Words About Music
Roger Waters is one of those artists whose names strikes equal amounts of confounded ire and insurmountable praise. He scarcely needs an introduction, considering he formed one of the greatest fucking bands of all time (at least for a time): Pink Floyd. He’s also an accomplished solo artist, putting out some highly acclaimed material that is basically a bluntly political kindred spirit to Pink Floyd’s material. He’s been labelled a caring activist, a musical genius, and a selfish jackass, and it’s really hard to deny any of those labels. But, the man’s earned his legendary status.
Legendary status, however, does not inherently yearn keeping up with new material from old artists. I have no interest in listening to a new Paul McCartney album, Bob Dylan album, or Public Enemy album, despite all three artists earning legendary status. Now, sometimes legendary artists release fantastic material well into their career, making it a joy to keep up with their latter days. That’s why if Kate Bush, Tom Waits, or Scott Walker plans on releasing anything soon, I am there. Roger Waters, though, I wasn’t sure. In fact, I planned on skipping this album entirely, until I started to see positive press start to pour in. I gave Waters’ bluntly, politically titled new album, “Is This the Life We Really Want?” several listens, and I’m utterly pleased and shocked.
The record kicks off with a mood-setting sound collage of repeating and chopped samples, with Roger Waters giving some evocative spoken word atop some soft, ambient drones. It’s an instantly attention-grabbing beginning to the album, and it perfectly transitions right into the next song, “Déjà Vu,” an orchestral, moving track where Waters sings about (in what detractors would call egotistical fashion, understandably) how he would do things differently if he were God. Afterward, he sings from the perspective of a drone bomb, bringing a lot of light to the years of warfare the United States has wrought unto nations throughout Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Most of the victims of drone warfare are innocent bystanders.
It’s clear there is going to be a political, pointed tone to this album, with Waters singing about how the same problems happen over and over again, giving him a feeling of déjà vu every time there’s an attack, mishandling of power, or ridiculous election result. This song is a definite highlight for me on this album, with its powerful intensity, bomb samples, and solemn delivery.
The next track, “The Last Refugee,” continues to show that Waters isn’t fucking around here. The quiet instrumentation builds underneath news broadcast samples, and then the lyrics deliver a poetic interpretation of leaving a child behind to sacrifice oneself in some horrible war, only for that refugee to be ignored upon finding a new, developed nation of riches. Waters sounds pretty bitter and angry on this track, and I like that his age adds a bit of a sloppy quality to the tone of his voice. He structures this album brilliantly, with nearly every musical moment so far being extremely satisfying.
This song is followed by the expletive-laden “Picture That,” with Waters delivering frustrated poetry about many of the problems we are facing today. I love the garage-y, psych breakdown that comes in when he sings the line “Picture a shithouse with no fucking drains/Picture a leader with no fucking brains.” He also delivers a fairly hilarious punchline later on this track, with the line “Follow Miss Universe catching some rays/Wish you were here at Guantanamo Bay.” Damn, Rog. He brings a seriously consistent atmosphere here, and I love that Waters is still taking into consideration that he wants to make a fully fledged album that has a concept and a purpose. “Picture That” may be the album’s longest song, reaching nearly 7 minutes, but it’s also the album’s best. It’s like Roger Waters heard David Bowie’s “Blackstar” and ANOHNI’s “Hopelessness,” and thought: “The sonic qualities of the former, the political overtones of the latter.”
The greatness continues with the folksy “Broken Bones,” a track which picks apart the notion that we are born with sin, be it greed, pride, or hatred. Waters posits that we are brought up in an environment that encourages us to behave that way in order to survive and succeed, even though it only sows division between us and prevents us from achieving a better society. He even gets historical on us, singing about how we had the opportunity to make it right after WWII, but we chose the American Dream instead, securing the capitalist notion of “fuck you, I got mine.” “Oh Mistress Liberty, how we abandoned thee,” sings Waters. It may seem a touch melodramatic to some, but it is also extremely clear that Waters cares enough about these issues to give them a solid set of creative lyrics and an even more solid instrumental backing. Bonus shout-out to Nigel Godrich for producing this record, too.
This track hits us with an explosive ending, with its string embellishments really solidifying its excellence. And, of course, we get the fantastic ending line: “We cannot turn back the clock/Cannot go back in time/But we can say ‘fuck you,’ we will not listen to/Your bullshit and lies.” It’s an important call-to-action, and it’s pretty cool to hear an ultra-rich mega-musician like Roger Waters continue to carry on his activism through his art.
The album’s title track kicks off with a particularly tantrum-like Donald Trump sample from him blowing up on a CNN journalist. It’s the perfect component to a song with this title, and it makes us want to scream the answer in unison: No! This is NOT the life we really want. And those who do want this life need to be fought and suppressed. This track asks all of us why we continue to let this happen, considering that it only benefits a small minority of people with an arbitrary power over us. Waters posits that this power imbalance can be restored, in some sort of Marxist-Leninist style vanguard party revolution. I’m down. It’s a great fucking song, too, with some of the most provocative lyrics on the album. It nicely takes on internalized oppression without necessarily blaming the victim.
The next track, “Bird in a Gale,” also takes on the perspective of a drone, asking “Can I crash out on your floor?” over some noisier, more psychedelic instrumentation with a throbbing bass. I don’t think it’s quite as strong a full song as the amazing first half of the record, but it still provides a sonic change of pace while carrying on the political musings throughout.
This specific theme carries on with “The Most Beautiful Girl,” a love song about someone who had romantic involvement with a woman who would go on to die in a bombing attack. Waters is really good about bashing you over the head with this specific issue, but honestly I can’t blame him. It’s something that doesn’t get taken seriously enough, nor is it nearly as known as it should be that the United States of America has been slaughtering innocents with drone technology since the beginning of Obama’s presidential administration. I still am in love with the general sound of this song and album in general, with the soft pianos, lovely strings, and well-paced drums.
After the sad beauty of this track, Waters delivers more anti-war anger with “Smell the Roses,” a song that calls on us to acknowledge and reconcile the shit going on around us and accept some responsibility for trying to undo it. I don’t think this particular song has the best musical accompaniment, but I love the imagery in the lyrics, as well as how fired-up Waters sounds on the microphone here. He’s also great at writing these somewhat long track and ensuring that they remain intriguing throughout by bringing in different musical movements and sonic textures at different points in a track, building atmosphere through interludes and instrumental passages.
The next song, “Wait For Her,” is a musically beefed-up interpretation of a poem by Palestinian writer Mahmoud Darwish. Besides Waters’ support of Palestinian liberation, I’m not entirely sure how this poem relates to the record, but I think the ambient acoustics of the song and the way it hits us with some distortion at the hook is pretty cool. It’s certainly a beautiful poem with lines about devotion and patience. Now that I think of it, maybe it fits perfectly with this record’s concept. Revolution and change will take decades, maybe a century, and we must “wait for her” through an endless dedication and devotion, no matter how long it takes.
The track continues seamlessly into the interlude song “Oceans Apart,” which I suppose can be seen as the direct conclusion to the previous song, as well as a direct introduction to the final song, “Part of Me Died.” This track is basically a list of shitty things in the world that make Waters, and many other revolutionary activists, justifiably angry and depressed. It can be easy to feel hopeless, like it will only get worse and then it’ll be over. But, for Waters, he was introduced to some “you” that caused the careless, indifferent, silent part of him to die. It’s actually kind of a touching ending to the album, indicating that any number of people or events can convince any number of us to wake up to the world of corruption and bullshit and evil and greed.
All in all, I am blown away at how much I’m enjoying a new Roger Waters album in 2017. I love the way his voice sounds, I love the added instrumentation, I love the lyrics, I love the overall atmosphere here. It’s clearly not a perfect album, but it’s an album that sounds weathered and rugged, yet still artistically potent. This fits a very specific niche for me that I can’t quite elaborate on fully, but what I know is that it’s an extremely satisfying listen front-to-back, even if its consistency makes some of these songs stick out as being a bit weaker than others.
SCORE — 8.75 out of 10
FAVORITE TRACKS — Déjà Vu, The Last Refugee, Picture That, Broken Bones, Is This the Life We Really Want?, Bird in a Gale, The Most Beautiful Girl, Wait For Her, Part of Me Died