It’s #ThrowbackThursday, which means there’s no better time for…
OLD REVIEW DUMP #1 (3/5)
This fourth review is a milestone, because it was the first one I wrote SPECIFICALLY for Tumblr, EG with an audience besides my mom in mind. The fact that it was about one of my favorite albums, one with a history as fascinating as its content, made it a review oasis in the Imagine Dragons desert I was currently stuck in.
This review still makes me smile. Stealing the famous “Isn’t this where…we came in” catch for my own amusement (“But yeah, it’s possible I love…this album way too much”), my final embracing of the “accept art for what it is” philosophy, and of course the endless gushing over the content of the album itself.
Incidentally, I would rate this album even higher today. After watching the film adaptation, reading Bret Urick’s famously exhaustive analysis, and thinking about it for a long time, I’ve come to grips with the fact that my major complaint with The Wall in this review (the filler) is all but irrelevant on a song-by-song basis. Some of the songs have filler IN them, but as a collective whole there’s not a single song that doesn’t add to the atmosphere or story. That takes the “themes” category up to a 5, giving the album an overall rating of 10+/10 and the rank of “Cosmic Masterpiece”, which I wholeheartedly believe it deserves.
This was the first review where I felt I was comfortable both creating a tone for the description of each song and explaining exactly what I thought about it. Amidst all the gushing, I was seriously thinking about what makes a song work or not work, and that was an important development.
Here it is, in all its brickiness:
Might like to
Go to the show
To feel the warm thrill of confusion
That space cadet glow
Tell me is something eluding you, sunshine?
Is this not what you expected to see?
If you wanna find out what’s behind these cold eyes
You’ll just have to claw your way through this disguise
Lights! Turn on the sound effects! Action!
Drop it, drop it on ‘em! Drop it on them!
-In the Flesh?
…this album way too much.
I suppose I should start out with an acknowledgement that not enough fans of this album are willing to make: The Wall is an album for teenagers. The audience that has, throughout the history of music, been the most instrumental in turning this album into the landmark that it is has been angsty, angry, rebellious, whiny, entitled teenagers. Minus the teenage part, none of that (hopefully) applies to me. It’s a bit humorous to think about Roger Waters penning the ultimate classic rock favorite of high school seniors and disillusioned twenty-somethings at the age of thirty-six.
That being said, none of that matters to me. Yes, The Wall is big, bloated, self-indulgent, and filled with anger and self-pity. On the other hand, The Wall is big, bloated, self-indulgent, and filled with anger and self-pity! It’s two whole discs of stylish music, raw emotion, and infectious passion. Maybe it’s misdirected, maybe it isn’t, but The Wall is a unique, bombastic, unforgettable product.
The story behind The Wall is that was written following a tour where Pink Floyd’s current frontman, Roger Waters, got so angry at an obsessed fan that he spat in his face. When he lay in a hotel room that night, he became horrified with what he had done and started reminiscing about what in his childhood might have screwed him up so much. This idea was developed until it became the semi-autobiographical behemoth double album we know so well today.
For those who don’t fall into this camp, The Wall is a concept album (by way of rock opera) that explores the life of the protagonist, Pink. With a father lost to war, an overprotective mother, and a variety of abusive teachers, Pink leads a relatively crappy childhood, eventually getting married and becoming a rock star. His marriage falls apart after an affair, and in his desperation he separates himself completely from society with a metaphorical wall, becoming an insane, lonely wreck dependent on drugs. One high reached before a concert leads him to believe he is a fascist dictator, and he lives out this fantasy in a drug trip. Suddenly he realizes how pathetic he’s become and puts himself on trial. The bellowing judge of the “worms” eating away at his sanity finds him guilty of…being an adulterous, antisocial, unappreciative jerk, basically. His sentence is to be exposed before his peers, and orders are given to “tear down the wall”. It ends ambiguously, with the relatively calm outro suggesting that Pink somehow gets a happy ending. The famous catch of the album is that the last song appears to abruptly cut off, with a faint voice saying “Isn’t this where…” The last song actually transitions into the first song, where a faint voice can be heard saying “…we came in?” Besides meaning that the entire album could be feasibly put on an endless loop, the more unsettling implication is that the events of the story repeat over and over.
If you’re wondering why I just told you the whole story…well, first of all, you should already know it, but it’s mainly because I think the music and story should be discussed separately. Also, The Wall can be a confusing album, especially for first time listeners, so if you haven’t heard this album yet but are planning to, I just saved you a lot of brain-racking. But back to the story: it’s similar to Tommy, The Who’s rock opera, but Water’s semi-autobiographical lyrics elevate the material. Almost the entire thing is told as a reflective inner monologue, so when another character jumps in (Pink’s mother in “Mother”, the doctor in “Comfortably Numb” and the members of the court in “The Trail”), it’s a bit of a jolt. The reflections are affecting and honest, adding an important degree of sympathy to its pathetic, amoral main character.
Unfortunately, the rumors and whispers of this album’s critics are true: there’s distracting filler, on the second disc anyway. Disc one is perfectly paced, moving from the past (side one) to the present (side two) seamlessly and establishing its main character well. On side three, we have five songs detailing Pink’s experiences behind the wall when we really only needed two or three. One side four, Pink’s fascist drug trip lasts three songs, none of which are particularly interesting. So yes, the pacing is a bit wonky, but the important thing to remember is that the story is less a story and more a framing device for the music, and in this case, we got some awesome music. I’d just thought I’d get my feelings on the story out of the way before moving on to the song-by-song discussion, because there’s a LOT of songs on here.
The opening, “In the Flesh?” is one of the all-time great album openings. The unassuming military-style horn drops into a huge BOOM, some awesome David Gilmour guitar and great Waters lyrics. “The Thin Ice” starts out offsetting it with a lovely combination of synth and piano before punching you with that harshness from the beginning. The harsh sounds and calculated beauty of the album are established instantly in two theatrical setpieces.
“Another Brick In The Wall Part 1” is my favorite of the three parts. The bubbling guitar perfectly encapsulates resentment, making for one of the few largely quiet, thoughtful moments on the album. Unfortunately, it does drag on for a bit. But hey, we do get out first title drop! You should probably get used to those. “The Happiest Days Of Our Lives” is the closest thing to filler on disc one, continuing the guitar from the last song and meandering a bit musically. Fortunately, the guitar builds into an interesting climax with the resentment finally becoming…a little disco-ish ditty. Huh. That would be “Another Brick In The Wall Part 2”, one of Floyd’s most famous songs. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t completely and utterly sick of this song, but it’s well written and well composed, with Gilmour’s first truly awesome solo on the album. His guitar tone makes up for its lack of the spontaneity you usually associate with rock by being professional and just plain cool. “Mother” is another quiet spot, serving as a kind of guitar-based anti-lullaby. Much like “Comfortably Numb”, it has a kind of disgusting beauty to it. Whew. End of side one.
“Goodbye Blue Sky” opens side Two. It also has a kind of beauty to it, even with the ominous backdrop. It also has one of the best (and most unnerving) moments on the album: “Look mummy, there’s an aeroplane up in the sky.” It still makes me shudder…
“Empty Spaces” runs with the dark ambience of the last song to create a short moody piece, one of the most disturbing moments on the album, complete with a backwards message. This builds to a surprising turn in “Young Lust”, an unforgivably stupid sexy-jam with brainless guitar and hammy vocals. It is, of course, awesome for all of the above reasons. Pink’s moment of adultery isn’t supposed to be pleasant, and the album doesn’t treat it that way. The payoff, “One Of My Turns”, is an incredible moment, a combination of impeccable sound design, disturbing lyrics, unnerving music and incredible vocals. After the room trashing, “Don’t Leave Me Now” is all the more of a gut-punch. Pink is not a likable person, but his past and now his breakdown have made him incredibly sympathetic. The minimalist production aids in the pure atmosphere and emotion. It builds beautifully to “Another Brick In The Wall Part 3”, a familiar tune that was previously used to represent resentment, now used to show the climax of Pink’s desperation. Finally, he finishes the wall in “Goodbye Cruel World”, a throwback to “Goodbye Blue Sky” that manages to equal it in emotion. Wow. End of side two. Things are pretty incredible so far. The second disc, as previously mentioned, is inferior both musically and narratively, but it’s still great.
Side three opens up with “Hey You”, a depressing little ballad with effectively somber lyrics. The mid-way interlude of “Another Brick In The Wall” is a nice thematic touch. It’s not as instantly gripping as the last two side openers, but the emotions are still running high. “Is There Anybody Out There” is a very simple interlude that tones down all emotion except for overwhelming loneliness. It feels like it probably should have been shortened and used as an intro or outro for another song, because in its current (almost three minute) state, it feels like the first major piece of filler on the album. Quite a shame, as it’s rather nice in the production department.
“Nobody Home”, despite mostly being a retread of the last two songs emotionally, finds a brilliant framing device in the form of examining the few possessions Pink has allowed himself behind the wall. It brings in piano and strings to make a lovely depiction of desperation. The writing here is so brilliantly personal that it might be the best on the whole album.
After that brilliance, “Vera” is a bit of a letdown. It’s here where the fact that side three sounds mostly the same crashes down and, for one of only two times in the album’s run time, it becomes mundane. Thankfully, it’s quite short, and though it’s samey, the music and lyrics still aren’t bad.
BOOM! “Bring The Boys Back Home”! Military-style music! Political chanting! The beginnings of a drug trip! This was just the shot in the arm side three needed. The last “is there anybody out there” is also a nice touch. This transitions into (at the time of writing) my favorite Pink Floyd song, and by extension one of my favorite songs ever: “Comfortably Numb”. I described “Mother” as being disgustingly beautiful, and that also applies here. There’s something sludgy and off-putting about the otherwise lush, Elton John-ish atmosphere of this song. It’s the perfect tone to strike for a song used to introduce the drug trip that dominates most of the rest of the album. The dual vocals with Waters as the doctor and Gilmour as Pink are especially great. Speaking of Gilmour, HOLY CRAP THOSE SOLOS. The second one in particular is often considered one of the greatest guitar solos of all time. Regardless of your feelings on Gilmour’s moderate, heavily planned style, the technique here is undeniable.
“The Show Must Go On” is fine, but not particularly distinctive other than some fun backing vocals. Mostly it just feels unnecessary. “In The Flesh” is great for all the same reasons as “In The Flesh?”, so not much to say there. “Run Like Hell” is the last well known song from the album, and while it’s not exactly original sounding, it’s a nice dose of fun. I’m not sure it’s reputation is exactly deserved, but there’s nothing really wrong with it other than dragging out Pink’s fascist drug trip, which continues into “Waiting for the Worms”. Something of a “Vera” moment happens here, as the sameness of this section becomes apparent. But you know what, at least “Vera” was just a minute-long interlude, “Waiting for the Worms” is a four minute rocker that’s basically a worse version of “Run Like Hell”. Sadly, this makes it the album’s lowest point, although this is still all context; on its own it’s not a bad song by any means. Thankfully, like “Vera”, we get a slap. This time it comes in the form of the simple interlude “Stop”. Suddenly the noisy production is replaced with a simple piano harkening back to Side Three. It’s rather *ahem* sobering.
But SCREW normal, because now Pink has to put himself on trial, and what a trial it is. With Waters doing a variety of voices that are both amusing and disturbing and wacko lyrics, this is one of the weirdest things ever put on a Floyd album. It’s also indescribably awesome, especially in the music department. The verses are backed by bombastic Broadway-style orchestra that sits somewhere between a carnival and an opera. Pink’s verses are backed by an unnerving little number and haunting chorus. Then the judge shows up (who, incidentally, is a giant talking buttocks, at least in the movie) and a hard rock guise enters with him. The climactic “TEAR DOWN THE WALL!!!”, followed by the sounds of the collapse, is one of the greatest moments in Floyd’s entire catalogue.
The album closes (OR DOES IT) with “Outside the Wall”, which leaves the consequences of the story vague, but after so much noise, it’s a real relief. Waters speaking the lyrics while a background chorus sings them is a nice touch.
And that’s The Wall. Holy crap. It’s got issues, but those issues are mostly a result of the overall, start-to-end listening experience. Each of the songs, taken on their own, hold up unbelievably well under scrutiny. It’s almost uncanny how an album can be so ultimately slight and yet so perfect.
But yeah, it’s possible I love…
Listenability: 5/5 The production, vocals and compositions, for the most part, are top notch. It may take multiple listens to fully appreciate, due to the high quantity of songs.
Themes: 4/5 One point off for the obvious filler. Still, as a framing device for some cool music, the story works.
Lyricism: 5/5 Waters may be overrated for a lot of things, but lyricism isn’t one of them. This is some of his best work.
Diversity: 5/5 Covers a ton of different interesting styles. Disc two is less consistent with this, but it’s not boring.
Resonance: 5/5 It may be overly self-serious, but it’s sincere. There’s probably a message here to appeal to everyone.
FINAL RATING: 10/10 Startlingly evocative and relentlessly memorable. A masterpiece.
2016 Final Rating: 10+/10
Recommended Listening: The whole thing from start to finish, obviously, but especially Comfortably Numb, In the Flesh?, The Trail, The Thin Ice, One Of My Turns, Nobody Home, and Don’t Leave Me Now.