Amused to Death feels low-key, with a sameness that permeates much of the album.
When Roger Waters left Pink Floyd, fans were divided between the remaining band fronted by David Gilmour and the solo artist who had crafted so much of the band’s sound since Syd Barrett’s departure. Amid lawsuits and infighting, both continued to make music and even vie for venues. Waters once famously quipped “I’m in competition with myself and I’m losing.” Regardless of who won or lost (and that answer has changed many times over the years), Waters remained a visionary who could create both biting lyrics and rich tapestries of music that naturally felt like an extension of Pink Floyd. His first solo release, The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking (1984), was a better and more Floyd-esque album than his final release with the band, The Final Cut (1983).
After the modernized misstep of 1987’s Radio K.A.O.S., Waters created the ensemble show The Wall – Live in Berlin (1990) on the grounds of the fallen Berlin Wall. Waters’ very next release was Amused to Death, one of his more political outings. Originally released in 1992, Amused to Death has been rereleased with remastered audio and Blu-Ray.
It begins as a solidly psychedelic album that sounds for all the world like vintage Pink Floyd. “The Ballad of Bill Hubbard” is packed with ambient piano sounds, layered instruments and a long-form sample that sounds like an interview on a battlefield. From here the album’s actual concept kicks off. While inspired, it’s both a bit heavy handed and on-the-nose. As the album cover suggests, Waters is spoofing the drooling, open-mouthed television consumer who sits attentively in front of the boob tube and takes everything from cable news to advertisements as the gospel truth like any monkey might.
This is no mere metaphor, however. The album makes specific reference to “the monkey” as the central character as he abruptly switches channels (and, thus, songs), shifting the tone and mood. Unlike many of Waters’ operatic experiments, there is very little that is subtle or suggestive here, as just about everything is spelled out. It may be clever to mock cable viewers with a monkey addicted to television, but it’s obvious and simplified, especially for Waters.
He remains as furious as ever when it comes to social disparity, war, imbalance of wealth and the unquestioning masses as he discusses Tiananmen Square, Iraq, suburbia and mass media. However, Waters’ lyric fury rarely permeates the music, which is mostly calm, light rock with few of the wild musical breaks he’s previously employed so well.
“The Bravery of Being Out of Range” is a soulful and savage indictment of the first Gulf War in which Waters calls out the military for remote control killings with missiles. This stands up well in the age of drones, but it’s just a bit too repetitive and over-explained to truly be poetic. His anger continues in the ballad-like “Late Home Tonight, Part I,” which brings us back to the deeper, more poetic and introspective Waters fans love. Here he layers social commentary over a story of a soldier in the Gulf War, from a war machine in the sand back to war video games in the USA and peaceful cheerleaders in the suburbs. This perfectly expresses the album’s central conflict. The track ends with a jarring explosion that leads directly into “Late Home Tonight, Part II,” which elaborates on Waters’ long-expressed held distaste for war. Soldiers become local celebrities. Orders are never questioned. But throughout the album, Waters offers no alternatives to war, with no such scathing attack on the Iraqi government for the invasion of Kuwait.
The music of both Pink Floyd and Roger Waters has always been cinematic, with sound effects, voices and characters telling the story in a way that wouldn’t be out of place on the very boob tube Waters condemns. “Too Much Rope” is a prime example, sounding like an excerpt from a musical war movie. “Give any one species too much rope and they’ll fuck it up,” Waters says disdainfully. It is difficult to argue with such a statement in 1992 or 2015.
There is, however, a big difference between 1984 and 1992. The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking is a diverse collection of lyrics, themes and musical styles that ingeniously tells an irresistible operatic tale. No two songs sound the same. Amused to Death is clearly Roger Waters, and he never really makes junk, but it sounds like one piece with a single theme and similar sounds. I’m not talking about repeated motifs. Hitchhiking contains many self-referential musical motifs and even echoes The Wall to bring the story closer to vintage Waters. But Amused to Death feels low-key, with a sameness that permeates much of the album in spite of the fact that the monkey frequently switches channels at random.
Out of 14 tracks, a full seven cuts, no less than half the album, are multi-part songs. This is nothing new for Waters, but the parts feel too similar to truly warrant the split. “Late Home Tonight” might as well have been a single track with an explosion in the middle. By comparison, “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” often sounded like it was from different worlds within a single movement.
The worst example of this is the three-part single “What God Wants.” The song is undeniably catchy, and Waters is clear in his multi-faceted criticism of society. But it’s repetitive and lengthy, without enough layers to keep the fascinated music fan engaged until the third section brings us to a new level, almost too late.
Not every album can be a masterpiece, but Waters has stated that Amused to Death is an underrated effort that serves as a third part to Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall. But it’s nowhere near those other albums. The 2015 remastering makes it a good sounding album, but it’s just not the kind of infinitely listenable album that Waters is capable of creating.