Holds its own when placed next to peak-era Floyd.
The last time Roger Waters released a progressive rock album, Bill Clinton was marching toward his first term as president and the world still shared the majority of its information through paper and ink. The idea that most of us could while away our days staring at a handheld device, reacting with a series of emojis and memes was largely unthinkable. There was a faint glimmer of hope that once Waters and his former mates in Pink Floyd sorted things out, got it all out of their system, they might one day be able to get back together and make a proper album. Syd Barrett and Rick Wright were still alive. A rising tide of anti-intellectualism in the United States was getting underway with talk show hosts spewing hostile opinions over the radio airwaves. None could have imagined, any more than they could have predicted the demise of the newspaper or record store, that a world superpower would be in the hands of a former reality TV personality embroiled in scandal and prone to spitting out vitriol with greater regularity and economy than a British rock critic.
For all that’s changed, there’s much that hasn’t: Waters remains a citizen of the world, concerned about higher forms of killing, leaders drunk on power and a life that, sooner or later, will end for us all. Now 73, Waters could be forgiven for ruminating on his own mortality, but he seems fixed instead on focusing those concerns toward civilization. That’s old hat for him in some ways: It’s something he’s been writing and singing about longer than much of his audience has been alive. Yet, he’s rarely done it with the precision found here. He’s still angry but he’s no longer an angry young man and the distinction between the new Waters and the old one is remarkable.
The most Floydian track, “Picture That,” finds him raging about the state of the globe, but it’s not in terms of the same old us-vs.-them, but instead concerns itself with what future generations will inherit. Waters is now a grandfather and one of the last major figures of his musical generation to be making the kind of incisive observations heard across this collection. “Is This the Life We Really Want?” is a survey of the last decade with its subprime mortgages and the sagging notion of what home is and can be. The subject matter isn’t as notable as the musical settings: The dissonant guitar and thudding drum figures wouldn’t be out of place on a Radiohead (Nigel Godrich takes production credit on the album) or Porcupine Tree album, and yet Waters seems neither uncomfortable nor like he’s imitating those who have imitated him. There’s a confidence and unwavering commitment that prevails, the singer becoming a voice for the voiceless, channeling their pain and loss into one of the most frightening and dramatic performances he’s ever given.
Somewhere around the LP’s middle, you begin to realize that Is This the Life We Really Want? isn’t just a good showing from Waters at this point in his life, it’s also the best thing in his solo output. Like it or not, there was meandering in The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking, and even in Radio K.A.O.S., but this collection quickly becomes a straight line from one end to the other, each song staying just as long as it needs to, never overstuffed or distracting. Even “Smell the Roses” (which could have been culled from either Animals or The Dark Side of the Moon), a song filled with sundry musical accouterments, feels perfectly conceived and rendered; it holds its own when placed next to peak-era Floyd and surpasses much of what’s come from Waters’ pen since The Final Cut.
One can hope that Waters, a man with a storied songbook, can find time to air a healthy dose of these tunes in his live show. These are songs that, as much as any he’s ever written or released, deserve to find an audience and deserve to be appreciated for their mastery and the truths they reveal. No, not everyone will embrace Waters’ politics, but we should all be able to get behind his desire to leave behind a world that’s better than he found it. For a man who’s lived his whole life in the shadow of war and knows the suffering that it can bring, he still seems full of hope. Even if that’s tempered by skepticism and a knowledge that his own part might ultimately be rather small, at least it’s a beginning. Maybe that’s what Is This the Life We Really Want? is as well.