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PLAYLIST: Pink Floyd

PLAYLIST: Pink Floyd

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In 1994, the night before I took the SAT, my friends and I drove down to Veterans Stadium on the outskirts of Philadelphia. Pink Floyd was in town to promote The Division Bell, the band’s second studio album since mastermind Roger Waters split roughly a decade prior. To a 17-year-old boy, it didn’t matter that Waters was long gone, this was a Pink Floyd concert, a promise for mind-blowing visuals, stadium-aimed anthems, parking lots full of bootleg T-shirts and nitrous balloons. We were not disappointed, but little did we know that The Division Bell would also be Pink Floyd’s final album.

Flash forward 17 years, half of my lifespan, and a whole new generation of high school boys have fallen in love with Pink Floyd. EMI has issued remasters of the band’s 14 albums- from Piper at the Gates of Dawn to The Division Bell– in sterling sound. But this isn’t music for young lust or angsty teenagers. This is classic rock at its most pure, overinflated notions and failed experiments included.

To celebrate these reissues, we have decided that Pink Floyd is our next PLAYLIST band. The idea is simple enough: make a playlist (with mix tapes and CDs becoming so unfortunately passé) centered around one artist or band with a deep catalog, including only our favorite track from each album. Between the band’s massive commercial successes and countless hits and amazing album cuts choosing Pink Floyd’s most essential songs was no easy task. Once again, we got together, butted heads and hashed out this list. We hope it not only motivates you to dig into your Pink Floyd collection again, but also to come up with your own lists! We’d love to see them in the Comments section.

So much has changed since we last heard from Pink Floyd. Syd Barrett has died, so has Richard Wright. Veterans Stadium with all its concert memories has been demolished. But the music lives on. We are proud to present PLAYLIST: Pink Floyd. – David Harris

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“Lucifer Sam” from Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967)

Pink Floyd’s most popular songs tend to be about Syd Barrett or indirectly inspired by him, rather than written by him, with the early period in which he led the band mostly flying under the radar. It’s easy to dismiss this era as a formative one – too unfocused, too unorthodox, too slight – but a track like “Lucifer Sam,” off the group’s Wind in the Willows themed debut, highlights Barrett’s best qualities, the smirking playfulness that sidestepped the darkness and pretension that came to characterize much of their later work.

Tracks like this are great because they’re so deceptively simple, little ditties that sneak into experimental territory while still sounding mostly conventional. In this case, that involves twisting a fundamentally pop-based structure, with jangly guitar work hinging on a basic descending riff to strangely creepy effect. Written by Barrett about his cat, the song takes mundane details, and with the nudging provided by farfisa and paranoid free-association lyrics, turns it into sinister absurdity.

A lot of this has to do with the central riff, which plays off the familiar Peter Gunn theme to half-jokingly get us into the mystery of what this cat is up to. This remains rooted in the tacit understanding of how ridiculous this all is, and like most of Barrett’s best work, the song remains a silly experiment that still totally works as a standalone track. It’s perfectly indicative of the band’s psychedelic period, skirting the edges of mental illness with a madcap insouciance, a style that would become more ponderous after Barrett left. – Jesse Cataldo

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“Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” from A Saucerful of Secrets (1968)

As has now been well-documented, Syd Barrett’s behavior became increasingly erratic during the recording sessions for A Saucerful of Secrets; David Gilmour would eventually join the band during this time at least partly as a result of Barrett’s cracking psyche, perhaps the single moment that shaped the band’s future more than any other. Written and sung by Roger Waters, “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” is full of the type of miscellany Pink Floyd fans love: it’s the only studio song in which all five members appear, though Barrett’s guitar work is mostly obliterated by Richard Wright’s keyboards; Nick Mason plays timpani mallets; its druggie-headed lyrics were “inspired” by a book of Chinese poetry.

But this is how academia would approach the song, and all the dry facts in the world don’t give any sense of how, still today, the song remains one of the band’s most hypnotic efforts and marks an early example of the types of sounds they’d handle in more epic scope. It’s even enjoyable without chemical assistance – really! – and its Tang Dynasty-lifting lyrics and imagery (leaves, lotuses, swallows resting under the eaves) are late 1960s-pastoral without feeling wimpy. Though “Controls” would eventually bloat into various extended live versions, the Saucerful cut set a high standard that was rarely surpassed: its vocals float above its dreamy instrumentation, exploratory and concise in a manner that became increasingly rare for Pink Floyd. It was a transitional song for each of the band’s members, though with far different consequences; that Barrett’s contribution to the track is both mostly inaudible and practically invisible is a sad but fitting conclusion to his time in the band. – Eric Dennis

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“The Nile Song” from More (1969)

Without Syd Barrett, Pink Floyd was rudderless. David Gilmour stepped into the power vacuum on More, and it’s the only album during the Roger Waters era in which Gilmour is the lead vocalist on every track. Recorded for Barbet Schroeder’s directorial debut of the same name, More is an album of transition and experimentation. Needing a direction, songs on this album range from Barrett influenced tracks befitting Piper at the Gates of Dawn such as “Cirrus Minor” to folksy balladry on “Green Is the Colour” and slower tracks like “Crying Song,” to a few songs that dip into heavy metal, all indicating a growing ease in songwriting.

“The Nile Song” is arguably the heaviest off of More and possibly the heaviest Pink Floyd ever recorded. Starting off with dirty Hendrix riffs, it’s apparent it will be a departure from the subdued album opener. Paired with a film about heroin addiction, it’s not hard to see what effect Floyd were going for. From the joys of the first highs: “My tears wept like a child / How her golden hair was blowing wild/ Then she spread her wings to fly,” to the inevitability of addiction: “She is calling from the deep/ Summoning my soul to endless sleep/ She is bound to drag me down.” Gilmour’s screaming, straining voice echo an addict’s desperation. The guitars stay heavy through the track and Mason’s drumming is a revelation. It ends with a simple fade out as the track is still rocking, mimicking the good times addicts think go on forever. – Tris Miller

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“Careful With That Axe, Eugene” from Ummagumma (1969)
Even from a band known to make massive albums, Ummagumma is particularly immense in sound and ambition. Coming off the spotty film soundtrack that was More, this 1969 record is one of the finest examples of psychedelic rock. Containing both a live disc and a disc of studio material, there’s a lot to tackle in the reissue. Most rewarding is the live disc, which takes some early Pink Floyd recordings and injects them with fury. Though all of the live cuts are great, “Careful With That Axe, Eugene” stands head and shoulders above the rest.

Originally released as a B-Side on the “Point Me at the Sky” single, the live cut of “Eugene” is an infectious and menacing slowburn. It’s one of those tracks that, through a pair of headphones, transports you somewhere wholly unfamiliar. Mostly instrumental, relentless in its building of tension and atmosphere, the track starts with a two-note bass line, calculated, gentle cymbal and organ, quickly transforming into a heady piece of psychedelia. Gilmour decorates the early portion of the track with a heavy dose of reverb, until a whispered verse and high-pitched scream provide the moment of catharsis, his guitar exploding in a manic solo while Nick Mason beats the shit out of his kit. It’s heavy metal and acid-rock all blended into a glorious, white-knuckled nine minutes.

“Careful With That Axe, Eugene” is one of those tracks that defined Pink Floyd, even if their later work gets most of the radio play. The elements on hand for this track-the lurching tempo, building through long, drawn-out notes-are still employed today by nostalgia-inducing artists like Sun Araw and Barn Owl; even Shabazz Palaces used a sample of it to ground “Sparkles” from last year’s Of Light EP. “Eugene” is Pink Floyd at the height of their early, pre-Dark Side of the Moon powers. – Kyle Fowle

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“Summer ’68” from Atom Heart Mother (1970)

Wedged neatly between instrumental suites that buttress the album, “Summer ’68” is one of the band’s most balanced early pairings of words and music. With a title referencing the summer after the so-called Summer of Love, it characterizes an early incarnation of the weariness that would increasingly infect their later work as the psychedelic era faded into bleak homogeny of the ’80s. A tone poem about the exhausting anonymity of on-tour hookups, it has a symbolic two-part structure, shifting between a breezy piano shuffle, which grows increasingly malevolent with every repetition, and a rigorously drab horn fanfare.

Most of the words are hard to pick out, which makes the “how do you feel,” refrain that bridges the two sections feel more relevant each time it recurs, challenging the sunny ba ba bas that follow it. In this context, lines such as “My friends are lying in the sun/ I wish I was there” suggest the darkness into which the band was headed, yearning rather for both a return to innocence and a direct escape from the road’s dehumanizing tedium.

The tight duality on display here provides needed structure on an album that can feel saggy and bloated. Atom Heart Mother remains one of the group’s most poorly reviewed albums, and “Summer ’68” stands out as an antidote to most of its problems, a neatly structured five minute track surrounded by overlong material. It helps to identify the band as they stood on a stylistic cusp, shifting from the succinct psychedelic musings of the Syd Barrett era to the growing gloom of later long-form explorations. – Jesse Cataldo

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“One of These Days” from Meddle (1971)

With the preceding years filled with soundtrack work (More) and lukewarm experiments that put the ‘ugh’ in ‘prog’ (Atom Heart Mother), the Floyd reconvened at the beginning of 1971 to work on a record, in-studio, without a unifying concept. The band originally tried recording each of its members in isolation, with only vague chord structure and particular sections’ feel (“upbeat”) mapped out, yet this initial experiment proved a fool’s errand. So, back to songwriting it was, though these tunes were based originally on jams. For instance, the second-sidelong “Echoes” on the resultant Meddle found its origin in the heavily-processed piano note of Rick Wright, just as first track – and our pick – “One of These Days” began around the arresting bassline of Roger Waters.

The track begins with Waters’ delayed bass firing a warning shot while winds howl somewhere in the distance. The tense bass riff is joined by a second bass – Gilmour’s – and Wright provides illuminating lightning bolts of echoing organ chords as punctuation. Gilmour’s churning guitar slowly bubbles to the surface, howling in torment before the bass falls off its tracks, sounding as if it’s playing itself as result of necromancy. After a few particularly frightening tom hits from Mason, he delivers the song’s sole vocals, recorded at double-speed in falsetto and played back normally: “One of these days, I’m going to cut you into little pieces.”

The band then explodes into their rockingest tempo this side of “Money”; Mason swings, Wright hits percussive organ chords and Gilmour is ever-present with distorted slide guitar, exhilaratingly pushing it to some new height or some lower low at the beginning of each new measure. It’s an unforgettable start to the golden era of Floyd’s oeuvre and one of the most ominous moments in a career filled with them. – Chris Middleman

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“Childhood’s End” from Obscured by Clouds (1972)

Following the success of Meddle, Pink Floyd started work on what became not only their breakthrough album, but one of the best selling albums of all time. However, production was put on hold when the group was again contacted by Barbet Schroeder to produce a soundtrack for his second film, La Vallée, a film about white self-discovery in Papua New Guinea. Composed and recorded in about a month’s time, Obscured By Clouds is heavy on the Roger Waters and David Gilmour collaborations, a change in direction from a band that took a very communal approach to song writing previously. The change earned the band their first #1 record in France (where the film was released) and their first entrance into the Top 50 in the States.

“Childhood’s End” possesses many elements seen on Dark Side. There’s the slow build of “Speak to Me”; the airy vocals of “Breathe”; “Brain Damage” organ; and perhaps most starkly, the Gilmour guitar solo that will again be the centerpiece of our next pick, “Time.” Even the intro’s tick-tock finds its precursor here. The lyrics philosophical (Who are you and who am I / To say we know the reason why) and Waters-esque, it’s easy to mistake this for his song, but Gilmour wrote it. There is perhaps a hint of white guilt in the opening lyrics, “You shout in your sleep/ Perhaps the price is too steep/ Is your conscience at rest/ If once put to the test?” This is followed by a transgression of innocence, “Your fantasies / Merge with harsh realities” and, finally, the realization that we’re all just men that will one day die: “But everything one day will cease/ … All the proud men turned to dust.” Often lost between Meddle and Dark Side, “Childhood’s End” proves Obscured by Clouds an important link in the progression. – Tris Miller

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“Time” from The Dark Side of the Moon (1973)

Following the Obscured By Clouds soundtrack, the Floyd decided their next work was to be informed by one, central theme; in the case of The Dark Side of the Moon, it was to be Waters’ idea of the “things that make people mad.” Inspired in part by Syd Barrett’s going off the deep end, Dark Side was a critique and commentary on Western society and its value system – blackly humorous when it wasn’t achingly sad. One such horror of modern life was Waters’ realization that so much of his (and anyone’s) generations’ lives were spent preparing for the future, gearing up for something, before realizing that,”Ten years have got behind you/ No one told you when to run/ You missed the starting gun.”

And so we have “Time,” wherein Gilmour shouts for lost youth and misspent hours like a Stax singer over a grinding, stop-start combination of gnarly guitar, Waters’ bass and Wright’s electric piano. Listen again; Nick Mason is actually drumming at an incorrect, faster tempo to induce a claustrophobic, time’s-running-out feeling in the listener, which is made all the more unsettling when it kicks in following the vaporous Wright-sung bridge. After the “starting gun” line, Gilmour manages to play a punishing solo, which is, for my money, more heart-rending and barn-burning than “Comfortably Numb,” the one that usually gets this sort of praise. Bathed in layers and layers of echo and just-right overdrive, it sounds like the world’s coming crashing down near the four-minute mark. On an album full of grim pronouncements about the folly of even trying to get along in modern life, “Time” is a song of universal import, one that cuts to the bone and manages to rock hard while doing it. – Chris Middleman

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“Wish You Were Here” from Wish You Were Here (1975)

The Roger Waters-led years of Pink Floyd’s career were largely defined by themes of introspection, alienation and dissatisfaction, but one song towers above the rest in terms of concise yet wistful focus: “Wish You Were Here,” the title track from their 1975 follow-up to the epochal Dark Side of the Moon. Though the song is often thought of as an homage to fallen bandleader Syd Barrett, it equally stands as a rumination on Waters’ sense of dichotomy as a person and increasing sense of distance from the band and the public at large. But it’s not a dry personal essay or castigation in song form. Instead, it’s Pink Floyd at some of their best, melancholy, poetic and something they rarely seem: human.

Recorded during a period of intense personal malaise for the band, “Wish You Were Here” encapsulates the ennui and despair of losing sense of oneself and one’s friends in under six starkly beautiful minutes. Beginning with a squall of radio noise and a distant, displaced 12-string, it suddenly jars into focus with a stronger, closer guitar repeating the same lines, Gilmour’s dry, rough voice growing more and more plaintive with each verse. Fusing borrowed lyrical imagery from Barrett’s own “If It’s In You” as well as Waters’ incessant questioning of idealisms and compromises, it culminates in an inquiry that any listener can come to appreciate in their own life: “What have you found?/ The same old fears/ Wish you were here.” The song is not just a plea to a long gone friend or an expression of self-doubt. It’s a loneliness we all feel at some time or another, and perhaps always will. – Nathan Kamal

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“Dogs” from Animals (1977)

Animals is one of Pink Floyd’s unsung masterpieces. Released between the monumental duo of Wish You Were Here and The Wall, Animals is a five track curiosity that also features three of the band’s most interesting epics, each reaching over 10 minutes in length. Coming down from Dark Side and Wish, Roger Waters wrote a cycle of songs that amount to the darkest and bleakest of his career, an ominous collection that posits that all human beings are either pigs, dogs or sheep. Suffocating and nihilistic, it’s easy to see why the casual listener would reach first for a different Floyd album. Then again, these folks would be the sheep Waters so blackly wrote about.

The best of the bunch is “Dogs.” In this 17 minute workout, Waters imagines humans as if dogs, opportunistic businessmen who seize upon and destroy the weak to get ahead. Eventually, the lens turns inward and these dogs themselves become undone by their own avarice and egotism. It’s everything an Ayn Rand novel is not, as Waters wishes these mongrels “have a good drown as you go down all alone/ Dragged down by the stone.”

The haunting soundscapes created by Richard Wright’s synthesizers and the ambient wet sounds of David Gilmour’s guitars induce a hallucinatory space, especially in the song’s extended instrumental middle section. It is a dark place filled with howling, barking dogs and portentous whistling. Waters may be credited with the lyrics, but the rest of Pink Floyd also shine on here. Gilmour even takes lead vocal on all but the final verses.

By the time we reach the song’s finale, Pink Floyd has created a dog eat dog world, a place where individuality is destroyed and breaking ahead of the pack is encouraged. People are rewarded for good behavior and obedience by their superiors. For a world today where corporations run the show, Waters’ vision wasn’t far off. However, these dogs are eventually killed by their own greed, “found dead on the phone” and dragged down by the stone of their own ambition. – David Harris

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“Comfortably Numb” from The Wall (1979)

Like many songs penned by Pink Floyd during the Roger Waters years, “Comfortably Numb” is concerned with alienation. But whereas others dealt with effects of economic and social distance as on Animals, or the political as on Dark Side of the Moon, or even the personal as on Wish You Were Here, “Comfortably Numb” goes another, rarer route: narcotized ennui. One of the highlights of the second half of the monolithic The Wall, the track was jointly written by David Gilmour and Waters, the former largely responsible for the music and the latter its lyrics. The two fought bitterly over the musical arrangement of the song, and as is sometimes the case in matters of creative struggle, the end result is suitably epic.

Influenced heavily by an experience in which Waters was medically tranquillized immediately before a live performance, “Comfortably Numb” continues the tragic decline of The Wall’s protagonist Pink as he is chemically induced to go on stage. It opens with a suitably hazy wash of guitars and the unnervingly distant lyric of “Hello, is there anybody in there?/ Just nod if you can hear me/ Is there anyone at home?” The unnamed doctor continues his examinations as the song builds, until it breaks into the soaring chorus and Pink’s own childhood reminiscences. An unearthly solo by Gilmour folds the song into two divisions, but it’s the final solo, just after the crushing lines by Waters, “The child is grown, the dream is gone/ I have become comfortably numb” that truly elevates the song in the rock pantheon. It’s a solo that can’t be described in words, or even in musical terms, only experienced. – Nathan Kamal

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“The Fletcher Memorial Home” from The Final Cut (1983)

Pink Floyd’s The Final Cut is one of those underrated (or maybe just under-heard) gems that gets lost in the band’s immense discography. Recorded and released at the time of the Falklands War, the record is an extension, of sorts, of the themes of disillusionment and the pains of war present on 1979’s The Wall. The Final Cut rises out of the tension between Waters and Gilmour, as both continued to fight for a role at the band’s helm. Not only is this record the only one to have all songwriting and composition credited strictly to Waters, but it’s also the last album he recorded with the band.

Even next to its “Behind The Music” mythology, the music has no trouble standing on its own as a grand statement, both politically and sonically. Waters is in fine form as a storyteller and the ambitious arrangements are just as tight and compelling as they are on The Wall. Though the record might lack a radio-friendly hit like “Comfortably Numb” or “Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2,” it does contain the dark and evocative “Fletcher Memorial Home.” Waters sings his heart out over top of a piano, strings and horns; it’s theatrical, but never farcical. Lyrically, where the album truly shines, Waters pulls no punches. In it, he imagines bringing together various world leaders, such as Richard Nixon, Margaret Thatcher and Alexander Haig, and applying “the final solution” to them all. He spits vitriol at government leadership, calling them “wasters of life and limb” while Gilmour provides the infectious passion on which Waters hangs his protestations. “Fletcher Memorial Home” is a piece of politically charged poetry and brilliant arrangement on one of Pink Floyd’s too easily neglected albums. – Kyle Fowle

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“Learning to Fly” from A Momentary Lapse of Reason (1987)

Jesus Christ, it’s nothing short of a miracle that A Momentary Lapse of Reason ever saw the light of day as a late – and ultimately tremendously popular – entry in the Pink Floyd catalog. Roger Waters, concluding that Pink Floyd had played itself out, left the band in December of 1985 to embark on a solo career. The sound of this freedom? A flop, if you believe the critics. Even the contributions of luminary Eric Clapton couldn’t save Waters from gutting reviews and trickling ticket sales. Meanwhile, David Gilmour had also recently released a solo album, About Face, and was storing up material for a new record. Was it to be released under the Gilmour name or could this be a Floyd project? After all, there was nothing to stop Gilmour and company from using the Pink Floyd name… nothing except a seemingly endless pissing match between camps Rogers and Gilmour, to be executed through a series of acrimonious legal injunctions and proceedings. This is why the flying pigs suddenly sprouted testicles for the Momentary Lapse of Reason tour, as Gilmour wanted to distinguish it as a separate design from Waters’ original pigs – a copyright issue for which Waters had issued a writ. Check and mate.

Though the consensus is that Lapse was a Gilmour-as-Pink-Floyd record and not a band album as such (Nick Mason and Richard Wright having had only marginal participation), fans embraced the effort, making it a commercial if not uniformly critical success. “Learning to Fly” is the anthem of the collection, a literal ode to Gilmour’s preoccupation with aviation (a flight recording of fellow enthusiast Mason communicating from a cockpit is inserted about halfway through the track) as well as a metaphorical acknowledgement of having taken the throne as Pink Floyd’s resident alpha male. A straightforward, lyrics-based rock single – not the usual Floyd fare of old – “Learning to Fly” is a love song of sorts to the inconceivabilities of flight and the liberation it affords. For Gilmour, no measure of escape velocity was going to impede his elevation – Roger Waters be damned. – Stacey Pavlick

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“Poles Apart” from The Division Bell (1994)

The shadow of Syd Barrett hung over much of Pink Floyd’s work, so it’s not surprising that their final studio album would include at least one song that addresses that most cautionary of rock n’ roll tales. By the time The Division Bell was released in 1994, the band was essentially a trio – down to David Gilmour, Nick Mason and Richard Wright – backed by an army of additional musicians. Even though the album sold about a kazillion copies and introduced Pink Floyd to a new generation of consumer – a college friend of mine started with The Division Bell as her introduction to the band – it was never held in high critical esteem, and probably rightly so.

Still, an occasional flash of inspiration can result in brilliance, as “Poles Apart” proves. Co-lyricist and soon-to-be Gilmour wife Polly Samson would eventually disclose that the first verse referenced Barrett – the “golden boy” who no one thought would “lose that light in your eyes” – and that the second verse was directed at Waters, but the song’s sentiment still resonates regardless of its background. For a group who sometimes showed either a blatant disregard for (or a complete lack of understanding of) subtlety, the trio embraces restraint here, letting the song’s simple, fragile lyrics and Gilmour’s measured vocals convey its tone. Like numerous other Pink Floyd songs, it looks to the past with a heavy heart and offers fleeting glimpses into the memories we keep. Litigious nonsense, petty infighting and inevitable reunions would sometimes detract from the band’s legacy, but the music usually trumped all of that. “Poles Apart” was the last truly masterful Pink Floyd song. – Eric Dennis

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“Louder Than Words” from The Endless River (2014)

As an album, The Endless River does not seem to have much to say. Part of that is doubtlessly because of its roots in the 1993 sessions for The Division Bell, an album that already seemed to have closed the door on Pink Floyd’s weird journey. Much of Endless River, the band’s 15th studio album, simply seems to be rehashed, aimless music, the meanderings of three men who had already reaped what was left to be used of their artistic success. It is fortunate, then, that David Gilmour and Nick Mason were able to pull off one more near classic to finish things out. With lyrics by novelist Polly Samson and the aid of producers Phil Manzanera (of Roxy Music guitar god fame), Martin Glover and Andy Jackson, The Endless River at least culminates in the yearning power of “Louder Than Words.”

The track feels incongruous, in a way. It is a simple, almost straightforward song among the epic maelstroms, pop hits and dark sarcasm that Pink Floyd produced throughout their storied career. It doesn’t have Roger Waters’ lyrical misanthropy or social savagery; it doesn’t have the bizarre imagery or spaciness of Syd Barrett. With heartfelt lyrics like “With world-weary grace/ We’ve taken our places,” it feels like an appropriate final touch from a band that is satisfied with its place in musical history. Gilmour’s guitar work feels as timeless as it ever has, both otherworldly and achingly human. For a musician who created the epic tensions in “Dogs,” he seems able to slip into gentleness remarkably easily. While his guitar and weathered vocals dominate the track, the late Rick Wright’s keyboard work and the choral backup vocals turn what could almost be a trite piece of music into something warm and welcoming.

The opening lines “We bitch and we fight/ Diss each other on sight/ But this thing we do/ These times together” could be read any number of ways; they could reflect the band’s legendarily tumultuous history or Gilmour and Sampson’s marital life. But more than anything, they feel comfortable and safe, like reaching the end of a storm. – Nathan Kamal

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