“Is This the Life We Really Want?”
When Roger Waters announced that he was working with Radiohead/Beck producer Nigel Godrich on his first new studio album in a quarter-century, imaginations ran wild at the thought of Waters’ sensibilities being run through some kind of post-modern filter. But, for better or worse, the newly released result is less of the “Kid Animals” hybrid you might have expected than Godrich indulging his Pink Floyd fanboy side.
“Is This the Life We Really Want?” finds the producer adding blatant nods along the way to every Floyd album from “Meddle” through “The Final Cut” — which may alternately delight fans and frustrate them a little, since the material Waters has written doesn’t always seem to be calling for these touches. Most of the songs are closer to meditative, half-spoken album tracks of yore like “Mother” than explosive hits like “Money,” but that doesn’t keep Godrich from throwing in tape loops of BBC radio announcers or ticking-clock sound effects or synth parts that sound like posthumous contributions from Floyd keyboardist Richard Wright. These ‘70s-redolent touches may represent Godrich’s glee at being the kid in the Pink Floyd candy store, or just a realization that it takes a spoonful of that sugar to make Waters’ world-weary bitterness go down.
And make no mistake — Waters was already rock’s angriest man for the last 40 years, and the election of Donald Trump certainly hasn’t mellowed him out. Except for a couple of surprisingly sweet moments in the final stretch, “Is This the Life We Really Want?” is a nonstop fusillade of Waters’ grievances against (a probably non-existent) God, the president, the military-industrial complex, drones, smartphones, reality TV, remote-control bombings, cruel fate, and far, far crueler mankind. (However, there are none of the overt Israeli/Palestinian comments he’s made in recent interviews, in case you’re wondering.) The largely stream-of-consciousness lyrics make this arguably Waters’ first real non-concept album since “Meddle” — although the idea that the world has gone to hell in a handbasket, and that Roger Waters is mad about it, may count as concept enough.
When Godrich isn’t distracting with overtly nostalgic touches, “Is This the Life We Really Want?” plays out a lot like free-form poetry set to music. That’s not a knock; it’s mostly very good free-form poetry, and the music has a lot of undeniably lovely moments — thanks especially to the string arrangements from David Campbell (a.k.a. Beck’s father) — even if it rarely coalesces into the conventional tunes some may be looking for. It’s a better album than previous efforts like “Radio KAOS” or “Amused to Death” for being less tied to narrative shackles.
Yet the problem with the winking Floyd references is that they keep setting you up for a cathartic David Gilmour guitar solo that never comes. (Jonathan Wilson, who’s part of the crack L.A. studio band Godrich brought in, is certainly capable, but goes uncalled upon for much here.) Maybe it’s a no-win situation — such a solo would be too overt — but all that tension begs for some kind of release.
And yet it’s hard not to be struck by all the beautiful turns of phrase Waters comes upon here, even amid all the FCC-baiting political bile. This is especially true of the quiet three-song suite that ends the album, which seems to revolve around actual love, even though you keep waiting for a missile sound effect. (He did, after all, blow up “The Most Beautiful Girl” a little earlier in the album.) It takes a moment to realize in “Wait for Her” that, when he sings “Don’t let your eyes alight upon the twin doves of her breast, lest they take flight/ Wait for her,” he’s being funny and affectionate and dear, not setting you up for the kill.
And then, in the closing “Part of Me Died,” he goes on to literally catalogue every bad thing he can think of in the world over the course of a couple of unbendingly bitter minutes, because he is Roger Waters, but also because he’s trying to provide some closing context for how the love of a woman supposedly makes him want to forget all that misanthropy. But if you’re a fan, you would never want Waters to forget: All these decades into our relationship, there’s something comforting about his discomfort.