In this unflinchingly bleak era of nationalism and despotic madmen profiting from institutionalized intolerance, listening to a Roger Waters record doesn’t sound like a clinically advisable move. Too catastrophically depressing. Fortunately, the mastermind behind some of the darkest sociopolitical records in rock history is alight with the fire of rebellion.
Yes, after a studio hiatus that lasted nearly a quarter of a century, the Pink Floyd co-founder has returned when we need him most. The last time we heard from Waters, he was warning the world about almost exactly what’s befallen us. 1992’s Amused to Death was a loose concept album, more of a tapestry really, focusing on the numbing indifference of media and politicians’ grotesque proliferation of war. In many ways, the record was a culmination of Waters’ absolute grimmest, most affecting work: Animals, The Wall, and The Final Cut wrapped up in the fullest expression of his trademark cinematic audio production. His new offering, Is This the Life We Really Want?, can easily be read as a direct follow-up. Remarkably, in this even more disturbing time, what sets these two sister albums apart is that Is This the Life We Really Want? offers a shred of hope and call to fight.
Is This The Life We Really Want? is easily the most accessible of Waters’ solo work – a distillation in many regards of the anti-fascist, anti-imperialist, anti-greed messages he’s been broadcasting since Pink Floyd. And, in fact, musically this is Waters’ most classically Floyd-sounding record. Lyrically, it’s about as subtle as “Money”, but in this dark hour, there’s no room left for subtlety. Though there are certainly some nooks and crannies to peer in for deeper context, Is This the Life We Really Want? is a clearly stated “fuck you” to Donald Trump and anyone who profits from human suffering.
The title track opens with a CNN clip of Trump asserting his election win with an insistence of “zero chaos.” It’s in the dead center of the 12-track record – a thesis junction from which all the album’s other trains of thought travel. “Fear drives the mills of modern man,” sings Waters over dreary grooves. String section hits and Vangelis-like synth accents layer the song as it builds into a sinister embodiment of life over the past year. “Is this the life we really want?” he asks and replies: “It surely must be so. ‘Cause this is a democracy, and what we all say goes.”
The sound of distant arguments, maybe rioting, plays dimly in the background, and Waters starts listing atrocities we can blame ourselves for by embracing an anesthetized, ant-like existence: “Every time a young girl’s life is casually spent, and every time a nincompoop becomes the president…” If what you always look for in a Roger Waters album is a profoundly sobering experience, this one won’t disappoint, but unlike past records, these songs won’t leave you wanting to bury yourself deeper in the sand. The question “Is this the life we really want?” invites the listener to say, “No fucking way!”
If there’s something familiar-sounding about these new songs, other than Waters’ grim list-making, that’s no coincidence. Throughout his career, Waters has woven recurring motifs and echoed lyrics into a kind of conceptual continuity – not of a story, but an ongoing dialogue. Is This the Life We Really Want? leans heavily on these moments, more than ever before. The Amused to Death monkey is back to switching channels as an occasional segue device between tracks; the record opens with ticking clocks and heartbeats… These callbacks risk being heavy-handed, but feel like an integral part of the album’s dialogue, cluing listeners in as to where contextual threads connect while building on what’s come before to examine where we are now.
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Songs like “Picture That” give a sense of being a sequel of a sort — in that case, “Sheep” from Animals. In “Sheep”, Waters asked, “What do you get for pretending the danger’s not real?” and now we see the consequences: opulence. Ruin. Sobering snapshots like“prosthetics in Afghanistan” and simple but gutturally satisfying lines like: “Picture a shithouse with no fucking drains, picture a leader with no fucking brains.” Cue vocal echo, strobing baseline, and eerie synth corridors, and you’re off in a breakdown not a far cry from 1977.
“Broken Bones” hearkens to The Final Cut’s “Possible Pasts” following its post-World War II dialogue: “Oh, the slate was never wiped clean/ We could’ve picked over them broken bones/ We could’ve been free/ But we chose to adhere to abundance, we chose the American dream/ And oh, mysterious Liberty – how we abandoned thee.” The track delves into the torturing of innocents and other vile acts done in Liberty’s name. It’s also host to another one of Waters’ pointed rallying cries: “We cannot turn back the clock/ We cannot go back in time/ But can say, ‘Fuck you, we’ll not listen to your bullshit and lies.’”
Eloquent? No. But key for this time and place. Is This the Life We Really Want? will definitely stand as a document of the moment, even over the albums that spawned prior to the Falklands and the Gulf War. However, this less conceptual, simpler record might reach a wider audience and do some real good. In this album, Waters offers his work as fuel for revolutionaries. It’s still not presented as a series of singles, but the stripped-down, less narrative, less dream-like structure is less daunting while the messages are just as powerful.
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Having said that, it’s not hard to imagine another time when the instrumentals would’ve been deeper and funkier. Nigel Godrich’s production has a cleanliness to it that plays with the right tools to engineer the Waters/Floyd sound — not to mention plenty of beautiful and distinct nuances of its own – but the record pales to the rich and lush sounds of its prior entries. This is not the sonic opulence Waters is known for, nor is it necessarily copacetic with the tone of the record throughout.
Is This the Life We Really Want? closes on an unexpected note – a three-song cycle that shifts away from the scathing critique of our lives to a love song of sorts. Culminating in the last track, “A Part of Me Died”, the narrator turns his back on a life of cold-hearted depravity: “silence, indifference, the ultimate crime — but when I met you that part of me died.” The sequence serves as an important component to the album’s theme: that experiencing real love and caring can change a human being for the better. That the capacity to give and receive love is as much a component of us as our predatory inclination to amass power. As Waters recently told Rolling Stone: “I’ve only ever written about one thing in my life, which is the fact that we as human beings have a responsibility to one another.” Well, there you are.
Essential Tracks: “Picture That”, “Broken Bones”, and “The Life We Really Want”