Tuesday, November 11, 2014

One from the vaults: Reflections on Pink Floyd's The Final Cut

My favorite band, Pink Floyd, have just released The Endless River, their first album since 1994. I won't be hearing it until most likely Christmas (big hint: it's on my Amazon wish list). But the combination of overcast weather and Veterans' Day created the appropriate mood for one of their unjustly overlooked albums: The Final Cut.

The Final Cut was doomed to be a failure (though most artists should be so lucky as to have such a failure on their resumes). To understand why, a little history is in order: It was originally intended to be an add-on to the film adaptation of The Wall, giving a vinyl home to songs that were either substantially revised for or entirely new to the film. In fact, the 45 release of "When the Tigers Broke Free" shows stills from The Wall movie and says it's from the upcoming album The Final Cut. But chief songwriter Roger Waters, angered by the Falkland Islands War and what he saw as a betrayal of what World War II soldiers (including his father) fought and died for, created an entirely new album. This turn of events was complicated by the fact that the band itself was in nearly complete disarray, with its internal power struggles and personality conflicts having reached their peak. The result is a somewhat awkward and uneven but emotionally powerful song cycle about the price of war and what happens when we fail to honor the sacrifices of the fallen.

The album gets off to an uneven start with "The Post-War Dream" and "Your Possible Pasts." The former opens with some classic use of sound effects: passing cars, news radio reports, and the strangely ominous sound of someone slowly counting out coins. The lyrics are less successful than they might be, when Waters' impassioned plea to know if the current state of affairs in England is really what soldiers fought and died for is marred by a bizarre tangent about shipbuilding getting outsourced to Japan. The issues with the second song, "Your Possible Pasts," are different - the lyrics are interesting and point toward squandered opportunities, but the muddled imagery muffles the effect. Fortunately, the song features some excellent Hammond organ work (its "church-y" sound is perfect for the album's elegiac tone) and the first of several scorching guitar solos by Floyd guitarist David Gilmour.

The album hits a powerful stride with its next few songs. "One of the Few" presents us with the character of an unnamed World War II veteran who, traumatized by his war experience, finds a living as a teacher and starts shaping the next generation. This, of course, is a take on the famous abusive schoolteacher from The Wall, and in the next few songs Waters gives a surprising amount of characterization and empathy to the character. "The Hero's Return" takes us back into Wall territory not only in its study of the veteran/teacher but in its driving, angry music; in "The Gunner's Dream" we learn one reason for the veteran/teacher's trauma - hearing a soldier's dying words, said words being a wish for his death not to have been in vain, and for a better society to have come from this war.Of course, this wish hasn't come true.

If the album's first half ends on a somewhat anticlimactic note with "Paranoid Eyes" - a nice study of isolation but nothing too essential - the second half literally starts with a bang. Featuring one of the band's most memorable song titles (no mean feat from a group that gave us "Careful With that Axe, Eugene" and "Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together In A Cave and Grooving With a Pict"), "Get Your Filthy Hands Off My Desert" opens with a very distant voice screeching the title words. The screecher's only answer is a disinterested "What'd he say?" followed by the whoosh and explosion of a missile. A deliciously satirical violin section leads us into a vignette about the present-day (of 1983) conflicts, taking to task current world leaders. This theme continues into the next song, "The Fletcher Memorial Home." Furious yet elegiac, the song proposes that bloodthirsty politicians and leaders be put in a special home (named for Waters' father) "for incurable wasters of life and limb." Past sacrifice and present futility are present in "Southampton Dock," which juxtaposes soldiers' return from World War II with a pledge "to sheathe the sacrificial knives" with Margaret Thatcher sending a new generation to die in the Falklands, not out of necessity but to hold on to the "slippery reins" of power.

It's a curious contradiction of the album that its next song, "The Final Cut," is something of a misstep, yet it's not just my favorite song on the album, it's one of my favorite Floyd songs of all time. The song doesn't really fit in with the overall themes of the album, and it's here (and with the next song, "Not Now John") that the album's origins as an add-on to The Wall become apparent. The music for the song "The Final Cut" is a direct ripoff of/homage to The Wall's "Comfortably Numb," complete with string section and achingly beautiful guitar solo; its lyrics tell of depression, isolation, and a desperate need for love (not so much for its own sake but to keep the demons at bay). The album then takes a sharp right turn into the raucous, belligerent "Not Now John," which dismisses all the issues raised by the album so far with a curt "Fuck all that." After all, there's no time for worrying about the failure of the post-war dream when there's the need to "bring the Russian bear to his knees...Make us feel tough and wouldn't Maggie be pleased." There's something curiously cathartic about the song, not so much for its own merits (it's a bit of a muddle and Gilmour, in his sole vocal role on the album, doesn't sound very enthusiastic) but for its sheer aggression and volume. 

But reflections and rage alike may well mean nothing, if the album's last song holds true. "Two Suns in the Sunset" is one of the more mellow takes on nuclear apocalypse, painting it with the simple yet horrifying imagery of a "sun" appearing where no sun has any right to be. Perhaps the song's quiet take on Armageddon is one of resignation, a "can't stop what's coming" tone that perfectly captures the mood of that era - the feeling that we were all just one international crisis away from world destruction. Waters seems to reflect this also in returning to the same sounds of news reports and passing cars that opened the album - not only a typical Floydian "isn't this where we came in" moment but also a reflection of the (at the time) feeling that such an end was inevitable. 

Though the album overall is slightly confused in its themes (one gets the feeling that it was written in a great burst of emotional catharsis), and hampered by the music not quite jelling at times (due no doubt to the extremely fractured state of the band - at times it's practically a Waters solo album), there's no denying the raw emotional power it often wields. Surprisingly, one of its strongest points is Waters' vocals; if you're on board with his vocal style (and you'd be well forgiven if you weren't as they're definitely an acquired taste) you'll find he's at his peak, with his obvious sincerity and passion for the material outweighing his limitations as a singer. I'm particularly fond of his enunciation: No one can work every syllable of a word like Waters when he's on a roll, as in the way he says the word "hallucination."  Likewise the lyrics, for the most part, are quite good. The political insights won't be much beyond what you can find in the Sunday editorial page, but there's excellent imagery throughout, and a depth of characterization that hadn't been seen in Waters' lyrics since his portrayal of the ruthless businessman in "Dogs" from the Animals album. And though the music does have its issues, the album is blessed with some lovely keyboard and piano work, and several great guitar solos, one of which (the one for the title track) is a personal all-time favorite.

It's a flawed album, without question. Yet it captures a moment in time that's worth revisiting, and it taps into powerful feelings of loss and of earning the sacrifice that those who've protected us have offered. It's not an album I revisit often, as it is quite possibly the most depressing album in the Floyd canon (which is saying quite a bit). But when the circumstances are right, it offers an emotional experience unlike any other album in the band's repertoire.

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