Initially, I was only marginally interested. Amused to Death has barely been off the shelf since it went into my collection twenty-five years ago. Additionally, the first single from Is This the Life We Really Want? felt like a clear attempt to recapture the sounds of Pink Floyd in the glory days, and I was not convinced that I was willing to encourage such nostalgia plays.
I discovered, however, that Waters wooed Nigel Godrich to produce the album. Godrich is best known for his work with Radiohead, and I often like to indulge in thinking that the artistic and commercial successes of both OK Computer and Dark Side of the Moon suggest a shared cultural relevance. I was further intrigued by the rumors indicating that Godrich wasn’t necessarily a starstruck fan. He was critical of Waters’ solo work, particularly Amused to Death. I speculated that Waters brought Godrich in as fresh ears to help him dodge anachronism.
Godrich’s presence, however, did not have the immediate and obvious impact that I had imagined. In fact, I was initially surprised at how little Waters innovated. Is This The Life We Really Want? is filled to the brim with Waters most distinctive tropes. In particular, it prominently features his far-reaching interest in musique concrete and found sounds. Waters has always shown interest in the explosive musical impact of glass breaking or the rush of a jet plane racing across the sky. His use of these kinds of sound effects over murmured radio broadcasts and minor key blues grooves is characteristically present throughout the album.
So Waters was up to his old tricks, and that may seem like a criticism, but in the case of Is This The Life We Really Want? it is actually a backhanded compliment. Repeated listening to the album reveals it to be one of Waters’ most engaging solo efforts, and its success owes a lot to its overt references to his time with Pink Floyd. Perhaps with the band officially done and such a long gap since he took the spotlight with any new material, his identity can sell these allusions as authentic creations rather than overt nostalgia. And yes, age has etched itself upon his voice, but his distinctive singing has had the the grizzled edge of an old man for a very long time. Any loss of range his voice has suffered is swallowed up in his idiosyncratic style, which has always been driven more strongly by lyric content than clever melody.
While there are aspects of Waters’ unique musicianship that could garner criticism, he is inarguably a brilliant conceptualist. Lyrically, Is This the Life We Really Want? plays out like a collection of related songs connected to the question posed by the album’s title. This runs counter to Waters’ usual craft with linear narrative, but it gives him the freedom to circle around this question and examine it from a variety of angles.
Looking back on Waters’ career, he has always seemed more relevant when the cultural climate leans toward conservatism, and this also works to the album’s advantage. It seems as if time has raced around to come up behind him again. Is This the Life We Really Want? is clearly informed by and framed in the age of Trump and Brexit, and Waters’ characteristically blunt approach to political commentary feels pertinent as a reaction to the times in which we find ourselves. Not only is the album relevant, but the question that it asks is relevant, and the straightforward way in which Waters examines this question might make the album one of his more important statements.