Review: Pink Floyd, “The Endless River”

Pink Floyd’s last album, “The Endless River” was released yesterday (November 10) on iTunes in India and other countries. And I more or less had to buy it, being a fan since my schooldays. I have been an iTunes holdout (we do have a Mac at home but only the kid uses it these days), but I figured this was a good opportunity to give it a try in music purchases (I also picked up a couple more 2014 albums by 1960s-origin legends). Thank you, Steve Jobs, for making DRM-free music available at a reasonable price, storing it in a sensible hierarchy in the iTunes folder, making it easy to copy to other devices. No thank you for restricting it to Mac and Windows users. Since Google Play Music, Amazon Prime etc are not around in India and Flipkart’s emusic service closed down a year ago, Apple has an unhealthy monopoly of this space.

Now for the review itself. The Endless River is a brave effort — an almost entirely instrumental outing, mostly performed by the members themselves (David Gilmour, Nick Mason and the late Richard Wright), arranged in four “sides” of three to seven pieces each. Wright’s contributions were extracted mostly from the sessions for the Floyd’s previous album, “The Division Bell” (1994), but one track (Autumn ’68) dates back to the 1960s and features him playing on the organ at the Royal Albert Hall.

Musical references to their earlier work are many — in fact, to my ears, the second track (“It’s what we do”) sounds so extremely similar to “Shine On You Crazy Diamond parts 2-3” that I expect to hear Roger Waters’ voice at any moment saying “Remember when you were young…” On several other tracks, too, vocals seems just a few moments away. Nick Mason gets his first songwriting credits since “The Dark Side of the Moon”. All of it is worth listening to, if you like instrumental Floyd. It is new music that provides a retrospective of — mostly — “old” Floyd, 1975 and earlier. It has noticeably fewer guest musicians than “The Division Bell” or 1987’s “A Momentary Lapse of Reason”, and in contrast to those albums, only two tracks have credits for external songwriters — Anthony Moore and Polly Samson, co-credited on one track each. The most striking, to me, are “Autumn ’68” (the organ solo) and “Skins” (a Nick solo on drums). To my mind, though, all of it is in the Floyd tradition, and very well thought out and arranged. I have heard it about three times so far. If you are a Floyd fan who doesn’t think “The Wall” is the absolute pinnacle of their career, I highly recommend it.

The one vocal song, “Louder than words”, is musically excellent but the lyrics, by Gilmour’s wife Polly Samson, are a letdown. I thought her earlier lyrics (on Floyd’s “Division Bell” and Gilmour’s solo effort “On an island” were fine, and Roger Waters’ lyrics are overrated, not least by Waters himself. But in this case, from the shock-value opening slang to the cloying sentiment throughout, I am not impressed. Especially as the sentiment (about “bitching and fighting” and “dissing each other” but nevertheless producing stuff that speaks “louder than words”) would have been more meaningful if Roger Waters had been aboard.

Where was Waters? After the Live8 reunion in 2005, and shared stage appearances by Gilmour and Waters in 2010 and 2011, that seems a valid question. Especially as the 2010 get-together (for the Hoping Foundation, a charity for Palestinian children) was entirely Gilmour’s idea, and the 2011 event (Gilmour guesting on a Waters’ “The Wall” show) was a quid-pro-quo for that. But Waters made it clear via his Facebook page that he does not see himself as a part of Pink Floyd, and the other Floyds made it clear that he was never asked. According to Mason, this is because the music stems from the Division Bell sessions, was intended as a tribute to Wright who may not have been comfortable working with Waters, and was mostly in a finished state — it would have seemed “insulting” to ask Waters to come on merely to play bass. Gilmour goes further, saying that Waters would have needed to be the “sole power” behind whatever he did. All fair enough, but one gets the feeling that at least they could have asked, and given him the choice of saying no. “Louder than words” would have been a much more honest statement if Waters had been a part of it. Gilmour has said that during the 1994-95 “Pulse” tour, he asked Waters whether he would like to join for a show, “with the safety cushion of knowing that he wouldn’t do it.” Perhaps that “safety cushion” was missing this time.

So “The Endless River” is David Gilmour’s creative vision of how Rick Wright should be best remembered. As such, and as an epitaph to the band, the album works very well. I suspect, though, that Gilmour equally intends it to be a statement of what he says Pink Floyd “really” is, and that was the main reason to exclude Waters.

Now, on the evidence of the post-split years, I find Gilmour’s case more compelling. Since “The Final Cut”, officially Pink Floyd’s last album with Roger Waters but really Waters’ first solo album with Gilmour and Mason guesting, Gilmour has produced two solo albums — “About Face” (1984), which he seems to find forgettable but I quite like (check this concert video from that tour for a flavour); and “On an island” (2006), which was the most successful solo effort from an ex-Floyd member to-date. From the tour for the latter album came two live DVDs and a live CD (“Live from Gdansk”, which features Richard Wright on keyboards and the best-ever recorded version of Floyd’s “Echoes”.) He also produced three Pink Floyd studio albums, including the most recent, and two live albums. The first two studio albums met with critical disdain but tremendous commercial success. Personally, I think “A momentary lapse of reason” had too many guests and too little Mason/Wright, but it did contain at least three memorable songs; and “The Division Bell” lacked punch but, musically, was closer to pure Floyd than anything since “Wish you were here”. In that time frame, Waters has produced three solo albums (the most recent, “Amused to death” from 1992, being the least forgettable, but that’s not saying much), one opera (“Ca ira”), a live album or two, and an endless tour of “The Wall”.

Waters certainly provided a “creative vision”, but that wasn’t enough: his solo career shows that he needed the others to make an impact. Gilmour has had far better success in reaching the public with new, original material. Waters accused the Watersless Floyd of “marching around the world singing my songs”, but that was untrue: the concert repertoire of the Gilmour-led band comprised 50% post-Waters songs, and 50% Floyd songs where the remaining members had significant songwriting credit.

Still and all, there is no doubt that Pink Floyd’s best work had critical conceptual, lyrical, and, yes, musical contributions from Roger Waters. Given the thawing of relations and the shared interest that Waters, Gilmour and Mason have in the Palestinian cause, I can’t help feel regretful that they couldn’t have found a way to include Waters in this last Floyd album. Or, at least, approach him and leave it to him to decline.