Some things to consider if you’re coming to this new:
Seven years went by; you would have been excused for assuming that Pink Floyd was a thing of the past at this point. In the meantime, all kinds of things happened…
The tour for ‘Momentary Lapse of Reason’ went on for two years (three if you count the Knebworth show in 1990), and the show was in two parts – the first half kicked off with a shortened ‘Shine On’, then played most of the new album; the second half was all the stuff people had actually come to hear. The Knebworth show was just the greatest hits package, and there was a famously shambolic (but visually impressive, even if it did contribute to the undermining of the city’s foundations) live show in Venice:
There’s a live album of the tour – ‘Delicate Sound of Thunder’ is a pretty good album, and the ‘Lapse’ songs do work better in a live context, having been properly rehearsed and worked over by all three of them. The huge cast of performers supporting the core members don’t hurt, either, particularly Guy Pratt’s bass work, which could almost make you forget about Roger Waters’ absence. Rick Wright was at some point in all of this absorbed back into the band (I have no idea how the legal stuff was worked out for that).
And then, silence. Waters had released ‘Radio K.A.O.S.’ during this period, and toured it against the main band’s tour, which led to all sorts of petty (if you can believe that) stipulations about the inflatable pig, and, indeed, about whether members of Floyd were allowed to go to one of Roger’s shows (they weren’t).
We heard ‘The Tide is Turning’ from KAOS earlier; here’s a very Eighties song from it:
In 1992, Waters released ‘Amused to Death’, which to these ears is much closer to what Floyd might have sounded like with him still in the band:
Meanwhile, Gilmour and Waters went off to do a long distance car race in Mexico; there’s a film and some original music:
Early on, Gilmour managed to drive his car off a cliff, which nearly killed him and Steve O’Rourke, the tour manager, and also made the finished film look a little thin in places. Honestly, looking at that clip is probably enough for everyone; it gives you an idea of what it was all like. Mason credits the construction of the music for the film as providing the necessary impetus for going back to work on a new Pink Floyd album; in a radical move, all the members of the band went into the studio at the same time and created music together for the first time since ‘Wish You Were Here’.
During the hiatus, Nick Mason did a couple of film soundtracks with Rick Fenn, and drummed for jazz trumpeter Michael Mantler. Rick Wright mainly sat around on a Greek island and counted his money, and David Gilmour worked with everyone from Paul McCartney to Hale and Pace. ( I am not putting up a link to his guitar solo on ‘The Stonk’; you can look that up for yourselves 😀 )
There was no real sense for those of us out in the rest of the world, slowly turning middle aged, that there would ever be another Pink Floyd album; nor, I think, was there much demand for one. Surely it had run its course – the live shows being a suitable way to go out. Heck, there was even a wonderfully crafted 20th anniversary CD edition of ‘Dark Side’ to go on the coffee table and impress your dinner party guests with; we didn’t need anything more.
Imagine the surprise and delight, then, when we read in Q magazine that ‘The Division Bell’ was imminent…
So, is it any good?
Well, when I said ‘surprise and delight’, I think I meant ‘surprise and mild trepidation’. The last one having been a bit of a stinker, what hope was there that this would be any better?
In truth, it’s actually pretty good. I think I could still make a case for it not being a Pink Floyd album, but it’s a lot closer – Rick has a vocal, and his musical influence is all over this. The opening three tracks are pretty strong, I like ‘Marooned’ as well; ‘Wearing the Inside Out’ is a glimpse of what Wright can do after all this time, and it’s generally produced to sound like a Floyd record. The highlights are, perhaps inevitably, ‘Keep Talking’ (yes, it was taken directly from a BT advert; yes, it could be anyone delivering those words, but it isn’t, it’s Steven Hawking) and ‘High Hopes’, which for more than twenty years sat perfectly as the final statement by a band calling themselves Pink Floyd. ‘High Hopes’ has a lot of what makes Floyd great in it, a terrific hook, melody and is lyrically satisfying. You come away from the album thinking that it’s better than it really is, because it goes out on such a high.
To be perfectly honest, it’s a little blandly produced in places; Gilmour’s voice doesn’t work well enough on all the tracks, and it’s too long. Sorry, I’m going to have to go off on a tangent here. Bear with me.
For about 20 years from the mid-sixties, record albums were constrained in length by the physical limitations of vinyl. You could just about get 50 minutes onto an LP, but you were dicing with the quality, and two sides of 20 minutes each was the accepted norm. That template became the default for pretty much anything – to do a double album was a real risk – who the hell has enough good material to fill that space – especially if you have to deliver another one in six months’ time? And, let’s face it, there are a great many albums whose quality would only be diluted by forcing more music into the whole thing.
‘Dark Side of the Moon’ is 43 minutes long. Since 1973, no-one has seriously argued that it’s not enough; that it could have done with a few extra bits tacked on. Would ‘Led Zeppelin 4’ be improved by a few extra tracks? Would ‘Revolver’ or ‘Pet Sounds’? How about ‘Harvest’, or ‘Court and Spark’ or ‘Back in Black’? Even ‘Sergeant Pepper’, which might have had ‘Strawberry Fields’ and ‘Penny Lane’ added on if the technology had allowed, wouldn’t necessarily be better for it (but feel free to argue).
Along cane the CD, on which you could fit 74 minutes of music if you wanted (there’s a story about that limit being set because someone wanted to hear the whole of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony in one sitting; I meant to look it up, but I’m out of time). Of course, some bands took the opportunity to add more twiddliness – ‘Brothers in Arms’ on CD is several minutes longer than the LP version; there are no extra songs, just extra solos and other assorted bits of styrofoam packaging; it would take a few years for people to really get the idea that the CD was the base format, and if it didn’t fit on LP or cassette, that was too bad – all the money was coming from the sale of shiny discs. Of course, selling people a CD and charging full price for it was never going to fly if there was only 40 minutes of music on it – re-releases started to have all kinds of stuff jammed on them to give ‘value for money’ (I particularly dislike the CD re-release of ‘Close to the Edge’, which has inferior demo versions of two tracks, as well as a cover of Paul Simon’s ‘America’, which doesn’t fit with the mood of the rest of it. It’s horrible, but sold a lot of units to completists.
‘The Division Bell’ suffers from this propensity to extend: it is a full 24 minutes longer than ‘Dark Side’, and with the best will in the world, the only possible reason for that is people in windowless offices with spreadsheets. Some songs could be shorter, others could be omitted altogether, and if you got it down to about 40 minutes, you’d have something which just might sit alongside the seventies albums.
Although it still wouldn’t have Roger Waters on it, and so doesn’t really sound properly like Pink Floyd.
However, as a final statement, I always thought it worked pretty well – it’s sort of concept-y and has some themes and motifs which work; some decent sound effects; a great cover, and three quarters of Pink Floyd not only playing on it, but actively involved in the construction of the whole thing. And I like Guy Pratt’s bass, so there’s that.