Review: Roger Waters’ “Amused to Death” More Powerful, Relevant Than Ever

screen-shot-2015-04-15-at-9-49-20-amIn 1992, former Pink Floyd bassist Roger Waters released his third and perhaps final studio recording, the colossal concept album Amused to Death. Not quite a rock album, most assuredly not a piece of light entertainment, Amused to Death may be more accurately called social commentary, a poignant and thorough deconstruction of this moment in human history. It attracts all of the superlatives of musical criticism on both ends of the spectrum: some call it necessary, others call it indulgent.

Waters himself has stated that the release has never received the attention it deserved. Despite its arrival in the midst of grunge’s cynical, nihilistic beginnings, it found no favor among Gen X and failed to gather impressive sales. The tone of the composition is, to be certain, relentlessly downbeat – too dark and immiserating for even slackers, perhaps. One reviewer decided that the album warranted dubbing Waters “the gloomiest man in rock.”

But perhaps the better word for Amused to Death is “challenging.” There is a place for art that comforts and delights, but arguably the best art forms make us uncomfortable. They make us angry, they drive us to the depths of sadness. They shine a light on the misdeeds of our species and our complicity in the crimes of the rich and powerful.

If Waters is correct that his magnum opus never had its moment, and I think he is, the reissue of Amused to Death may be the second chance that most albums never have. Waters is known for having an obsessive attention to details, a fastidiousness that approaches insanity, and the album has received a makeover which lends credibility to that claim. Engineer James Guthrie, a long-time Waters collaborator, located each and every element of the original studio sessions – literally thousands of recordings, some on old fashioned magnetic tape and others in digital format – and assembled the entire album anew. The work was, no doubt, much more extensive than even a modern release would release receive, and only a man of Waters’ considerable means could have possibly afforded it. There’s no way this release will ever recuperate the investment that went into it; this was a labor of love alone.

And how that love shows. The clarity and richness of the new master is simply impeccable. Guthrie clearly performed the requisite restoration work, but his remixing of the original elements has expanded the sound, not, thankfully, with the brutality of a  “wall of sound” approach, but with careful adjusting of the levels to bring more of the sonic layers to the fore. A bit of reverb in places adds a more epic, dramatic feeling to the vocals and heightens the sense of distance and isolation that permeate the lyrical narrative. In some places, new overdubs have been added as well. The mix is warm, almost analog in its dynamic range, and my ears detect little to no compression in the final mix.

14855_4Amused to Death deserves a second showing, however, not for sonic quality but for its relevance. I’ve been listening to Amused to Death regularly since its release, and though it’s steeped in the culture and headlines of the early 1990s (Jessica Hahn, Marv Albert, Tiananmen Square) it’s a work that becomes more relevant as time goes on. The book upon which the CD is loosely based, Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” portended a future where war and human suffering become a form of entertainment (“Sir, turn up the TV sound – the war has started on the ground,” says Waters in “The Bravery of Being Out of Range.”) Amused to Death had the same dark vision of the future, a culture of unchecked wealth and greed, mass communication without intimacy or humanity, the rise of religious fundamentalism – sound familiar? Far from being a relic of a bygone era, there are times – many times – that Amused to Death seems culled from this morning’s news feed.

If all this sounds rather heady to you, a bit more than you expect from a rock album, well, it is. Waters is a master lyricist, and poetic words frame his subject matter with terrifying clarity. Whether he’s singing about a family in Tripoli killed by an American tomahawk missile, a child in Vietnam meeting a vet, or the end of the world in a nuclear fire, he comes to his subjects with dry wit, vicious anger, and heartbreaking melancholy. You will not dance to these songs. You will not play them at party. But if you give this album the attention it demands, you may, like me, find yourself stunned, immobile, and paralyzed with grief. And given that the tragedy he captures in Amused to Death is our own, that is just as it should be.

Buy Amused to Death here. (Legacy Records, Released 24 July 2015. Available as a Blu-Ray 5.1 mix and also on vinyl.)

Song by song breakdown:

1. The Ballad of Bill Hubbard

Guitarist Jeff Beck takes center stage in this overture to the album, an instrumental passage that features spoken word excerpts from a World War I vet, talking of his having to leave a wounded comrade to die in the trenches. The richer sonic quality of this remaster is immediately apparent.

2. What God Wants, Part 1

Driven by a rolling guitar in G minor, and the most “rock n roll” song in the set, What God Wants thumbs its nose at anthropomorphic concepts of God. Wouldn’t the same God who wants peace also want war?

3. Perfect Sense Part 1

A gentle, piano driven track that plays homage to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. On this reissue, we actually hear HAL speaking his immortal line: “Stop, Dave. My mind is gone.” A fictional monkey observes the progress of human evolution and finds himself in command of a nuclear submarine. Female vocalist PP Arnold makes her stunning debut here, singing: “And the Germans killed the Jews, and the Jews kill the Arabs, and the Arabs kill the hostages – and that is the news.”

4. Perfect Sense Part 2

A staple of Water’s tour set, this song begins with a query: “Can’t you see it all makes perfect sense – expressed in dollars and cents?” The monkey destroys an oil rig, with the play-by-play from commentator Marv Albert. A “little black soul departs in perfect focus/prime time fodder for the news at nine.” The chorus has become a stadium anthem, with the whole world singing that war makes perfect sense.

5. The Bravery of Being Out Of Range

Waters sings of the crowd in a bar watching – as if it were a sporting event – the U.S. military blow up targets from 3,000 miles away, with the pressing of a button. This song received the most extensive makeover in the reissue.

6. Late Home Tonight Part 1

A farmer’s wife in England feeds her cats, while a U.S. F1 fighter jet blows up a family in the Middle East. “The eternal child leafs through his war magazine/ and his kind Uncle Sam feeds ten trillion and change into the total entertainment combat video game.”

7. Late Home Tonight Part 2

The bomb goes off, the family is dead. A distant choir rises, then strings, and at last a lone trumpet plays as Waters sings of the jubilation the F1 pilot feels at landing, the excitement of the bombing photos coming in on the news wire. “Hey boy, you’re a hero. Take this cigar.”

8. Too Much Rope

Probably the most lyrically dense track on the CD, this song describes Waters watching a Vietnam vet return to the country and meet a young boy, “with the same soldier’s eyes.” He watches the meeting on TV, collapses. Tears burn in his eyes. “What does it mean, this tear-jerking scene, beamed into my home?” The chorus rises to a crescendo, and Waters screams: “Muslim or Christian, Mullah or Pope, preacher or poet, who was it wrote: ‘Give any one species too much rope and they’ll fuck it up?'”

9. What God Wants Part 2

A reprise of the first song, Waters adds a few more of the things “God wants” to his list.

10. What God Wants Part 3

Featuring Jeff Beck’s guitar work again and a solemn choir, Waters tells us: “Don’t be afraid, it’s only business.” People of all faith bow to the banks in their countries. “And the bullets fly and the rivers run dry and the fat girls sigh, and the network anchorpersons lie.”

11. Watching TV

A fictional ballad about a girl killed in Tiananmen Square. Waters shares vocal duties with The Eagles’ Don Henley. The girl dies like so many countless others before her, but she’s different: “She died on TV.”

11. Three Wishes

The first of the powerful triptych that closes the CD. Waters meets a genie, and asks for peace in Lebanon, and that his father were still alive when he was a boy. The genie calls him a “sucker,” and disappears.

12. It’s A Miracle

Though it has the tempo and somber feeling of a funeral dirge, this is probably the best track on the CD. Waters sings of simple, unremarkable kindnesses – a Brazilian grows a tree, a doctor saves a dying man for free – so uncommon they qualify as miracles. The song culminates with a sufficiently divine moment of Jeff Beck’s guitar uniting with a full choir.

13. Amused to Death

“The children on Melrose strut their stuff – is absolute zero cold enough?” The pathological materialism and greed of the West is exemplified by the lofty metaphor of the “Western woman.” Waters sings of our final moments as a species, ridden with selfishness and vanity, and then turns to the distant future: an alien species arrives on Earth after spying a “flickering light” in space – the end of the world through nuclear war. The aliens search for clues as to how our species perished; they find only shadows burned into the ground and grouped around TV sets.

“No tears to cry
No feelings left
This species has amused itself to death.”