Roger Waters retreads familiar societal, political grounds with still-enjoyable release ‘Is This the Life We Really Want?’

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Roger Waters Is This The Life We Really Want? | Columbia Records
Grade: B

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Roger Waters is no stranger to politics. The former Pink Floyd bassist and concept album connoisseur is known for writing socially driven music, from the band’s 1979 hit The Wall to his 1992 solo album Amused to Death.

Last September, Waters returned to political prog-rock form when he performed his 1977 song “Pigs (Three Different Ones)” to a crowd in Mexico City — this time, against a backdrop of images of Donald Trump displayed on giant screens.

Waters brought back “Pigs” as a blistering dig at the U.S. president (“Big man, pig man / Ha, ha, charade you are”), and his newest venture Is This the Life We Really Want? continues that trend. Released Friday, Waters’ fourth studio album features fiery takes on rising militarism, the refugee crisis, climate change and of course, the Trump administration, while simultaneously referencing some of Pink Floyd’s most iconic works. The result is an admirable, but derivative product.

Is This the Life We Really Want? begins with “When We Were Young,” a track which stylistically and thematically lays the groundwork for the rest of the album — its quiet, constant clock-ticking beneath indistinguishable murmurs reminiscent of the lengthy, mechanical intros from Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon.

The ticking continues into the slower rock tune “Déjà Vu,” in which Waters plays God, overlooking a planet corrupted by drone strikes and environmental devastation. While gentler in tone, “Déjà Vu” reestablishes Waters’ common lyrical structure of “indignant ranting” — that is, he lists out numerous grievances, connected in the song only by a certain motif or question — a structure that carries through to the album’s most pointed songs.

That structure is especially evident in tracks such as “Picture That,” which asks listeners to envision multiple scenarios, whether mundane (“Picture your finger pushing the doorbell”) or politically charged (“Picture a leader with no fucking brains”). The song also includes the line “Wish you were here in Guantanamo Bay,” which serves as a tongue-in-cheek reference to both a Pink Floyd classic and the prison Waters has long reprimanded for violating human rights.

The album’s lead single,“Smell the Roses,” sounds frustratingly similar to Pink Floyd’s “Have a Cigar,” from its grooving bassline to its many electric guitar slides. Yet while it may be the most familiar-sounding track on the album, it’s also the most conceptually developed. The lyrics, which insinuate that a comfortable life prohibits the recognition of societal corruption, maintain a narrative that is the most complete and consistent on the album.

Besides the album’s derivative qualities, the “indignant ranting” that is present throughout the work is also its biggest drawback. Is This the Life We Really Want? isn’t as insistent on its underlying concept as Waters’ previous works, largely because that “concept” is left murky and unclear. There is a loose thread of society’s lack of action in response to tyranny that connects many of the songs, but Waters examined similar themes with far greater intelligence and audacity in Pink Floyd’s 1977 release Animals.

Is This the Life We Really Want? is hardly a surprising album given Roger Waters’ repertoire. But where it lacks in originality, it at least partially redeems itself in artistry and heart — particularly near the end of the album, which steps refreshingly into unexplored rock ballad territory. It’s fitting, given the fixation of our modern political narrative on history’s self-repetition, that Waters pulls from his own past to reflect on it.

Contact Anagha Komaragiri at [email protected].