The Pink Floyd frontman teamed with producer Nigel Godrich for his new album. They don’t take many risks, but Roger Waters presents some of his most focused songs since the mid-’70s.
It’s been abundantly well documented that by the time Pink Floyd set out to record their sprawling 1979 double album The Wall, internal friction over bassist/frontman Roger Waters’ push for creative control had reached a breaking point. In a sense, The Wall crushed the classic lineup of Pink Floyd, but it’s been Waters who’s had the hardest time getting out from under its weight. For much of his solo career—1987’s Radio K.A.O.S. and 1992’s Amused to Death in particular—he has more or less repeated The Wall’s musical style and conceptual grandiosity, at times appearing both stuck and ungrounded without his former bandmates. Waters has even staged his own productions of The Wall and released two different live recordings of it.
On paper, his decision to work with famed producer Nigel Godrich for Is This the Life We Really Want? looks like a much-needed injection of new blood. After all, Godrich’s signature sound has been a cornerstone in the legacies of Radiohead and Beck. His touch is immediately apparent from the outset, as Is This the Life opens with a ticking clock, bass played in the pulse of a heartbeat, and muffled voices—like Radiohead’s OK Computer interlude “Fitter Happier” meets the iconic intro to Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon cut “Time.” Before you can make out what the voices are saying, their cadence and tones suggest a broadcast of some kind—a motif that runs through both Radio K.A.O.S. and Amused to Death.
As the voices come into focus, you realize you’re hearing multiple tracks of Waters himself. At first, the words come tumbling down in a heap of unrelated gibberish. “Where are you now?” asks one of the voices. Then, after a slight pause: “Don’t answer that.” Another: “I’m still ugly; you’re still fat.” Eventually, a train of thought begins to form: “Our parents made us who we are. Or was it God? Who gives a fuck; it’s never really over.” Now craggy and deep, Waters’ speaking voice could probably give the late Orson Welles a run for his money. Without question, he would excel at doing radio theatre. And though Waters’ singing voice was already sounding nicely age-worn in ’92, here he switches with great agility between his usual confidence and a newfound frailty that recalls Johnny Cash’s final output.
Is This the Life leaves little doubt that Waters has seasoned in the 25 years since Amused to Death. But aside from his 2005 opera Ça Ira, he’s still hung up on the same themes. Depending on your perspective, this will either strike you as reassuringly familiar or maddeningly one-track minded—maybe even both. To be fair, Waters was ahead of the curve in lamenting our attachment to media saturation on Amused to Death—modern life has basically become what that album anticipated. So it makes sense that Is This the Life answers back with a plea for sanity. And to his credit, much of it comes across as both sincere and necessary—albeit draped in Waters’ habit of being preachy and pedantic. (Two years ago, he described the new material as his way of sending humanity a mediocre report card.)
Yes, the radio-style announcements at the top of “The Last Refugee” would indicate that Waters hasn’t stretched much beyond his now-predictable arsenal of sound effects. The same goes for its languid drumbeat. The album even calls Godrich into question—tunes like “The Last Refugee” and “Is This the Life We Really Want?” are sometimes hard to tell apart from Sea Change-era Beck. Godrich and Waters didn’t push each other to break new ground as much as one might have hoped. But “The Last Refugee,” with its images of lovers lying “Under lemon tree skies” and “Dreams/Up to our knees/In warm ocean swells,” also shows that Waters has grown into an evocative poet—that is, when he isn’t spelling out his message on songs like “Picture That.” “Picture your kid with his hand on the trigger,” he sings, “Picture prosthetics in Afghanistan.” Then again, it’s hard to argue with a verse like “Picture a shithouse, with no fucking drains/Picture a leader, with no fucking brains.”
Waters’ predictability doesn’t diminish his effortless songwriting, and Is This the Life We Really Want? presents his tightest, most focused songs since the mid-’70s. “Wish You Were Here in Guantanamo Bay,” he sings on “Picture That.” The first letters of the phrase are capitalized in the lyric sheet, a sly nod to both the popular tourist postcard and, of course, to the Pink Floyd song and album of the same name. Even casual fans will spot Waters’ hint of the old melody right away. Is This the Life’s myriad sonic references to his work with Pink Floyd suggest that Waters is comfortable with his past. The more you accept how much his past reflects in his present, the more receptive you’ll be to this album’s charms.