I don’t write very many reviews.
This is, at least in part, due to the fact that I have a strong tendency to wonder why anyone should care what I think. Of course, I can’t answer that for you.
Having said that…
Once in a while an album comes along which demands to be spoken about, particularly when it seems to be neglected by the masses. Roger Waters’ Amused to Death certainly filled that criteria when it was first released in 1992, and it remains to be seen how its 2015 reissue will be received publicly.
Certainly, the discrepancy between the sales of Roger’s solo career and that of the ‘Pink Floyd’ he left behind would be weighted rather differently if the works produced by both were judged on musical merit alone, even moreso if they were judged on lyrical content. Your mileage may vary, but to me this seems to speak of the worrying tendency of the modern listener (indeed, of any modern consumer) to allow so much of their taste to be dictated by brand, rather than the product itself. A cursory look at almost any current music video should instantly reveal what the true focus is. If you can perform this test and still claim it’s the music or lyrics, you’re a less cynical person than I.
This is the age of the video medium, where image is everything. Why put money into selling a ground-breaking album and risk a loss when trotting out the same dull shit as before with a shinier gloss will yield a more lucrative return?
Though he was making a slightly different point, Neil Postman noted in his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death that the medium is everything.
“While I do not know exactly what content was once carried in the smoke signals of the American Indians, I can safely assume it did not include philosophical argument. Puffs of smoke are insufficiently complex to express ideas on the nature of existence…
…You cannot use smoke to do philosophy. Its form excludes the content.
…it is impossible to imagine that anyone like our twenty-seventh President, the multi-chinned, three-hundred-pound William Howard Taft, could be put forward as a presidential candidate in today’s world. The shape of a man’s body is largely irrelevant to the shape of his ideas when he is addressing a public in writing or, for that matter, in smoke signals. But it is quite relevant on television. The grossness of a three-hundred-pound image, even a talking one, would easily overwhelm any logical or spiritual subtleties conveyed by speech. For on television, discourse is conducted largely through visual imagery, which is to say that television gives us a conversation in images, rather than words…
…You cannot do political philosophy on television. Its form works against the content.”
This message clearly resonated with Roger Waters, since ultimately Postman’s book would inform recurring themes on the album, even to the point of borrowing the title Amused to Death.
Of course, the idea expressed in this title was not entirely new. A favourite of Waters’ (and indeed, Postman’s) was Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in which he lamented the idea that, far from the tale of subjugation in George Orwell’s oft-compared 1984, the human race would be only too happy to be exploited by the government in ignorance, minds occupied with the instant pleasures of the modern age, and unconcerned with world events or the lives of fellow human beings.
These are the images that Roger Waters’ Amused to Death paints in such vivid colour.
This is not an album for the passing fancier of throwaway pop. This is serious music.
Waters holds back no punches as he sings of man’s greed, the invocation of God to exploit those who believe, the horrors of war and the horrors of a world where war can be packaged as a consumable on television and of course, as always, empathy.
It seems that throughout his career, some people have always been quick to denounce Roger’s lyrics as dark and cynical, offering nothing to lighten the heart. He quite often, therefore, suffers the injustice of being labelled a depressive lyricist when nothing could be further from the truth. The strength in Roger’s lyrics comes from an ever-present theme of human compassion and understanding, in the face of the worst the human race has to offer. He once said himself that his line “Strangers passing in the street, by chance do separate glances meet. And I am you and what I see is me.” heard on Echoes represented a theme which continued throughout his work to the present day. His openness about such humanitarian issues is almost unparalleled in popular music and this is never more evident in his work than on very personal albums like The Wall, The Final Cut and Amused to Death.
In Too much Rope, he sings of an image of a soldier returning to Vietnam to survey the destruction his endeavours helped to cause:
“What does it mean, this tender TV, this tearjerking scene beamed into my home? You don’t have to be a Jew to disapprove of murder. Tears burn my eyes. 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’?”.
Unremarkably, considering how plainly the words are written, one never gets the sense that they aren’t heartfelt. Roger Waters is not a man to shy away from wearing his heart on his sleeve. And without a doubt his voice gets put through its paces. There’s no autotune or electronic trickery to be found here. Just honest and incredibly emotionally charged performance.
This is true of the other musicians as well. P.P. Arnold does a stellar vocal turn on part 2 of Perfect Sense, (in which a stadium joins in a chorus of ‘Can’t you see, it all makes perfect sense. Expressed in dollars and sense, pounds shillings and pence.’). Lead guitar duties are shared throughout by Jeff Beck and Steve Lukather, with Beck lending technically proficient and eerily vocal like solos to no less than seven tracks*.
It would be easy to say that the final (and title) track is one of the finest of Waters’ career, but frankly the same could be said about almost every other track as well. With no exaggeration, this album truly represents one of the most individual, skilled and honest songwriters in the world at the peak of his abilities. Which is not a statement intended, by any means, to play down the role of the music or other musicians, on this front, too, the album is superlative. Yet when each song presents such a strong, truthful view of the world of its time, however depressing it may be (and remain; the themes of the album are perhaps even more relevant today than they were at the time of writing), that becomes the main draw card in my eyes. If music is the surface beauty of a track and lyrics the depth that makes it stand up to repeated listening, then Amused to Death could last forever.
What’s more, the 2015 reissue brings even more depth to the production side of things. Everything is so much crisper than before. The mix is much better balanced, with new instrument tracks audible in most songs, but never to the detriment of the album as a flowing ‘piece’, something which seems to be common to almost all of Waters’ work. Multiple tracks also receive new guitar solos from Jeff Beck, and The Bravery of Being out of Range receives the most radical remix of all: An entirely new Jeff Beck part has been reintroduced to the entire song, keyboards dropped and Roger’s vocals brought more to the forefront, resulting in a much tighter song than the older version. Of course, the sting of the lyrics remains.
“Just love those laser-guided bombs, they’re really great for righting wrongs. You hit the target and win the game from bars three thousand miles away. We play the game with the bravery of being out of range.”
I could quote easily from the rest of the songs to bolster my point, but I will leave it up to the reader to take that challenge instead…
So if you’re thinking about buying this album, go ahead. You won’t be disappointed. It’s up there with any of the albums Pink Floyd made in any terms you care to measure by. For my money the 2015 version offers significant improvements over the original release, and if you’re a fan of the original, I wouldn’t hesitate to suggest you seek out the new one too.
But when you listen, don’t just listen once. And don’t just listen to the music. Listen to a man bearing his soul.
“No tears to cry. No feelings left. The species has amused itself to death.”
- You can see Roger talk about the album in a 2015 interview HERE
*On the reissue, that is. On the original release (as mentioned in the above article), Jeff Beck’s solo and other contributions are excised from The Bravery of Being out of Range.