“Mother, should I trust the government?” Roger Waters intones, only to be met with a gleefully resounding “No!” from the audience.
It’s been this way since 1979. Waters, one of the angriest men in rock ‘n’ roll, has become adept at asking questions he very well knows the answer to. So it’s no surprise that his newest release, Is This the Life We Really Want? (June 2, 2017 via Columbia Records), is largely populated with blisteringly honest appraisals of the status quo.
This much-anticipated record follows 1992’s Amused to Death, a concept album on the nature of militarism, religion, and entertainment widely hailed as Roger Waters’ best solo project. It’s undeniably an extension of previous artistic explorations — Is This the Life We Really Want? incorporates both the anti-institutional bent and experimental sonic palette that characterized Pink Floyd under the bassist’s tenure as (arguable) frontman.
Speaking of that little prog-rock collective, die-hard Floyd fans will recognize The Final Cut’s influence all over this record. While Waters’ insistence on having the project his way (escalating tensions with legendary guitarist/lead singer David Gilmour) essentially killed the band, its politically-charged lyrics laid the groundwork for his powerful anti-war work to come: the seemingly callous depictions of violence, the elegiac odes to nameless victims, the scathing indictment of tyrants.
You’d be forgiven for believing that Is This the Life We Really Want? is a single-minded crusade against Donald Trump. After all, Waters has shown himself to be less than enthused with the newest American president: he notoriously updated the visuals for Floyd classics “Money” and “Pigs (Three Different Ones)” on his Us + Them tour, opens the album’s title track with a Trump speech, and snarls unsubtle lines like “picture a leader with no fucking brains.”
Upon closer inspection, however, it becomes clear that Waters has larger targets than a single orange-haired demagogue. In an interview with Rolling Stone, he stated that “[w]e have to organize our love in such a way that [the Us + Them Tour] becomes a potent and powerful enough tour to resist their narcissism and their greed and their callous disregard for the feelings of others and their absolute lack of the ability to empathize with anybody,” he said. “It’s a lack of empathy that creates a true sociopath like Donald Trump.”
Apathy, it seems, is Roger Waters’ primary foe. Over the course of the album’s first nine songs, he attempts to establish the empathy he values so highly through harrowing tales of murder, greed, and agony. On “Déjà Vu,” he mournfully imagines himself as a self-serving deity,
If I had been God
I would have rearranged
the veins in the face
to make them more resistant
to alcohol and less prone to aging
If I had been God
I would have sired many sons
and I would not have suffered
the Romans to kill even one of them
before examining the dangers of absolute power in a chilling parallel:
If I were a drone
Patrolling foreign skies
With my electronic eyes for guidance
And the element of surprise
I would be afraid to find someone home
Cuttingly relevant lines like these (from the same track: “you lean to the left but you vote to the right”) are punctuated by layers of reverb, looped synths, recordings of dialogue and explosions — all hallmarks of 70s/80s rock that manage to feel evocative rather than dated.
Armed with his signature growl and venom, Waters paints our world into a damnation of postmodern proportions: a hellscape of apathy, neo-colonialism, and reality T.V. where the prospect of living another day is near-unbearable. “Picture That” bombards us with our society’s stark inequities,
Follow me filming myself at the show
On a phone from a seat in the very front row
Follow Miss Universe catching some rays
Wish You Were Here in Guantanamo Bay
while “Broken Bones” addresses how easy it is for the privileged to disengage from reality,
Sometimes I stare at the night sky
See them stars a billion light years away
And it makes me feel small like a bug on a wall
Who gives a shit anyway?
and laments the idealistic post-war dream of global peace:
We could have picked over them broken bones
We could have been free
But we chose to adhere to abundance
We chose the American Dream
But even the perennial critic must acknowledge that there is more to life than human ugliness. Is This the Life We Really Want? closes with a trio of ballads dedicated to an anonymous love. On “Wait for Her,” he waxes tender, nostalgic, even cautiously optimistic:
And do not flush the sparrows
that are nesting in her braids
All along the barricades
Wait for her
With lyrics heavily inspired by the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s “Lesson from the Kama Sutra (Wait for Her),” this track is imbued with a melancholic hope reminiscent of earlier Waters (“Watching T.V.” comes to mind) and even Pink Floyd’s more balladic recordings (like “Wish You Were Here,” “Brain Damage,” and “Your Possible Pasts”). It would be remiss not to mention here Roger Waters’ staunch support of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement, a controversial stance that has sparked both media fire and online altercations with Thom Yorke over Radiohead’s planned concert in Israel. On a Waters album, even love songs bear political teeth.
Yet the album’s most potent language of resistance is explored in its final track, the simply named “Part of Me Died.” Waters sighs through an exhaustive list of human ills that, by all accounts, should make this world an irredeemably miserable place:
Arrest without trial
Gangrene and slime
Self-satisfied heroic killers
Lifted on high
Piracy adverts, acid attacks
On women by bullies and perverts and hacks
The rigging of ballots and the buying of power
“When I met you,” he murmurs, “that part of me died.”
Here, Waters hammers home the fact that the best and worst parts of humanity belong to us all. We are capable of all-powerful love and abject cruelty. We are complicit in the walls we erect and the horrors we wreak upon ourselves. We — more than the entertainment we consume, the institutions we create, the demagogues we uplift — are singularly responsible for who we’ve chosen to become.
It may be easier to watch our world burn than to fight for it, but this certainly isn’t the life we want. So what are we going to do about it?
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