Friday, November 21, 2014

album review: 'the endless river' by pink floyd

I didn't want to do this review.

Really, I didn't. If it wasn't for your requests, I would have kept on my regular schedule and found every possible excuse to pass this record by. And hell, it's not like I wouldn't have excuses - my backlog is reaching enormous proportions again as we get to the end of the year, and with year-end lists and the holidays approaching, a record like this that demanded deep, thorough analysis would take up a lot more time than I could reasonably afford.

But that's not the only reason why I didn't want to cover this album. To answer that question, we need to talk about Pink Floyd, one of the greatest and most influential progressive rock acts of all time. A band that has made records like the excellent Dark Side Of The Moon, the slightly underrated Animals, the slightly overrated but still awesome The Wall, and that's simply touching on their seminal mid-period work. And, of course, there's Wish You Were Here, a record that might not have the killer singles but stands up as the most emotionally evocative and powerful record of Pink Floyd's career. For a band that many derided throughout the 70s as detached and lacking in emotion - themes the band themselves explored on The Wall - Wish You Were Here was a deeply poignant record that holds up as one of the best albums of the 70s, hands down.

And then it all fell apart. The 80s were not a good decade for Pink Floyd, with The Final Cut being pretty good but having more than its fair share of problems, but then Roger Waters left the band. And I'll be blunt and say it - from there, some of the legendary instrumental prowess might have been there but the writing wasn't. It was breaking the rudder chain and leaving the band adrift, lacking the focus and tightness that defined the band's best work. And sure, the music might have been passable, but Pink Floyd should be better than 'passable'. 

So yeah, I wasn't looking forward to The Endless River. Not just because Waters was gone - with the death of founding member and keyboardist Richard Wright, pieces of his compositions during the creation of The Division Bell in the 90s were adapted posthumously for the record, something to which I take issue with on principle. Sure, I get that the album was intended as a tribute to the late and great keyboardist, but I can't help but think Deep Purple's approach when they paid tribute to Jon Lord with the incredible 'Above & Beyond'. But putting that aside and knowing that much of this album was reportedly pulling inspiration from Wish You Were Here, I gave The Endless River a deep listen - what did we get?

Honestly, I didn't expect a lot with this album - and I didn't get a lot. In fact, we get pretty much exactly what I expected from The Endless River, a meandering, unfocused, distinctly placid record that is very pleasant to listen through but pales starkly in comparison to everything that comes before. Not only is it an album that feels redundant and backwards looking, it also feels like one that in order to maintain cohesion, they had to dull and smooth over any interesting progression or groove that could have developed. The word that leaps out to me with The Endless River is inoffensive - pleasant enough background music, but rarely compelling beyond that. In other words, I'm fairly certain it did exactly what it was designed to do, but I sure as hell don't find it all that interesting or all that good.

Let's start with the lyrics, which really won't take long because for the most part, this is an instrumental album. With the exception of vocal snippets and samples from Steven Hawking, and of course, the leadoff single 'Louder Than Words', there's no singing on this record. And what lyrics we do get are pretty damn thin, once again circling the same themes about communication and building connections that ultimately boil down to us all being connected because we're alive and have hearts. And I'm sorry, but placing this in comparison with the lyrical intricacies of Animals or The Wall or even when the band stripped things back on Wish You Were Here, the lyrics feel inconsequential, token almost.

Of course, the major focus of this album is the instrumentation - and at this point, it's a matter of expectations. If you expected Pink Floyd to be innovative or progressive with their compositions, anything that evoked the tight rhythms, grooves or melodies of their past, of course you're not getting that - and to be fair, I don't really think anyone expected it either. I would say it's because Pink Floyd are no longer a 'young man's band', but then again, when Deep Purple drops one of the most aggressive, potent, and borderline-progressive records of their career last year and they're nearly the same age as Pink Floyd, that doesn't count as an excuse. Instead, Pink Floyd are working to create mood and atmosphere - and to their credit, if you wanted to hear 70s prog rock tones over modern spacious production, you'll get it, polished to a mirror sheen with nearly every hint of an edge scrubbed clean. And in a sense that's not always a good thing - a bit of roughness helped ease the edges of some of the guitar tones on those earlier albums, and the tone chosen here, especially for some of the acoustic guitars, feels rubbery and really unflattering against the rest of the track. The organ and keyboard tones are similar - the spacey synthesizer tones worked when you had organic roughness in the mix to cushion it, but here it doesn't fit nearly as well as a smoother backdrop.

Now that's not saying there aren't moments here that work pretty well regardless. I liked the guitar work on 'It's What We Do', 'Sum' manages to bring some bluesy snarl if not a definitive melody line, 'Skins' has some aggressive textured drumwork, 'The Lost Art Of Conversation' has a beautifully mournful vibe courtesy of the strings and piano even if some of the electric guitar tones feel runny which kicks off the soap-opera noir-vibe of 'On Noodle Street', both 'Allons-Y' tracks bring some sweeping, powerful crunch with a solid rollicking groove, I really dug the shimmering synth melody on 'Calling' that has some swell behind it, and 'Eyes to Pearls' has a pretty decent western guitar lick with probably the most grit on it underscoring it thanks to the booming drums. But there are three major problems that this album runs into from an instrumental standpoint, and the first is that despite these being good instrumental ideas, they feel fragmented. This album is eighteen tracks, with half of them under two minutes, and while the overall album flow is good, many of the instrumental ideas on those little tracks could have definitely used more to flesh them out. And then there's the issue of climax - this is a record screaming for a moment to crystallize and intensify the atmosphere, but despite many points of buildup, it never comes, which leaves to a real lack of payoff. But that's a symptom of the biggest issue on this album: lack of definitive melody. Don't get me wrong, there are a few melodies I like and appreciate, but what kills the momentum of The Endless River, makes it feel like so much of a languid, meandering record, is that in terms of sticky, memorable melodic progressions, we get so few. And while I didn't mind the solos, melodies are what you remember. And when we do get melodies, they show up on the horn lines of 'Anisina', which reminded me less of Wish You Were Here and more of the opening theme to Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom!

Then again, as a comparison it's not far off. Both are often too long for their own damn good, can't build up stable momentum, frequently call back to better times more often than they really should, feature great moments we already knew of which they were capable, and have a grandiose feel that the ideas behind them can't support. And yet at the end of the day, I still don't have a problem putting either of them on in the background. And that's how I feel about Pink Floyd's swan song The Endless River - it's decent enough, has some good moments, and it is one of the better post-Roger Waters releases, but as I said at the beginning, a Pink Floyd record shouldn't merely be 'passable', and that's what disappoints me. For me, it's a light 6/10 and only a recommendation if you're a diehard Pink Floyd fan, enough where you even liked The Division Bell. Otherwise, it works for what it is, but it should have been so much more.

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