Fear, fear drives the mills of modern man
Fear keeps us all in line
Fear of all those foreigners
Fear of all their crimes
Is this the life we really want?
It surely must be so
For this is a democracy and what we all say goes
In times of crisis, we turn to visionaries, because they see more clearly than we do. When Roger Waters put out his album Is This the Life We Really Want in 2017, he sure didn’t do it for the money. He did it because he had something important for us. While he doesn’t reference pandemics anywhere on the record, there’s never been a more appropriate time to to take an hour or so and absorb what he has to say than there is right now. It’s still streaming at youtube – with far fewer interruptions where you need to hit the mute button to kill the ads than there were when it first came out.
That cynical quote is from the title track. Once again, Waters – always a big-picture guy – gets it. We see all the President’s men in their surgical masks and we assume we have to be wearing them too – after all, those guys are all oligarchs, or wannabe oligarchs, and they look just like us! Or, they look like how they want us to look.
Beyond Waters’ own simple acoustic chords, there isn’t a lot of guitar on this album. That track, with its bell-like sonics and litany of people and faces – which bring 1983’s Every Stranger’s Eyes full circle – is the exception. Otherwise, it’s mostly strings and the former Pink Floyd bassist’s marvelously spacious, picturesque, gospel-inspired piano.
The album is symphonic to the nth degree, with several themes and variations. A ticking clock (or a bomb) that references Dark Side of the Moon is one of them. The melodies of a couple of iconic Floyd numbers from The Wall also figure into the equation. Lyrically, it’s as shattering, and insightful, and genuinely foundational as anything Waters ever wrote. In the years since, he has gone on to other equally important things – like advocating for Palestinian and Bolivian freedom fighters – but musically he’s as relevant as he’s ever been.
On one hand, Waters’ catalog reads like a doomsday book. Withering cynicism notwithstanding (and there’s A LOT of that here), his hope for a future based on compassion rather than greed remains unshakeable after all these years. At the end of the record, love conquers all: this apocalyptic news junkie gets off the screen.
But he reminds us never to forget past and present atrocities. Refugees on the run and and drone murders are recurrent themes: the bravery of being out of range tragically remains as much of a meme as it was when Waters put out his equally visionary Amused to Death album in 1992. Or for that matter, since long before Dark Side: “’Forward!’ He cried, from the rear, and the front rank died.”
Broken Bones, with its stately piano and grim strings, is one of the keys to this:
Though the slate was never wiped clean
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
And oh Mistress Liberty
How we abandoned thee
…Little babies mean us no harm
They have to be taught to despise us
To bulldoze our homes to the ground
To believe their fight is for liberty
To believe their God will keep them safe and sound
Safe and sound
Safe and sound
We cannot turn back the clock
Cannot go back in time
But we can say “fuck you,”
We will not listen to
Your bullshit and lies
Smell the Roses, another key track, sounds like Floyd’s Have a Cigar with good lyrics, calling bullshit on the military-industrial complex with characteristic down-to-earth elegance:
Wake up and smell the roses
Close your eyes and pray this wind won’t change
There’s nothing but screams in the field of dreams
Nothing but hope at the end of the road
Nothing but gold in the chimney smoke
…This is the room where they make the explosives
Where they put your name on the bomb
Here’s where they bury the buts and the ifs
And scratch out words like right and wrong
And there are a lot of really funny moments here. Trump gets snuffed out – or at least cut off mid-sentence, which for him is the same thing. Waters turns the “classic rock” radio staple Run Like Hell into a love song, which doesn’t come across quite as optimistically as that transformation might imply. And the reference to Floyd’s Wish You Were Here album is particularly spot-on. In a year where all the old paradigms are dying faster than the abandoned patients in your average nursing home, this challenges us to reinvent ourselves. The alternative is in Waters’ narratives here, and in many grim songs from throughout his career. Is that the life we really want?