The Lord of The Rings as the most easily accessible to pop sensibilities, Waters’ solo work is more like reading The Silmarillion. If you skim over it, you miss the details, and if you miss the details, you miss the point.
I’ve listened to people complain about everything Roger Waters has ever done as a solo artist. The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking was “undisciplined” and “unfocused”. Radio KAOS was “an blatant attempt at commercialism”. Amused to Death was “dense” and “preachy”. Is This the Life We Really Want? is “trying to cash in on Pink Floyd” (which I think is hilarious, since he essentially was Pink Floyd). Each and every one of these works is unique unto themselves. They’re very different from one another, and stand on their own merits and strengths. The only unifying theme of all of them, each and every time, has been the droves of people who are eager to hate them. Hell, if you go back far enough, there were no shortages of people who hated Dark Side of the Moon, Animals, and The Wall when each came out.
If I have a problem with Is This the Life We Really Want?, it’s that there’s too much Nigel Godrich on it. I’ve never cared for his production. One hallmark of Roger Waters’ work, from Pink Floyd through his solo albums, is that the production has always been clean and crisp (with the possible exception of The Final Cut, which was rushed in post-production because Pink Floyd was falling apart at the time). Is This the Life We Really Want? is a little muddy, because I think Godrich was obsessed with getting a 70’s vibe. It doesn’t distract from the music, really, but production could be better. Of course, without Godrich, Is This the Life We Really Want? might never have happened, so there’s that.
Roger Waters said that the best way to listen to Is This the Life We Really Want? is on headphones. I’ve only been able to listen to some of it on headphones so far, and I have to report that he’s right. It really opens the album up. There are a lots of details and points which seem to get lost in the maelstrom going through speakers. On headphones, everything just makes more sense. That would be aimed at the people who are actually committed to diving deep into the subject matter. Between us, I don’t think Roger Waters’ solo material is a good fit for surface-skimmers.
I’m not an easy sell. I don’t like works by artists just because I’m a fan of those artists. I may be more willing to give something a listen if it’s from an artist I’ve liked in the past. But when they fall short, I’m well aware of it, and I’m not shy about pointing it out. In the final analysis of Is This the Life We Really Want?, my simple summation is that it’s a brilliant album, whatever you may have been told by people who haven’t actually listened to the album, or given it a decent chance. I’m convinced that, just as Amused to Death has gone from being ridiculed by the surface-skimmers in the 25 years since its release, popular culture will also come around on Is This the Life We Really Want? Great art is rarely appreciated in its day.
In closing, I just want to reflect on one complaint I saw in the comments on a Roger Waters video on YouTube. Someone basically hated the music because, as he said, “Music should be uplifting, not dreary and angry”. To that person, and everyone like him, I’d just like to point out that no everyone lives in a bubble in which all the rough edges have been filed down from reality, and existence is a warm, prolonged Elysium dream. Life is fucking hard. It’s brutal. People are savages. If it makes you uncomfortable that some artists point that out, it’s quite possible this music is not for you. What I would recommend is that you stop your whining and go back to something which feels comfortable and doesn’t upset your delicate sensibilities. I’m sure you can find plenty of music out there to sedate yourself with. Speaking as someone who does like Roger Waters’ solo music, all I can really say is that if sedation is your aim, you’re welcomed to it. Have a happy happy, sunshine. I genuinely hope you enjoy your dream.