Is This the Life We Really Want? is Roger Waters’ first solo effort since his operatic foray in 2005 entitled Ça Ira, an album I won’t include in the Waters discography as a matter of principle. So, really it is his first solo work since Amused to Death, released in 1992. Since then, he’s largely been riding off past successes, notably touring The Wall, his magnum opus, since 1990.
This album, however, is quintessential Waters: dystopian, anguished, nostalgic. Any one of these songs could be a track from Animals, or The Wall, or The Final Cut. Or even from any of his other solo works, particularly The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking, which is, in its own right, a great album made up of basically the same songs featured on The Wall, re-written and re-arranged slightly differently each time. Waters truly hit his stride with The Wall and has never really looked back – every song since has been more or less a re-working of his formula: orchestral backing, anti-establishment messages, and vocal sampling. It’s tried and tested, and it really works.
Waters’ music has always been politically charged, and for that reason this album is genuinely significant. Animals was a highly political album which criticised the political system, centered around political repression and social conservatism. The Wall grappled with mental health issues, fascism, and war. The Final Cut tackled Thatcher’s tumultuous and frankly terrible premiership. Radio K.A.O.S was an extension of The Final Cut (which was itself an extension of The Wall), dealing with Thatcher and the Cold War. I have omitted pre-Animals Pink Floyd – and of course post-Rogers Floyd – from this discussion because these works were less directly or heavily influenced by Waters’ writing. It was on the records I have discussed which Waters took control over the other band members, before which the process had seen significant collaboration, which inevitably contributed to Waters leaving Floyd in 1985.
Why am I mentioning all this? Firstly, because I’m taking the opportunity to share my obsessive and borderline encyclopaedic knowledge of Pink Floyd and its members with the world. More importantly, however, because Floyd and Waters released predominantly concept albums – albums set in their own universe, with their own recurring themes, written to tell a story and push forth a narrative. The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking, for example, though not political, is the story of a man fighting his impulses to commit adultery with a hitchhiker he picks up while travelling across California. This is the depth with which Is This the Life We Really Want? must be considered. It is as important to consider the context of the album as it is to consider its music.
This new solo effort’s political significance comes from its topic: Donald Trump’s presidency. Musically, it is quite difficult to pick the tracks apart. They all, as mentioned, share a similar pattern: vocal sampling, such as Is This the Life We Really Want?, which begins with a sample of Trump talking about fake news and winning the election; synthetic, progressive layers; orchestral backing; acoustic guitars and piano; anguished, wailing, dystopian vocals (Waters is not, after all, known as a singer as much as a song-writer). Déjà Vu sounds exactly like Pigs on the Wing (Part 1) from Animals, while Wait for Me, Oceans Apart, and Part of Me Died, the last three tracks on the album, effectively comprise one long song, all of which containing the exact same chord structure and the exact same riffs too, bearing only lyrical differences. Again, it becomes clear that to Waters the importance lies just as much in the message as it does in the music itself.
Despite this being an album review, there is little more to discuss musically. What this album is, however, is a composition of all of the best elements of both Floyd and Waters’ solo works, sampling of older songs, a re-working of classics, with a new, heavy, political message. Waters’ voice has always been a strained one, but now more than ever his pain sounds as real as can be, his voice aged and wiser than before. This whole album is worth a listen, if indulgent prog-rock grandeur is to your liking. Waters is back after 25 years without a release, and he is better than ever.