Roger Waters ‘Is This The Life We Really Want?’

By Jason Jones / August 16, 2017

The latest solo effort by Roger Waters, his first proper studio album since 1992’s Amused to Death, offers little in the way of surprise and less in the way of invention, and that despite the wrinkles added by longtime Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich. Everything about the album, from the title to the last track, is too on the nose—every prediction is a sure bet and every turn a disappointment. As most earlier reviewers have noted, the album culls heavily from the Pink Floyd catalogue, presenting listeners with familiar tropes recycled from Meddle on through The Final Cut, including an especially obvious likeness to Animals. The album emulates the Waters-centric period of Floyd both musically and lyrically; and while he seemingly wields the same politically-aimed rapier that he once used to great effect on The Wall, it seems that he has long since put away the whetstone with which he sharpened that blade. Further dimishing the impact of his message is the fact that I chose to listen to this culturally-embedded album from within the vast cultural wonderland that is YouTube, via Waters’ official Vevo channel, thus subjecting me to an advertisement for a major corporation before each track and a comments section chockful of megalomania. Needless to say, I do not recommend this medium for listening.

The album’s first song, “Déjà Vu, “ which follows the brief spokenword overture “When We Were Young,” begins as an acoustic guitar ballad with Waters employing a vulnerable, raspy voice, and it feels as if it will usher in a finely aged, minimalist, poetic sensibility heretofore only hinted at from the songwriter, as he muses that if he had been God then he would have done a better job. Unfortunately, the tune quickly gives way to soundscape and grandiosity, then inexplicably morphs into a tepid love song, thus leavening the initial emotional import quicker than the Groupon commercial that preceded it. The following track, “The Last Refugee,” is perhaps the best listen on the album—the drum parts are especially nice—but with the world engulfed in a refugee crisis, the abstruse lyrics fail to capture the gravity of the situation or really any clear message at all. “Picture That” comes next and features a sinister bass line and some intriguing changes throughout, but here again the lyrics undermine the song, as the angry, f-bomb laced diatribe reads less like astute geopolitical critique and more like a grade ten monologue set to music and delivered by Ricky from Trailer Park Boys. “Broken Bones” is the most disappointing song on the album, because it has so much promise and so little payoff. With lines like “could have been born in Shreveport,” it begs to be a rootsy, country-blues song, à la “Seamus” off of Meddle, but it, too, goes the way of largesse and tactless cursing instead of embracing the scaled back, contemplative register it deserves.

The title track is up next, and while it has its merits as a standalone piece, it also stands in as a microcosm for the project as a whole, both in name and conceit. Specifically, the polemical nature of Waters overarching politics, while keeping on the side of good rather than evil, despite his best intentions, become the album’s primary flaw. Because the songs are so directly and unambiguously of a certain political bent one comes to expect that Waters, with his stature as a first rate artist, will transpor political consciousness into a higher realm of thought through a new and brilliant artistic idiom, but the artistry on display here is incapable of bringing about such a flight of moral imagination. Worse still, it leaves one with a bitter suspicion that the targets of Waters’ deprecation serve, not as sounding boards for better ideals nor as foils by which to give voice to the victims of craven machinations, but more so as convenient platforms atop of which Waters is able to further elevate his own voice, his own brand. (But such are the pitfalls, I suppose, of being an internationally famous rockstar worth half a billion dollars who must answer to commercial interests.) As such, the tune begins with a clip of Donald Trump speaking and a downtempo guitar riff similar to that of “Weird Fishes / Arpeggi,” then takes up what is surely a critique of the unpopularly elected president’s campaign rhetoric, but one no more effective than the inane list anchoring it, one that includes the likes of “Russian brides,” “the blacks and whites,” “every type of ethnic group,” “toothless hags,” “fags,” “homeless tramps,” and “men in bars.” What one is supposed to make of this doggerel is beyond me, and despite the Leonard Cohen-esque timbre of Waters’ delivery, the lyrics fall well short of anything approaching Cohen’s poetic resonance.

The next run of tunes, “Bird in a Gale,” “The Most Beautiful Girl,” and “Smell the Roses” is essentially more of the same. The lyrics remain overwrought, underwhelming, and littered with dated, British references to American issues, while the songcraft is unremarkable and borrows freely from Pink Floyd. The final trio of songs, “Wait for Her,” “Oceans Apart,” “and Part of Me Died,” work in unison, with “Oceans Apart” acting as a bridge between the other two. The lyrics for “Wait for Her” were originally penned by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, but have been translated from Arabic and transformed into a gentle, highly listenable love song. While the song feels out of place given the subject matter and its luallby-like essence, the lyrics also clash with my admittedly modern Western sensibilities, with lines such as “stoic, noble prince,” “the scent of womens’ incense,” and “don’t let your eyes alight upon the twin doves of her breast / lest they take flight,” coming forth as if conjured from the Medieval period. “Oceans Apart” continues in the same vein, combining birdsong and ocean samples with soft, acoustic guitar, delicate piano, and a single lyrical stanza that connects seamlessly with the album’s last take, “Part of Me Died.” The final tune is possibly the strongest example of Waters’ vision, as it balances the placid piano, acoustic guitar, and bare voice found in the love songs with an edgier political rap. While here again there is too much in the way of recapitulation and too little in the way of reflection—in fact the singer seems to surrender the fight and dejectedly conclude that “it would be better by far to die in her arms / than to linger in a lifetime of regret”—but for once the song never skews too far in one direction and never submerges its humanity in too many layers of baroque production. Here at last Waters brings to bear the authentic emotional context of a loving, distressed, conflicted individual trapped in a global political mêlée far beyond his own sublime powers of interpretation.

Overall the album is not particulary strong or even creative, however, I am still inclined to salute Roger Waters for his timely effort, as he remains steadfast and courageous in lifting his voice up against undignified power and subjecting his own beliefs to grotesque scrutiny. Make no mistake, Waters stands on the side of justice, righteousness, and love; and no matter how flawed the approach or execution, his willingness to speak out against evil, greed, and corrupt power is beyond reproach and far superior to resigning his misgivings to silence.

About the author

Jason Jones

Jason Jones lives in St. Louis, Missouri. He holds an MFA in creative writing from Florida International University. Previous and forthcoming poems can be found in Cumberland River Review, The Ilanot Review, J Journal, Saw Palm, Wraparound South, and others.