Roger Waters has been exploring the thin line between the personal and the political as far back as the late ’60s with Pink Floyd.
Starting with the band’s 1977 LP Animals, and moving through 1979’s The Wall, 1983’s The Final Cut and the handful of solo albums he’s released since 1984, Waters has focused his attention on album-length concepts covering the dual subjects.
It hasn’t always been a smooth run. Waters can be preachy or polemic to the point where the music seems secondary to the message (his final album with Floyd, The Final Cut, basically a solo album, was especially met with such criticism), and the personal has often taken a backseat to the political on more recent projects. He’s a fearless artist, crafting works of art that can be as difficult as they are often controversial, which has made sifting through some of these records a bit of a chore.
His first real commitment to this merging of the personal and political, the Orwellian Animals, remains a significant and relevant work — an attack on capitalism and the war machines it feeds. And it’s a signpost for his first album of new material in a quarter century, Is This The Life We Really Want?
Aided by producer Nigel Godrich — who’s to Radiohead what George Martin was to the Beatles — Waters attempts to cut through, as he puts it in “Broken Bones,” all the “bulls— and lies” of the current political climate, which has pivoted dangerously to the right since the last time he released a record in 1992 with Amused to Death. He doesn’t get any closer to resolution or answers by the end of Is This The Life We Really Want?
But tidy conclusions have never been part of Waters’ modus operandi, so why start now? Waters sounds angry here; he spits enough “s—“s and “f—“s to fuel a rap record. He interrupts the the title track with the sound of an unconnected phone and other hissing studio tricks supplied by Godrich. The disconnect couldn’t be more fitting. Call him self-righteous, but Waters’ fury here is real.
Like all his solo albums, as well as his last records with Pink Floyd, Is This The Life We Really Want? hangs on a concept. It’s not always linear, or even explicit, but the album’s point is loud and clear: Political leaders are reckless, perilous a——s. And even if he doesn’t call anyone out by name, there’s little doubt whom he’s talking about (a television news clip, a sound motif carried over from several of his past works, features Donald Trump).
Musically, Waters supports it all with the most Floyd-like foundations of his solo career. Touches of albums from Meddle to The Final Cut can be heard on Is This The Life We Really Want? — ripping guitar solos, spacious soundscapes, hushed keyboards that set dramatic moods. But Animals is the main reference point. From the central themes to the musical bedrocks — “Smell the Roses” recalls “Pigs (Three Different Ones)” with its stabbing guitars and biting lyrics — Waters shows that not much has changed over the past 40 years.
The best songs here — the acoustic and slow-building “Deja Vu,” the sprawling “The Last Refugee” with its skipping sound collages, the sneering “Smell the Roses” and the closing “Part of Me Died,” which brings personal reflection into more focus — find Waters covering familiar themes but with the wizened perspective that comes from the passage of time, whether it’s 25, 40 or 50 years. But he’s even more uneasy with the prospects now. “There’s a mad dog pulling at his chain, a hint of danger in his eye,” he sings in a weathered voice on “Smell the Roses.” “Close your eyes and pray this wind don’t change.”
In other words, there’s little hope in Waters’ bleak worldview — something that’s weighed down his work in the past and something that occasionally weighs down Is This The Life We Really Want? By the end of its 54 minutes, you’ll feel like you’ve just lived through the beginning of the apocalypse Waters hints at throughout the album. “Picture a leader with no f—ing brains,” he ponders on “Picture That.” But you know he’s already made up his mind: Nothing needs to be pictured; that dead-end future is already here. And Waters, cutting and pessimistic as ever, is up front, marching along with the parade of doomed souls to the ultimate end.