Last Friday, June 2, I spent the entire day checking the mail. I’d preordered the new Roger Waters album—his first album of original rock material in nearly a quarter century—and was eagerly awaiting its arrival when I got notice from Amazon at about 7pm that evening that the delivery would be delayed, possibly until the following Tuesday. Being as I am, a married middle-aged man, this was going to be the highlight of my fucking week and listening to it on headphones, stoned to the gills, constituted most, if not the entirety of my weekend plans. Drats! Foiled again! My disappointment was palpable, but I googled the reviews to sate my curiosity only to read one critical appraisal after another of the most vaguely worded, tepidly positive sentiments. I’d seen the second (not including the dress rehearsal in NJ) show of Waters new Us + Them tour in Louisville, KY (more on this below) over the recent Memorial Day holiday weekend and the reviews I was reading didn’t really jibe with my expectations for the new album, having already heard a handful of the songs from the upcoming album played live and being blown away by how great the set’s new material was. It was difficult to tell what anyone really thought of it from the early reviews.
Rolling Stone’s reviewer was one of the worst offenders. The nearly pointless review of Is This the Life We Really Want? read as if he’d played the album once and dashed it off in about 15 minutes to collect a couple hundred bucks. (One commenter sighed “This review has zero substance. ‘It’s just Roger being Roger.’ Way to phone it in.”) One after another of these empty calorie reviews used the same words—“bitter,” “bleak” and “dystopian” prominently among them (and all referenced President You-Know-Who)—and indicated that good ol’ Rog was still up to his same old bag of tricks, etc, etc, etc. As the editor of a website like this one, I’m well aware of what lazy writing looks like and frankly nearly all of last Friday’s release date reviews of Is This the Life We Really Want?—at least the ones I read—smacked of it to my trained eye. In aggregate they equaled almost nothing useful. I wondered how it was possible not to have a strong opinion about a new Roger Waters album after so many years. Many of them, I imagine were written by underpaid millennials with only the dimmest idea who Roger Waters is, who were just cribbing from the press release.
The next morning the album was delivered before 10am and my weekend plans were back on.
Now don’t get me wrong, while anyone could be forgiven for assuming a priori that the first new release in decades from a 73-year-old multi-millionaire rock star would not necessarily be something to jump up and down about, by the time the first side was over I was completely gobsmacked, stunned at the darkly gorgeous poetry and sonic brilliance of the musical gold that had just been poured into my ears. I flipped it over for two even better, even more emotionally powerful songs. Riveting stuff. Oh sure, it’s true that not every new album by a septuagenarian rock superstar is going to be an instant classic, standing alongside their best work, but Waters’ astonishing and deeply profound Is This the Life We Really Want? is one, and does. I think it’s the best thing he’s done since Animals and I feel like that is saying quite a lot. This is a major event in pop culture. A big fucking deal with sirens blaring.
Now obviously, if you’re Roger Waters and you’ve got something (anything) to say, you (he) can say whatever you want, whenever you want and however you want to say it and a major media conglomerate will rush to exploit this to the hilt and squeeze every last bit of money they can out of your every utterance. Roger Waters and “the music of Pink Floyd” (as the current tour is billed) is a very big business—his multi-year worldwide The Wall Live trek is the highest grossing solo rock tour in history—but admirably, rather than put out one uninspired going-through-the-motions album after another like so many classic rockers of his vintage, Waters waits—25 years if he has to—to make sure that he’s got something important to say before going into the recording studio. No Sinatra covers for him. No Christmas albums. He’ll never record one of those awful “Great American Songbook” things. It’s just not going to happen. There is no squandered goodwill in that way between Waters and his fans. Since 1999 Waters has toured extensively, but without releasing any new material since 1992’s Amused to Death save for the recording of his French Revolution opera Ça Ira. After decades of playing the hits (and amassing a ridiculous fortune that’s managed to survive four divorces) the material on Is This the Life We Really Want? is just about the most potent musical statement imaginable for the Trump era, even if many of the songs were probably written and recorded before his surprise election. Perhaps the ferocious “Picture This” doesn’t refer directly to Trump, although it certainly seems like it does.
Picture a courthouse with no fucking laws
Picture a cathouse with no fucking whores
Picture a shithouse with no fucking drains
Picture a leader with no fucking brains
Top that! The song pulses and throbs like the best mid-70s Floyd barnburner, obviously quite purposefully and by deliberate design. Producer Nigel Godrich (Radiohead, Beck) has surrounded Waters with a crack band of some of the finest musicians in America—among them Jonathan Wilson on guitar; vocalists Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig from Lucius; REM/Beck drummer Joey Waronker, a Mason-esque octopus-armed pounder to be sure; and Roger Manning Jr. of Jellyfish on keyboards—with what seems to be the canny dual intention of simultaneously providing Waters with some inspired and well-chosen collaborators who bring their own magic to the table, and using this A-list crew to record what is probably the closest thing to a full-on Pink Floyd 70s headphones album experience as could possibly be hoped for (minus the obviously missing participants). The gorgeous string arrangements were done by David Campbell (Beck’s father, who Wikipedia tells me made his recording debut playing cello on Carole King’s Tapestry) and… wow… just wow. This album is just crazy fucking good on every level.
Continues after the jump…