I’ve put off reviewing Is This the Life We Really Want? because I didn’t want to rush to judgment (like so many people clearly have). But I was recently given an opportunity to really immerse myself in the album. A cousin died in my home town in North Carolina, which is a 700+ mile drive from where I live. I listened to a lot of different music driving up, but on the way back I only listened to two albums. David Bowie’s Blackstar and Roger Waters’ Is This the Life We Really Want?. Each time I listened to each disc in its entirety, and alternated between the two albums. Needless to say, I listened to Is This the Life We Really Want? a lot during that 700+ mile drive home.
The truth is, Is This the Life We Really Want? is not an album for the casual listener. None of Waters’ solo works have been, really. People who show up expecting Pink Floyd are going to be disappointed (you can usually spot them, because they’re always whining about David Gilmour somewhere in their reviews of Roger Waters’ material). But for someone like me, whose first Roger Waters solo album was The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking (which I first listened to on cassette tape back in 1984, just a year or so after Pink Floyd released The Final Cut), this is about what I was expecting. Yeah, my initial reaction to the first single, “Smell the Roses”, was a disappointment. After waiting 25 years for a new solo album, it felt a bit too familiar. But to be honest, I’ve never heard individual tracks ahead of the release of Roger Waters solo albums. I’ve always gotten my hands on the albums first, and listened to them in their entirety. There’s a lesson there, kids. As anyone who bought Flickering Flame can tell you, Waters’ tracks don’t really stand on their own as well. Nor were they meant to. Everything on his albums is related to everything else. It’s when you listen to the album as a whole, and catch the tracks in their proper context, that you understand the work as a whole. Where Roger Waters’ work is concerned, it’s the whole that is most important.
At this point, Is This the Life We Really Want? is already part of my DNA. If I find a fault with the album, it’s mostly that sometimes it seems like there’s too much Nigel Godrich. Whatever praise Radiohead fans might heap upon Godrich, he’s no Alan Parsons. Some of the soundscapes he created for the album seem a little forced. There’s one point where a church bell is ringing in multiple tones, but one of the tones seems off and artificial. Little things like that. But at the same time, while some folks have complained at the aural references to Pink Floyd, they’re never overwhelming. A hint of “Wish You Were Here”. A hint of the keyboard stabs in “One of These Days”. That aspect is well done. In the end, though, it seems unfair to criticize Godrich, because without him we might never have had another Roger Waters solo album. The reality is that when some folks complain about the absence of David Gilmour, they don’t realize that Godrich basically fills that role here, in that he’s the sheen on Waters’ stark compositions. On The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking it was Eric Clapton and David Sanborn. On Amused to Death it was Jeff Beck. On Is This the Life We Really Want? it’s Nigel Godrich. And while he doesn’t bring guitar histrionics to the mix, what he does bring is far more important at this juncture in Roger Waters’ career. He brings a unifying thread and a sound which works really well with Waters’ music while not distracting from it. Whenever you hear Clapton on Pros and Cons or Beck on Amused to Death you know exactly who you’re listening to. On Is This the Life We Really Want?, Roger Waters is always front and center. That’s the strength of the album. It’s at once vaguely Pink Floydish in places, but always brazenly Roger Waters. It nods to the past without being tied to it. What we’re left with is a work which compares to Animals and The Final Cut (both albums which have been critically re-appraised and appreciated in recent years, no longer overshadowed by larger commercial successes like Wish You Were Here and The Wall).
Is This the Life We Really Want? fits nicely with Animals – which is probably why Waters features imagery of the Battersea Power Station during his concerts on the 2017 “Us + Them” tour. Animals was an album which didn’t really spawn a hit, though the album itself was successful. But Is This the Life We Really Want? is clearly a Roger Waters album, and perhaps fits best with The Final Cut (which many regard as Roger Waters’ unofficial first solo album). If all you’re after is great guitar work and sing-able lyrics, The Final Cut is not for you. And neither is Is This the Life We Really Want? This is a Roger Waters album, not a Pink Floyd reprise. Like all of Waters’ other solo works, the album has a feel all its own. The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking, Radio K.A.O.S., and Amused to Death are all very different albums. That’s the beauty of Waters’ solo works. They all share similar themes, but they’re all adventurous in their own right musically, and each has its own fingerprint. Nigel Godrich tastefully references Pink Floyd with his production, as well as Waters’ solo works, but only as a unifying theme. If need be, Is This the Life We Really Want? could serve as a final capstone to Roger Waters’ entire career. If Waters’ never releases another studio album, Godrich’s production will seem prescient.
As for the songs on the album, they’re rather sparse. While his production seems heavy-handed at times, it’s clear Godrich never intended to distract from Roger Waters’ work. Indeed, his Floydian flourishes accent what couldn’t be clearer in Roger Waters’ message with Is This the Life We Really Want?. While Waters references Animals on his 2017 tour, his message couldn’t be made any clearer with the first full song on the album, “Déjà Vu”. We’ve been here before; “And it feels like déjà vu / The sun goes down and I’m still missing you” or “And under my Gulf Stream, in circular pools / There’s ninety-nine cents’ worth of drunkards and fools”. Everything Animals talked about 30 years ago is still here. We have the same problems. We haven’t learned. “The Last Refugee” and “Picture That” both rage at different brands of injustice and inequality. “The Most Beautiful Girl” is a song about Liberty herself, and how corporations have shackled her. “Smell the Roses” is a song which is many layers deeper than anyone gives it credit for, working almost on a subliminal level (I recently saw a video of some young girls dancing to it, apparently oblivious to the lyrics; “Wake up and smell the roses / Throw a photo on the funeral pyre / Yeah, now we can forget the threat she poses / Girl you know you couldn’t get much higher”. Which, of course, is a perfect illustration of the point made is the song. The album closes with a suite of songs, starting with “Wait for Her”, the lyrics of which were adapted from a poem by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. Lines from that song could serve well as a message about the entire album; “With the patience of a packhorse loaded for the mountains / Like a stoic, noble prince / Wait for her. With seven pillows laid out on the stair / The scent of women’s incense fills the air / Be calm, and wait for her.” When it comes to Is This the Life We Really Want?, one has to be patient. This is not an album for the feint of heart, or surface skimmers. But if you take your time with it, and inhabit a space with, there are riches to be discovered. But if all you’re after is a collection of great dance songs, you’re going to be bitterly disappointed.
In the end, the folks who have been most critical of Is This the Life We Really Want? are people who’ve shown up with an axe to grind (that’s something Roger Waters fans are, unfortunately, very used to). Disgruntled Gilmour fans. Old Pink Floyd fans who can’t move on from 1979. Folks who’ve shown up simply to whine about Roger Waters’ politics. But every person I know who has genuinely given this album a chance has walked away affected by it. From the ripples which have resonated out from this album’s release, it’s likely we’ll be talking about this one for some time. Those who can appraise the album in and of its own merits acknowledge the accomplishment. If you’re up to the challenge of an album with many, many layers, and are willing to put in the work, you’ll like Is This the Life We Really Want?. But if you’re just looking for some background music to play while you’re at work, this album probably won’t work for you, because you actually have to engage with it. That’s the beauty of Is This the Life We Really Want?. You have to pay attention. And if you pay attention, you’ll be rewarded.