Classic Rock Review

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Pink Floyd The Division Bell (1994)

The+Division+BellFrom johnmcferrinmusicreviews.org

Seven years and tons of critcism (mostly justified, I might add) later, Dave decided to make another Pink Floyd album. His most important decision along these lines was to get Wright and Mason involved in the project from the getgo, both in making sure they played most of the keyboard/drum parts on the album and making sure they had an impact on the songwriting and overall approach of the album.

Where the last few albums with Roger in the band had Dave as the only other reasonably significant creative presence, this album shows a very strong Wright presence, and it helps things a lot. Yes, Roger’s presence is still missed in a lot of critical ways, but Wright brings back elements to the sound and atmosphere that had pretty much disappeared after Wish You Were Here, and it’s neat to me to hear that a Gilmour/Wright Pink Floyd isn’t much less interesting than a Gilmour/Waters Pink Floyd.

It’s not for nothing that I mentioned Wish You Were Here in the last paragraph. One of the common criticisms of the album, with which I largely agree, is that the album sounds a lot like Wish You Were Here and Dark Side Of The Moon in more than a few places, with the group nailing their “classic” style just a little too closely for comfort. Cluster One reminds one a lot of the opening section of Shine On You Crazy Diamond (making this the second straight album where the band aimed for that vibe); What Do You Want From Me sounds a lot like Have a Cigar; Lost For Words sounds a lot like Wish You Were Here, and this doesn’t even mention the cribs from other albums. It’s definitely interesting that they were able to get back into this mode so easily after so many years of not writing together, and it’s very refreshing to hear this kind of sound on a 90’s album from a classic rock band, but I can’t totally forgive the amount of self-borrowing that happens on this album.

It also hurts considerably that I really don’t like three of the songs on this album. A Great Day for Freedom supports my belief that including the word “Freedom” in the title of a song reduces its chances of being good by ten-fold; the only songs I can think of with that word in the title that aren’t outright terrible are Chimes of Freedom (Bob Dylan), Freedom (Jimi Hendrix) and Freedom of ’76 (Ween). Gilmour is clearly trying to ape Waters here, as he tries to make this into a big universal anthem and includes references to “the wall” coming down, but it largely comes off as an inferior rewrite of On the Turning Away, with a duller guitar solo at the end.

Keep Talking is a reprehensible mix of the keyboard line from Sorrow, the pig guitar noises from Pigs and the awkward female backing vocals of Not Now John, complete with a silly Stephen Hawking voice sample, and is probably in the bottom five of all Pink Floyd tracks. Coming Back to Life isn’t obviously terrible, but it’s extremely boring, with seemingly endless guitar noodlings and a “poppy” backing that isn’t catchy, energetic or that moving. So that’s more than a quarter of the album gone right there.

Amazingly enough, though, I really like every other song on the album, even taking into account all of the ripoffs. One thing that’s rather interesting to me is that, just as WYWH was largely an open letter to Syd Barrett, much of the album largely functions as an open letter to none other than Roger Waters (the band has denied it, but given that I thought of this early on while listening and later found out this is the consensus among a lot of fans, I suspect there’s something to it). Check out these lyrics from What Do You Want From Me: “Should I sing until I can’t sing anymore? Play these strings until my fingers are raw? You’re so hard to please,” or “You can own everything you see; sell your soul for complete control, is that really what you need?”

That’s exactly what the dynamics were between Dave and Roger at the end! Check out these lyrics from Poles Apart: “Why did we tell you then you were always the golden boy then and that you’d never lose that light in your eyes? Hey you … did you ever realize what you’d become? And did you see that it wasn’t only me you were running from? Did you know all the time but it never bothered you anyway, leading the blind while I stared out the steel in your eyes.” There are interviews floating out there in which the band members described Roger as a steel-eyed monster at the end of his time with them. Finally, check out these lyrics from Lost for Words: “So I open my door to my enemies, and I ask, ‘could we wipe the slate clean?’ But they tell me to please go fuck myself; you know you just can’t win.” I don’t know about you, but I’m convinced.

Lyrics aside, I like the music in the other tracks a lot. What Do You Want From Me may indeed sound a lot like Have a Cigar, but the bluesy elements of the original are crossed with an overall tinge of mellow darkness, and both Gilmour’s singing (and don’t forget the power of the brief moments when we hear Wright’s naked voice coming through; he got it worse from Roger than David ever did, remember) and his guitar playing are extremely emotional (one thing I should mention about this album is that, even if he’s using the same styles as ever, Dave’s guitar parts consistently move me in a way that wasn’t always the case during the glory years).

Poles Apart is a terrific pop song, driven by an effective simple guitar line and a well-written vocal melody featuring a strong dose of whimsy, and it features a dark carnival (!) midsection. And while the melody to Lost for Words may be a lot like that to Wish You Were Here, it’s also acoustic-driven and a lot more light-hearted, and it gets in my head frequently while making Dave seem awfully sympathetic.

A track I want to particularly mention is Wearing the Inside Out, the first song solely penned by Wright (and featuring him on lead vocals) since Summer ’68. The song is mildly dull in some ways, and I’ve seen some fans of the band dismiss it the same way I’ve dismissed, say, Coming Back to Life. Personally, I think that considering it that way is a mistake. One thing that fascinates me is that, despite Wright not writing the lyrics (he only wrote the music), the song sounds completely like Rick doing an autobiographical number.

Between Roger’s mental abuse and his own cocaine habit, Wright had, over the years, seemingly become more and more withdrawn and afraid to say anything for fear of torment, and it took Dave extending him the chance to have a significant role on a Pink Floyd album again to pull him out of it. This song, to me, is the very sound of a victim of excessive verbal abuse, put to music, singing from the corner of a dark room but starting to find the strength to walk towards the light in the hallway. The saxophones are moody and creepy to no end, Wright’s worn voice is perfect for the main subject matter, Dave’s vocal near the end works perfectly in support, and the guitar at the end drives it all home wonderfully.

The other two “regular” songs are just fantastic. Take it Back sounds an awful lot like classic U2, but hell, The Edge’s guitar style largely came from Gilmour in the first place, and I don’t begrudge Dave for writing a great pop song in this vein. The closing High Hopes is probably more overblown than it should be, but it has a great melody (credit should be given where credit is due; Dave has the sole credit for the music on this song), a majestic atmosphere and some GREAT emotional steel guitar parts that play well off the strings in the background. I definitely dig the simple two-note piano chords that drive the melody in the beginning, too.

The two instrumentals shouldn’t be neglected either. Yes, the opening Cluster One goes for much the same vibe as SOYCD, but one significant difference is that it doesn’t go for the soul-crushing majesty of that piece, instead focusing on a warmer, more pleasant, but still sad vibe that hits me effectively. It takes a little while to really get going, but I like the way Dave plays off Wright’s simple piano lines in the second half. Marooned, then, calls back a bit to Great Gig in the Sky, but nowhere near enough to call it a ripoff. It’s a song that really matches its title, as it hits on the kinds of emotions I’d feel if I were marooned on an island, sitting on a beach, staring out over the sea and realizing there’s nobody coming to get me. I wouldn’t trade the track for the world, especially since it has yet more wonderful slide guitar.

I think it should be pointed out that, when I first bought this album, I did not have any high expectations for it whatsoever, and I’m very surprised that I ended up liking it as much as I do. If they’d ever gone back and made another album like this, ripping off their previous successes, I might have gotten annoyed, but as is, this works as a fine career ender. If you’re not slavishly devoted to Roger, and don’t feel all Pink Floyd without him should be ignored, you should get this.

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January 2, 2014 - Posted by | Pink Floyd The Division Bell |

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