by Rick Krueger
When it comes to Pink Floyd, I usually prefer the atmospheric to the polemic: i.e. “Echoes,” Wish You Were Here, and even A Momentary Lapse of Reason to Animals, The Wall and The Final Cut. True, Roger Waters’ growing desire to beat the listener over the head with his irascible critiques of modern life brought the Floyd to new heights of popularity — but they also helped poison relationships with his collaborators and blow up the band, leading to a solo career with much lower impact. Until, that is, he pulled out the vintage Floyd warhorses and started touring them again, to deserved acclaim.
For me, Is This the Life We Really Want? strikes a welcome new balance between the prototypical Floyd sound and Waters’ ongoing preoccupations. It’s the most listenable and perhaps the most effective of his solo albums, harking back to Dark Side of the Moon in its precision and its muted (but undampened) fury.
Nigel Godrich’s lean, colorful production helps immensely here, keeping the musical tension on the boil throughout. Ironically, it also helps that Waters’ voice has aged; no longer able to bellow with his previous venom, he insinuates and rasps instead. Especially when his singing is paired with acoustic guitar or piano, you can more easily hear the blunt, direct expressiveness he admires in his heroes — early Dylan, Neil Young, John Lennon circa Plastic Ono Band and Imagine. Funnily, lowering the volume of his complaints makes them more compelling.
Another surprise: Waters owns the culpability he so thoroughly excoriates in the world around him (notice the pronoun in the album title). The songs still take plenty of scabrous, deeply profane potshots, earned and unearned, at Stuff Roger Thinks is Bad and at People He Utterly Despises. But he’s also quick to call himself out, and to stand in solidarity with the masses, even if he believes they’re dead wrong. “Broken Bones” and the title track are the best examples; they pull no punches, but Waters makes no excuses for himself, laying out his own neglect and indifference, calling himself to accountability along with everyone else. (The judgmentalism is diminished; the ambition, not so much.)
In sum, Is This The Life We Really Want? comes from a Roger Waters who seems more vulnerable and less inclined to condemn humanity wholesale — but not soft by any means. After 25 years without an album of new rock material, it’s good to know that there’s life in the old boy yet.