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.
I’ve read that Is This the Life We Really Want? isn’t supposed to be a concept album, but it certainly feels like one. The narrator here is an old man. Maybe he’s an old god, his voice cracking as he recalls lost love, decries the stupidity of mankind and as always with Roger Waters, there’s war—war being waged by the rich and fought on their behalf by the young, the poor and the powerless. Waters sings from the bemused, sometimes bittersweet, and sometimes just plain bitterly bitter perspective of a multimillionaire socialist deity looking on in utter disbelief and horror at how badly we’re all fucking up down here. It is that same narrator’s voice, alternatingly exasperated or apocalyptically world weary and dripping with weltschmerz, on all of the songs. Waters’ father and his father’s father before him were both killed in war—his schoolteacher father, originally a pacifist and conscientious objector who later enlisted, died during WWII’s Battle of Anzio when Waters was still a toddler. No amount of money can erase the heightened awareness of the randomness of life and death such circumstances would bring to bear on someone’s worldview, but it must be said (and I say this with great admiration) that being as absurdly rich as he is does give Roger Waters the poet a rather unique perch from which to view and comment upon his fellow human beings. Obviously Waters is not some everyman Joe Schmo, but he is still someone who chaired the youth chapter of CND when he was just a 15-year-old kid. The tension between his fully paid up membership in the 1% vs. his deeply held political principles gives him a perspective most mere mortals simply cannot have. I don’t mean to imply that Waters is some kind of philosopher who comes down off the mountain with holy tablets once every 24 years—OKAY I DO, I ABSOLUTELY MEAN TO DO JUST THAT—but Is This the Life We Really Want? is absolutely, hands-down the best album of 2017 so far. 10/10. A masterpiece.
Photo by Jason Ritter
The Us + Them tour
As mentioned above, I was among the lucky first people to hear songs from Is This the Life We Really Want? about a week before the album came out when the Waters tour rolled into to Louisville, KY over the Memorial Day holiday weekend. I’m friends with Jonathan Wilson, who is playing guitar on the tour and he invited me to be his guest. We had great seats, but there are truly no bad seats for a stage show this big. The projection screens behind the band were absolutely massive and the live mix between the action onstage and the videographic elements was impressive, amongst the best I’ve ever seen. Even as good as Radiohead’s. The audio was apparently mixed in quadraphonic sound. Certainly it was one of the best-sounding sets that I have ever been in an audience to experience. Of course the flying pig made an appearance, and a floating silver orb as well. It was a complete sensory overload.
It was my second time seeing a Roger Waters concert and so I knew what to expect. I saw the In the Flesh tour at Madison Square Garden in July of 2000—Jon Carin, my directly-across-the-hallway neighbor at the time in NYC has been Waters’ touring partner for many years—and even then he was sort of presenting “the music of Pink Floyd” but not singing all or even necessarily a majority of the songs. I guess when you’re on a four-year long tour it’s a good idea to keep your voice well rested. For me the highlights of that show were the songs that I didn’t know. The material from Amused to Death—and there was a fair amount of it—was basically new to me. I owned the album, but never listened to it, but that made the set even better for me as I enjoyed the quality of the musicianship more I think on those numbers than some of the Pink Floyd classics. This time round, I was particularly interested in hearing material from the new album in that same way, with fresh ears, and performed by many of the musicians who’d help create it, including Jonathan Wilson who I think is very simply the single best musician in America today. I also really wanted to hear him play David Gilmour’s guitar solos on the Floyd songs. (Jonathan sings a lot during the show as well. He even gets to sing “Money” every night which must be quite a thrill.)
Photo by Jason Ritter
Everyone I’ve talked to about the show wants to know how much Trump figures into the Waters’ concert. The Us + Them concert is not an anti-Trump themed event per se, it’s more of a “Christ, look how goddamned insane we’ve all become” theme. To the extent that Trump’s idiotic Ubu Roi-like political ascent is emblematic of our times, our POS POTUS looms large during the show. One song sees instances of mind-numbingly stupid quotes from Trump flashed on the screens around the arena. When Waters sings “Picture a leader with no fucking brains” it’s no surprise which leader with no fucking brains the audience is shown a picture of. When the show ended and the lights went up, pink graffiti reading “RESIST” fell for several minutes onto the heads of the happy departing crowd. Everyone there knew what that meant. There was (very) light scattered booing after some of the anti-Trump moments, but even in KY, not all that much. I think most of the people there knew what to anticipate from the man who gave us The Wall when it comes to the racist greedhead windbag who wants to build one.
Although there’s been criticism of Waters relying too much on his backing musicians during his concerts, I didn’t find that to be a problem with a band this incredibly hot. (I guess that goony idiot GE Smith royally fucked himself out of a job with Waters by playing Trump’s prom at the GOP’s convention last year. His loss is our gain!) Waters himself has hardly aged at all in the 17 years since I’d last seen him. Now 73, like Paul McCartney (who is a year older) Waters is a particularly young-seeming older man, could easily pass for 60 and clearly keeps himself in top physical shape. (There must be something about generating hundreds of thousands of dollars an hour that keeps a man youthful.) My only criticism of the concert is that I wished they’d have played even more of Is This the Life We Really Want?—they did five songs, but I’d have preferred to have heard all of it (especially having heard the album only after the show). Here’s hoping that as the tour continues they might add a few more of the newer numbers to the setlist. I know no one ever wants to hear the new material, just the hits, but in this instance, with this band, I’d have honestly preferred for the first half of the set to have been the entirety of Is This the Life We Really Want? played in order. The new album (which I strongly urge you to buy on vinyl) is just that good.
If you’re reading this and are on the fence about seeing Waters this Summer—the Us + Them tour continues through Halloween across North America—GO, don’t hesitate.
On ‘The Late Show with Stephen Colbert’
“Picture This” at the pre-tour dress rehearsal at Meadowlands Arena, May 21, 2017
‘The Last Refugee’ music video.