Some Possible Context for the New Pink Floyd Album
Imagine that you didn’t know who David Gilmour and Richard Wright are – and if you don’t, you will soon. The former, an icon of improvised music; the latter devoted to meticulously composed soundscapes. An unlikely pair of collaborators considering their backgrounds, wouldn’t you say?
Sometime in the early 90s, the two find themselves together in the studio and jam out a series of themes. Sounds pretty avant garde, doesn’t it? Twenty years go by: meanwhile, the session sits, unedited, in a vault at a once-dominant record label, whose global sales fall to about one-fifth of what they were when the session was recorded.
In 2006, Gilmour releases a rare solo album, On an Island, a magically crepuscular, foreboding suite of sorts. Two years later, Wright dies at 65. Another six years go by; Gilmour plays a successful world tour of midsize venues, reunites his old 70s band for a cameo at a one-off tv concert, then pretty much retreats from view.
Was it the desire for filthy lucre that set loose The Endless River, the latest album released under the Pink Floyd name? Or was it more of a genuine need for same, considering that Gilmour isn’t making any money touring these days, and that the entire Pink Floyd discography can be downloaded in seconds flat if your connection is fast enough? And is there anything to this release by the post-Roger Waters version of the band, more than the uneven and aptly titled Momentary Lapse of Reason or the ponderous and tunefully deficient Division Bell, which sounds like a collection of Dire Straits outtakes?
Best to take this “new” album out of context and forget Gilmour and Wright’s glorious art-rock past for a minute. As a series of simple, mostly one or two chord vamps, all of them instrumentals except for a single track, it showcases each musician’s strengths and signature tropes. Throughout these seventeen brief, often barely two-minute excerpts, obviously a series of carefully chosen edits, Gilmour unleashes his usual mournful wails, anguished screams and ominous swells, building the expected, majestic wall of reverb. Wright, true to form, is more judicious, even careful, peppering the mix with pensive, sometimes gingerly placed neoromantic chords and piano riffs and the occasional blues or gospel-tinged phrase. Every so often, there’ll be a hint of a big ballad or a sweeping, cinematic theme, the last of them a particularly triumphant one. Drummer Nick Mason, one of the art-rock era’s most underrated and richly musical players, anchors these miniatures with his reliable combination of elegant color and mighty thud.
Gilmour distinguishes himself the most when he uses a slide, much as he did on Dark Side of the Moon. The sample of Wright reputedly playing the organ at the Royal Albert Hall in 1969 is insignificant and is over before you know it. And the single song with vocals is a throwaway that tarnishes the band’s legacy. Even so, every year, a new generation of alienated kids discovers this band, just as they do Sartre, and Margaret Atwood, and Frida Kahlo. They’ll make their way through the catalog to this one eventually, and will find it as musically intriguing as the band’s iconic 70s work. The elephant in the room, or, rather, lingering just outside the door, is Roger Waters: one can only imagine what these tantalizing fragments could have become as vehicles for his visionary lyricism.