Wa­ters spouts fire

In his first solo al­bum in 25 years, Pink Floyd front­man Roger Wa­ters rekin­dles his fer­vour with protest songs about war, world lead­ers and the plight of refugees, writes James McNair

The National - News - The Review - - Music - James McNair writes for Mojo mag­a­zine and The In­de­pen­dent.

In Déjà Vu, Wa­ters imag­ines him­self as a drone ex­plod­ing in the home of a woman bak­ing bread, and this dark per­son­i­fi­ca­tion is hugely af­fect­ing

Billed as “an un­flinch­ing com­men­tary on the mod­ern world in un­cer­tain times”, it is clear from Roger Wa­ters’s first solo al­bum in 25 years that he’s not a fan of the White House’s cur­rent in­cum­bent. It also teems with the ran­cour that has long been this co-found­ing mem­ber of Pink Floyd’s stock-in-trade.

Many of the singer’s rock star con­tem­po­raries have be­come mel­low, rather pas­sive fig­ures con­tent to tread the golf course. But Wa­ters, 73, is still in­can­des­cent with rage. Gym-toned and seem­ingly in ro­bust good health, he’s a sprightly cur­mud­geon spoil­ing for a heated po­lit­i­cal de­bate, not some grumpy old man moan­ing about how hard it is to open milk-car­ton pack­ag­ing these days. As ever, Wa­ters’s hit list this time out in­cludes the cur­rent world lead­ers he sees as war­mon­gers. Con­se­quently, we get an up­dated – but this time un­named – cast to the one he mem­o­rably pil­lo­ried on The Fletcher Memo­rial Home, a track from Pink Floyd’s 1983 anti-Falk­lands War al­bum, The Fi­nal Cut.

It is al­ways worth re­mem­ber­ing, though, that Wa­ters’s bril­liant anti-war songs – wit­ness Us and Them from Pink Floyd’s 1973 al­bum Dark Side Of The Moon or Good­bye Blue Sky from 1979’s The Wall – are all rooted in per­sonal loss. His fa­ther Eric Fletcher Wa­ters died dur­ing the Bat­tle Of Anzio, Italy, in 1944, when Roger was five months old, while his grand­fa­ther Ge­orge Henry Wa­ters was a First World War ca­su­alty in 1916, near Ar­ras, France.

This un­der­stand­able chip on Wa­ters’s shoul­der has fu­elled his oeu­vre, lead­ing him to make filmed pil­grim­ages to the site of his fa­ther’s pass­ing and to align him­self with those cam­paign­ing against in­jus­tice of all kinds, whether they be mem­bers of the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment or ac­tivists draw­ing at­ten­tion to the plight of refugees.

Wa­ters made Is This the Life We Re­ally Want? with Nigel Go­drich, a pro­ducer well-versed in the tics and tropes of rock’s most iras­ci­ble thanks to his work with Ra­dio­head and Thom Yorke. Wisely, Go­drich has re­tained the Floy­dian bent for ex­pen­sive-sound­ing son­ics, ele­giac strings and all man­ner of found­sounds. Ex­cerpts from a BBC ship­ping fore­cast fea­ture, as do tick­ing clocks, squeak­ing doors and howl­ing wolves. Open­ing track When We Were Young is a short and slightly tawdry spo­ken-word nar­ra­tive in which Wa­ters de­tails ado­les­cent stir­rings and rivalries. But by the sec­ond track, Déjà Vu, the singer’s hu­man­ist stance and wide-reach­ing po­lit­i­cal agenda have kicked in.

“The tem­ples in ru­ins” and “the bankers get­ting fat”, he sings, while his men­tion of rivers full of “her­maph­ro­dite trout” is an en­vi­ron­men­tal red flag. The same song also finds Wa­ters imag­in­ing him­self as a drone ex­plod­ing in the home of a woman bak­ing bread, how­ever, and this dark per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of some­thing in­her­ently yet anony­mously evil is hugely af­fect­ing.

Wa­ters’s per­sonal life has long been some­thing of a bat­tle­field, too. Af­ter four divorces, the last of which was from ac­tress and film­maker Lau­rie Durn­ing in 2015, he re­cently joked that he couldn’t af­ford to stop work­ing – and this de­spite The Sun­day Times Rich List es­ti­mat­ing Wa­ters’s per­sonal wealth at £165 mil­lion (Dh786 mil­lion) this year. In 2016, when Wa­ters had a three-month re­la­tion­ship with Pales­tinian jour­nal­ist and au­thor Rula Je­breal, more­over, it lent a dif­fer­ent dy­namic to the singer’s long­stand­ing protest against Is­rael’s oc­cu­pa­tion of Pales­tinian ter­ri­to­ries. In­deed, some even dubbed Wa­ters and the equally-vo­cal Je­breal “the Pales­tinian power cou­ple”.

There is talk of homes “bull­dozed to the ground” on the in­or­di­nately de­press­ing Bro­ken Bones, one of many tracks here rem­i­nis­cent of Wa­ters’s bleak­est bal­lads from The Wall. But the most haunt­ing song of dis­place­ment on Is This the Life We Re­ally Want? is The Last Refugee, a syn­the­siser and boom­ing pi­ano-led bal­lad that cribs the dis­tinc­tive drum beat from David Bowie’s Five Years.

Wa­ters’s care­worn, parched-vul­ture of a voice packs an ex­tra­or­di­nary raw power on The Last Refugee, and he has col­lab­o­rated with Sean Evans, di­rec­tor of his 2015 con­cert film The Wall, on an ac­com­pa­ny­ing video. The said film de­picts a bro­ken woman of un­spec­i­fied na­tion­al­ity danc­ing in a squalid, bombed-out build­ing, per­haps a for­mer tem­ple, where she now sleeps on a mat­tress. There are also flash­backs to the build­ing’s for­mer splen­dour in hap­pier times. As the video pro­gresses, we learn that the woman has lost her in­fant daugh­ter. Sub­se­quent images of the child’s rag-doll washed up on the beach – and of the woman stoop­ing to re­trieve it – are un­bear­ably poignant.

Is This the Life We Re­ally Want? is a clever al­bum ti­tle. Few, if any of us, are wholly con­tent with our lot and Wa­ters wants us to pause for thought; to ques­tion our own val­ues and those of our re­spec­tive so­ci­eties.

Re­gard­less of what you think about his rad­i­cal pol­i­tics and re­gard­less of whether or not you think up­pity, ego­tis­ti­cal rock stars have any busi­ness med­dling in world af­fairs, there’s no doubt­ing that Wa­ters’s mu­sic – or at least its sub­ject mat­ter – seems wholly rel­e­vant right now.

“Iden­ti­fy­ing for­eign­ers as the bad guys is an ex­er­cise of con­trol which is as old as the hills,” the singer told the BBC’s Ni­cola Stan­bridge about his new al­bum. “Peo­ple know that and yet they still fall for the old trick of ‘your life’s mis­er­able be­cause of the Mus­lims, or be­cause of the Mex­i­cans, or be­cause of the Ir­ish, or be­cause of the Jews, or be­cause of who­ever it might be who is not us’.

“So we iden­tify a ‘them’, and then it makes it OK for our leader to do what­ever he or she wants,” Wa­ters con­cluded.

Writ­ing this in the UK, on the morn­ing af­ter a sui­cide bomber killed 22 peo­ple at an Ari­ana Grande con­cert at the Manch­ester Arena, sup­press­ing one’s fear of oth­er­ness doesn’t come easy but Wa­ters is of course right. De­mon­i­sa­tion of the other, of oth­er­ness, of other peoples’ ways of life, is not the an­swer.

Kevin Mazur / Getty Images

Roger Wa­ters plays at Desert Trip mu­sic fes­ti­val, the Em­pire Polo Club, In­dio, Cal­i­for­nia, in 2016. De­spite his ‘rock vet­eran’ age of 73, the mu­si­cian re­mains in com­bat­ant mood against the in­jus­tices of the world.

Roger Wa­ters (Columbia) Dh48

Is This the Life We Re­ally Want?

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