Roger Waters - Is This The Life We Really Want?
“Mother, should I trust the government?” Roger Waters asked on Pink Floyd’s extraordinary 1979 rock opera The Wall. Apparently conceptualized by Waters after spitting on the face of an audience member during the tour behind 1977’s Animals, Pink Floyd’s bleak successor was an album fixated on the physical and emotional distance between those with power and the rest of us. Between the album’s cheeky opening line “so ya thought ya might like to…go to the show” unfolding as the proclamations of a dictator egoistically controlling all elements of their reality-televised control, “lights! Roll the sound effects!” a missile swooping through the chauvinistic grandiosity, to the closing chants of “tear down the wall!” and the peaceful calm on the other side, The Wall ruminated on the terrors and paranoia of World War II, corruption and greed, and the effects upon those struck by the system of imbalance.
Following that album’s release and its sequel The Final Cut, Waters left the group and nearly retreated into darkness. Over the course of more than three decades he would release a few solo albums, each conceptually driven and darkly political, suggesting the ex-Pink Floyd lead only develops a work when the need to bite back on an issue of modern relevance overtakes him.
And so here we are in the year 2017. Roger Waters has paired with Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich to construct a response to our current state of life, liberty, and the pursuit of power, because: when an impossibly wealthy egomaniacal reality-TV-hosting known racist, known sexual predator, known con-artist, known Fox News junkie, known self-server of Orwellian proportions is elected president of the United States; when that President deploys propaganda to the unwashed masses from his Twitter account; when that President’s response to a comedian’s risqué photo-op depicting their clutched, severed head is hounding of that comedian by the secret service; when that image is simultaneously the dark, inner sentiment of half of the American population; when the construction of a literal wall between Mexico and the United States is a campaign promise turned reality; when the Secretary of Education appears to back the notion that “we don’t need no education”; when instituted law and policy allow power and wealth to funnel toward the world’s richest few at the sacrifice of the poor and the planet; when the wall rapidly grows as truth and ethics break their necks contorting to their God’s will - an old musician’s bleak commentary may be necessary.
Is This The Life We Really Want? is anguish and anger, and it is the most exquisitely written piece of music Roger Waters has composed since the early 1980s. Like previous works, Waters’ targeted approach remains unsubtle, yet much of the songwriting retains a nuanced edge. On “Picture That”, Waters guides us through sequences of despair, depicting active atrocities outside of the first world’s scope, then suggesting in contrast we “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”. That last bit echoes out for emphasis. It’s an antagonistic approach that serves as the armor to an album delving deep into the heart of modern chaos, bringing with it a sword. Elsewhere, “Smell The Roses” is a near celebration of toxic indulgence and schandefreude and the title track is even less understated: a sound bite of Donald Trump speaking with CNN croaks into view, “I won. I won. And the other thing, chaos. There is zero chaos. We are running. This is a finely tuned mach-”, the clip ends abruptly but the reference is clear. The Machine has always staked its claim on imagined freedom and “it’s alright, we told you what to dream” may echo through your subconscious before Waters saunters in with “The goose has gotten fat”. What follows is a diatribe of fear tactics, existential quandaries, numb apathy, and somehow, most chillingly, ants.
One of Waters’ strongest assets when constructing an album has been his ability to pull a clear and cohesive vision into focus. This is, again, built into Is This The Life We Really Want?. Producer Nigel Godrich blends Waters’ penchant for psych rock balladry (a sound Pink Floyd helmed for decades) with spacious production most reminiscent of Radiohead’s 2016 release A Moon Shaped Pool, assembling a collection of tracks sharing a moody sonic space. Then, beyond the translucent sonic and thematic arc is a narrative in miniature: the murder of Mistress Liberty at the hands of corruption and lawlessness. In “Broken Bones” Waters laments, “We chose to adhere to abundance / we chose the American Dream / and oh, Mistress Liberty / how we abandoned thee”, a desperate response to the unending onslaught of attacks on the many for the sake of the highly privileged few. At the end of the track, Waters’ encourages a fairly simple reply with a “fuck you / we will not listen to your bullshit and lies”. Certainly this sentiment could have been issued through a poetic turn, Waters’ seething disgust seems to suggest he has trudged past a point of polite analogy. Still, near the album’s close on “Wait For Her”, “Oceans Apart”, and “Part of Me Died”, Mistress Liberty takes center stage, as does the beating heart of Is This The Life We Really Want?. Liberty fades into death with a soft, “hold on, you’re breaking my heart” and Waters recalls looking upon Liberty’s eyes as a young Brit, long held feelings of cynicism and greed falling away by her presence and influence. With little room available for prosaic indulgence, Waters cuts to the point as though this were his last chance.
At 73 years old and during a period in which a number of groundbreaking musicians seem to be bowing out of this plane of existence, Roger Waters has issued a definitive statement reflective of our current global nightmare while simultaneously rooted in the artistic leanings of his past. He seems to raise Is This The Life We Really Want? in the air as if to say, “We have been here before!” Across the album is a smattering of callbacks: references to pigs and dogs (Animals), the record’s opening built from cryptic mutterings (Dark Side of The Moon), and of course, monumental callbacks to The Wall in the record’s aims. As Waters sings in 2017, “it feels like déjà vu”.
While I appreciate Waters’ directness with these nods to the Floyd of yesteryear, this device may turn some listeners off. Is This The Life We Really Want? is an album so deeply embedded in the Pink Floyd canon that those unfamiliar with their work may find it difficult to understand Waters’ approach here. And if that doesn’t turn newcomers away, the blunt lyricisms coupled with Waters’ aged vocals are almost sure to. Like Blackstar, Bowie’s final work, Is This The Life We Really Want? is especially designed for those who can place the album within a context, draw parallels, and appreciate how the sentiments have changed or stayed the same. It is easier to overlook an occasionally corny lyric when you grew up with the platform the new album is built upon.
Over the course of exactly five decades, the legacy of Pink Floyd has cemented itself finely with classic works that may very well be infinite. Several LPs serve as staples of the baby-boomer vinyl collection, The Wall’s film adaptation serves as one of the most screened midnight movies ever, and those posters, T-shirts, mugs, phone cases, and lunch boxes serve as a fine example of how capitalism feasts upon these legacies. It is ironic, then, to consider that the number five best selling album of all time was an integral component of the punk movement. The Wall was a reaction built from inner turmoil, but ultimately fed on societal monstrosities. While times have changed, the paranoia, or rather, acknowledgement of systems of power, remains. A lot of those former hippies wandering about in 2017 in their Dark Side of the Moon T-shirts didn’t necessarily take with them the sentiments of those albums, or Waters’ prophetic sentiment, “You lean to the left, but you vote to the right”. And the web is glutted with such an incredible abundance of oversaturated news analysis, shallow tweeting, and the face of our modern leader, that the topsy-turvy nature of our times has led many to become comfortably numb.
The Wall of now is different, though it still represents a barrier to empathy. The album cover of ‘79’s The Wall showed a physical barrier representing emotional distance, but the album artwork of Is This The Life We Really Want? displays lines of text, almost entirely blotted out by black marker. The wall is pieced together by contortions of truth, furious storms of red herrings, and falsehoods by way of omission, all of it flooding from the peak of the apex. Amidst this reign, Waters asks a simple question: