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
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.
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.
Is This the Life We Really Want?