As the enigmatic former lead singer and bassist of Pink Floyd, Roger Waters’ solo career has been defined by a struggle to distance himself from his legendary band, with varying degrees of success. On his latest release, Is This The Life We Really Want?, Waters manages to create a prog-rock labyrinth for the modern day, complete with the conscience protest anthems that made Pink Floyd famous.
While I would like to separate Roger’s solo work from his years in Floyd, listening to this album makes it impossible. The transition from the opening interlude into the lead single, “Deja Vu”, seems to pull heavily from 1975’s Wish You Were Here. A cacophony of different recordings and haunting voices blend together into a quiet acoustic guitar, accompanied only by Waters’ raspy vocals. While some may find the similarities a bit drab, Waters manages to keep it interesting through his evocative lyrics, most of which tackle the biggest issues facing society today.
“Deja Vu”, with its earnest manner and melancholy examination of the world, ranks among the top songs of the year so far. Roger imagines himself being God, explaining how he would rid the world of aging. It’s an odd statement, one that most musicians choose not to make. As the track unfolds, he draws comparisons between God and drones, both of which choose who lives or dies at random, with no specific reasoning behind the destruction they create. A polarizing analogy, it nonetheless illustrates his view of the unfairness of death, and how unjustified it can be. He also imagines the apprehension one feels when assuming such a devastating role:
“I would be afraid to find someone home
Maybe a women at a stove
Baking bread, making rice, or just boiling down some bones
If I were a drone.”
Waters' vocals on this track range from a near whisper to a howling shriek. While definitely not pitch perfect, one cannot deny the sincerity that is poured into the lines. When addressing such topics, tone and pitch are of a lesser concern.
One of the most heart-wrenching photos to come out of the Syrian refugee crisis was that of three-year old Alan Kurdi. The picture showed Kurdi’s lifeless body splayed on the Turkish coast, after the raft his family was on capsized on its way to Greece. The tragic event became a symbol for the crisis as a whole, one that Roger Waters implements in his track “The Last Refugee”.
The track’s beginning, long and winding, reminds me a lot of “Us and Them” in that both utilize a minimal, enveloping atmosphere. Under the warm hum of synthesizers, Roger laments the pure tragedy that has befallen so many leaving Syria. The lyrics reference the sea, and the instrumentals are appropriately dizzying on that front: swelling and wading over tortured words.
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“And you’ll find my child down by the shore
Digging around for a chain or a bone
Searching the sand for a relic washed up by the sea.”
Despite a somber tone that lingers throughout the whole record, this track supersedes all others in that regard, leaving me blotting the tears out of my eyes. The crisis facing refugees in Syria is the largest since the second world war, and yet the number of songs addressing the issue have been limited so far. This song coming out in 2017 serves as a reminder of how pressing the issue still is.
Considering that Is This The Life centers around the issues of today, writing a song about the current president seemed almost unavoidable. Since the election, there have been no shortage of songs criticizing the president, with the vast majority lacking actual substance - protest songs for the sake of protesting.
The record’s title track takes on not only the chief executive, but also the mindset that leads to such occurrences. Waters ties together events like global warming, the jailing of journalists, and Tiananmen Square to illustrate the indifference of the populous. Waters goes on to compare human beings to ants, unable to understand the pain of others. The track radiates without sounding cliche or hollow.
These issues have been coming up in Waters’ music since Pink Floyd. It is understandable that he often references his disappointment in how little has changed in the subsequent decades. Is This The Life acts as the stage for the battle between Waters’ idealistic and disenchanted natures. As one gets older, their area of concern grows increasingly smaller. Protests about foreign wars seem less important when confronted with the various challenges of building a career and family (mortgages, taxes, etc.). Waters, at the experienced age of 78, looks at the house fire in horror, while the rest of the world turns it back.
Waters does manage to leave room on the record for a couple apolitical love songs. “Wait for Her” is a sweet and endearing serenade. The theme of the song is central to any healthy relationship, but one that often goes unmentioned in the endless sea of love ballads: patience. It seems many of today’s love songs involve a guy telling a girl that the man she’s seeing is a jerk, and that she should date him instead (a.k.a. literally every song on Ed Sheeran’s Divide). Waters turns this narrative on its head by singing a tender message of restraint, not doing anything unless it is ok with her:
“Serve her water before wine
Do not touch her hand
Let your fingertips
Rest at her command.”
Regardless of the topic Waters addresses on each of the eleven tracks, he always does so with immense genuineness and heart. For an artist to make an album so great late in their career is rare, especially considering that their greatest works came out over forty years ago. Is This The Life is Waters at his most candid, a frank attitude found in many tracks. However, he does not forget to inject emotion, which transforms the album from a list of complaints into an angered cry for change.
Kyle Land is a music writer for the Daily Lobo. He can be reached at music@dailylobo or uffdaculture.blogspot.com.