Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Mass Without Substance

Pink Floyd • A Momentary Lapse of Reason
CBS Records/1987

A record like A Momentary Lapse of Reason is essentially review-proof, on several levels. Sure, it's review proof in the traditional sense, that anyone hungry for a fix of Pink Floyd after a five year absence (the last album had come out in 1982) would buy it without having heard a note - and these people have no interest in reading reviews. I should know; I was one of them, a geeky and socially awkward high school junior traveling deep into the mystery of Pink Floyd and hearing rumors that Dark Side of the Moon was not, in fact, their first album.

In my defense, I did read some reviews at the time, and they were mostly positive - although the caveat in all reviews was that they thought hearing it would cause brain death, and so just surviving a listening to the first album done without Roger Waters was a mark in the 'pro' column. All reviews mentioned this absence. Waters, the chief songwriter and increasingly lead vocalist, was not only vocal in his criticism of the idea that there could be a Pink Floyd without him, but also highly litigious. Eventually, all lawsuits were settled and guitarist David Gilmour and drummer Nick Mason gained the rights to the name. But the idea stuck - could there be such a thing as Pink Floyd without the man who had created the bulk of their catalog over the last ten years?

Well, sure. The band did it once before, with the participation of Waters himself, after the first chief singer and songwriter went into the cornfield. Syd Barrett had not only defined the band's sound, he'd also named it. But the Floyd that came to mega-ultra-worldwide success a few years after his departure bore little resemblance to the band that Syd had led, musically or lyrically.

Let’s compare Dark Side of the Moon to The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Barrett’s sole full-length outing with the band. Saxophone solos? Gospel choirs? Tight, bluesy guitar solos? Where were Barrett’s laughing gnomes? The trippy LSD guitar? The I Ching lyrics? The thematic concerns of the band had moved so far from Barrett’s original design by 1973 that despite the continued presence of the other three founding members, there was nothing connecting the two bands save them being filed in the same bin at the local Strawberries.

And yet, no-one looks at Dark Side as if it were some kind of artistic sell-out. Certainly, the band was looking for commercial success, but the form it finally took was the result of six years of sincere experimentation and hard, hard work. In other words, the success of Dark Side was earned, and the annexing of the meaning of the name Pink Floyd by the Barrett-less line-up was condoned by all but a handful of old-line underground aficionados.

And that’s where the problem lies in the matter of the departure of Waters and the band trying to continue once again. Because where the Waters Floyd left off in 1982 with The Final Cut was as far from Dark Side of the Moon as Dark Side of the Moon was from The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Waters had sought out and achieved his own personal sound that became the modern Floyd sound – even if he had to sacrifice the band to do so.

Still, while Waters’ methods were fairly Teutonic, no-one can deny that the nine year journey from Dark Side to The Final Cut was also an artistic one. Even if you like the Floyd of The Wall far less than the one that had made Dark Side, you can’t argue that it was a complete sell-out.

A Momentary Lapse of Reason, on the other hand, is a totally calculated piece of product from start to finish. And that’s the other way in which it’s review proof. How can you seriously review an album that’s precision crafted to within an inch of its life to move units? It’s as though Gilmour and Mason took the satirical record company executive lyric from Have A Cigar at face value.

So both parties are right and wrong on this one. Waters was being nothing if not totally self-deluded (and not a little hypocritical) in his claim that Pink Floyd didn’t exist without him. For their part Gilmour and Mason – note how they sound more like law partners than bandmates – take the name Pink Floyd to be that of a corporate entity like McDonald’s; the end result is familiar, filling and wholly empty of lasting value.

Over half the lyrics are written by hired hands. The list of guest players is absurd, with close to twenty keyboard players, and bass players and drummers filling the studio. It’s one thing to replace the bass player, who’s now gone solo. But if the drummer is right there, is there really any need to bring on Jim Keltner and Carmine Appice? Never mind the fact that if you were going to select a drummer for Pink Floyd, these two names would be at the bottom of the list – if Nick Mason is in the band, what’s the point of having two other drummers? And Rick Wright, who had been fired during the recording of The Wall, is back and credited as a player, but it’s pretty clear that there isn’t a note of his on the final album.

None of which is to say that it’s a bad album – it’s just not a Pink Floyd album. Gilmour, Mason – and let’s not overlook producer Bob Ezrin - took the name Floyd and used it as camouflage to sell a Dave Gilmour solo album. It actually would have been a pretty decent Gilmour solo album, too. Much in the same way that The Final Cut is a Waters solo album under the Floyd banner.

But the problem with calling something “Pink Floyd” is that it raises certain expectations, and definitely calls to mind the idea that this is the work of a band, not and individual. Instead of every member contributing to group improvised arrangements, we’re given an overly thought out and controlled work of studio polish. It’s like someone programmed the parameters of Pink Floyd into a MIDI machine with limited A.I., and this was the final computation.

Really, it boils down to Gilmour and Ezrin thinking that Pink Floyd = Slow Tempos + Mopey Lyrics x David Gilmour Guitar Blows®, so strap yourself in for way too much guitar soloing over some really soulless rhythm playing and endless synth washes. And a final word on the drums: the Hugh Padgham sound of tightly gated drums with cavernous reverb does not fit this band at all. It sounds more like The Machine than Pink Floyd, if you know what I mean.

And lyrically? Think Floyd is all about introspective moping? Well, great! How about some lines like, “A man in balck on a snow white horse/a pointless life has run its course/the red rimmed eyes/the tears still run/as he fades into the setting sun?” How’s that grab you? Or maybe “Do you ever get tired of the waiting?/Do you ever get tired of being in there?/Don’t worry/Nobody lives forever/Nobody lives forever.”

Those are from the B-side (I did listen to this on vinyl, since I had that option). While the A-side is given over to relatively uptempo songs with more measured lyrical tones and varied keys and melodies, the B-side is a real slog through 4/4 minor key power ballads of a tempo so slow – well, I remember a comedian saying that you could keep to the 55 MPH speed limit by playing Duke of Earl on the car stereo - tapping your foot in time would synch up with the divider lines flashing by your window and keep you legal. With that equation, you can only picture the tempos on the B-side as being timed to a funeral procession. And the melodies go nowhere, varying maybe one or two notes but otherwise droning on like a suicidal didgeridoo. And the B-Side is where Gilmour has mostly chosen to write the lyrics himself, so it seems as though he wants to prove that he’s even more fucked up than Waters. As if to underline this thesis, the closing track is called Sorrow, and it’s such an extreme downer that it deserves to be quoted in its entirety:

“The sweet smell of a great sorrow lies over the land
Plumes of smoke rise and merge into the leaden sky:
A man lies and dreams of green fields and rivers,
But awakes to a morning with no reason for waking

He's haunted by the memory of a lost paradise
In his youth or a dream, he can't be precise
He's chained forever to a world that's departed
It's not enough, it's not enough

His blood has frozen & curdled with fright
His knees have trembled & given way in the night
His hand has weakened at the moment of truth
His step has faltered

One world, one soul
Time pass, the river rolls

And he talks to the river of lost love and dedication
And silent replies that swirl invitation
Flow dark and troubled to an oily sea
A grim intimation of what is to be

There's an unceasing wind that blows through this night
And there's dust in my eyes, that blinds my sight
And silence that speaks so much louder that words,
Of promises broken.”

Holy crap. Someone pass me the Smirnoff and a pack of Ace Razor Blades, please.

But note that it isn’t really a bad lyric. Sure, it’s bleaker than bleak, but it’s fairly well written. What really kills it – surprisingly – is that lack of variance in tempo, key or melody that swamps the entire B-Side in a pall.

But at least you can say that the B-side is sincere. Because while the the B-side basically tries to one-up Ozzy Osbourne’s Suicide Solution, the A-side is given over to mildly entertaining mid-80’s pop/rock, in that Mister Mister vein – all the singles, in other words. And I’ll be lying if I said I wasn’t at least a little entertained by some of it, most particularly The Dogs of War, but it’s also not an album I would own if it weren’t credited to Pink Floyd.

There. My review of a review-proof album. For my next trick….



Anonymous said...

I'm still a fan of the album. I wasn't tainted by a history of Floyd at the time I was introduced to the album. I credit the production/sound to the era in which it was recorded. I think it was hard for a band to have a sound that wasn't tainted by the '80s in, well, in the '80s.
I know I'm going to get this explained to me (I know I must have missed it somehow) but didn't you contradict yourself? Okay, now I am drawing on my knowledge of the band as hand fed to me by you. You spent a lot of time explaining how the band sound was really just Syd Barrette or Roger Waters for the eras they presided over? When it came to being presided over by David Gilmour, you are dismissing it as a Gilmour solo album. I argue it was the first time during your life you were witness to the change in the bands sound and it wasn't something you were able to slowly absorb through your exploration of their musical history. It was as you said, something you were anticipating, at the time having no reference for anything not influenced by Waters or Barrette. Again, the Barrette stuff you sought out in your discovery of the bands past and which you knew would not sound like the Floyed you were used to.
That being said, it's not on the top of my floyd album list. It is over produced in that '80s way. With the gift of hindsight, it clearly is the sound and tempo that Gilmour would adopt as his solo sound (On an Island anyone?).
Bah, I don't know, it's music. I like music.

Dave Kopperman said...


If I made it unclear in the review, (and I did!) Lapse was probably the second Floyd album I had, and I didn't know anything about them at the time I bought it. "A geeky and socially awkward high school junior traveling deep into the mystery of Pink Floyd and hearing rumors that Dark Side of the Moon was not, in fact, their first album." So I was pretty untainted by their previous music.

The issue of the solo album vs. band album is pretty complex, and I knew someone was going to point out the unanswered setup - but the bits where I started to expand on the differences in leadership between Waters, Barrett & Gilmour threatened to make this three times as long as it already is. It's a theme I'll come back to on my reviews for Piper at the Gates of Dawn, The Wall, The Final Cut and The Division Bell, so if you find I've left some hairs on this issue unsplit by the end of this slog, then we can go at it.

The band vs. "band" thing really is my central thesis, so I'm taking a longer time to develop that than the other issues.

I'll probably go back and clean these up when I'm done - off-the-cuff is not the best way to write a forty year in-depth critique.

For the record on this one, I'm not dismissing it as a GIlmour solo album (although I do think it would have been better served as being one). I'm dismissing it on the grounds that - well, all the other things I wrote about that would take the same amount of space to write about here.

I used to like Lapse quite a bit. But since I'm treating these reviews as the reevaluation that Pitchfork was hoping for in the box set, things are getting reevaluated.

More on this, no doubt, in future reviews.