Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Top 100 Albums - #9: The Division Bell (1994)

At number 9 on our chart is The Division Bell, the final album by art rockers Pink Floyd and their sixth of eight entries.
After the release of A Momentary Lapse Of Reason (1987, #62), the three surviving members of Pink Floyd went on a world tour to re-establish their reputation. This tour, the first since The Wall Tour in 1980-81, saw the band competing with Roger Waters for arena space, as Waters struggled to promote his second solo album, Radio K.A.O.S. (1987). Following the release of the live album Delicate Sound Of Thunder (1988), the Floyd took the remainder of the 1980s off, only regrouping to participate in the trans-America motor race La Carrera Panamericana, and to record instrumentals for the film of the same name. An accident during the race - which left both David Gilmour and manager Steve O'Rourke badly injured - helped to convince the band to record again. As Waters' third (and best) solo album, Amused To Death (1992), brought him back into the public eye, Messrs. Gilmour, Mason and Wright once more returned to the studio for what would be their last album.

The Division Bell begins with 'Cluster One', a 6-minute instrumental track. Like 'Sounds Of Life' off the previous album, this crackles and creeps its way into the mix, emerging from the musical equivalent of your peripheral vision. The mood, however, is very different. While 'Sounds Of Life' was ominous and brooding, and quite unsure of itself, the overwhelming mood of 'Cluster One' is contentment, being at peace with oneself without being self-satisfied. This sense of contentment is beautifully conveyed by a series of sweet and languid chords from Gilmour's guitar, complimented by Rick Wright's simple but effortless touches on the keyboards. While not being a masterpiece, it's the perfect scene-setter for the album as a whole, as well as standing entirely on its own two feet.

Having broken you in gently, the next track may come as a surprise. 'What Do You Want From Me' finds Gilmour in anger mode - or at least midly irate, for this is much closer to 'The Dogs Of War' off Momentary Lapse than 'Young Lust' from The Wall (1979, #14). This song is a double-edged sword, being on the one hand about a man's naive desire to make the impossible happen for his love, and on the other hand being an angry outburst at the demands of such a woman. The suppressed rage which simmers throughout this piece is matched elegantly by the great guitar parts, while the backing vocals of Sam Brown steadily build the tension before the title crests at the end of the chorus. It's a very well-proportioned track, with no part overstaying its welcome.

'Poles Apart', meanwhile, can best be described as a mild disappointment. It's not appalling by any possible stretch of the imagination - it just feels too downbeat and obvious to be a proper Floyd song. The subject matter, namely Syd and Roger - has been explored before in better and more subtle ways, the former on most of Wish You Were Here, the latter to a limited extent on Momentary Lapse. Gilmour's lyrics are drawn out and feel a bit lost amid the long, slow instrumental section in the middle of the track.

No matter, though, for 'Marooned' is on hand to restore both the album's balance and its quality. This is a gorgeous instrumental which encapsulates the mood of the album effortlessly. After a few teasing seconds, Gilmour's Stratocaster begins ringing out those long yearning chords that transport you to the shore of your own desert island. Gilmour's delicate, immaculate playing gives every note a bittersweet beauty which is hard to pin down into words but which is just to die for. Throughout Wright is on hand on keyboards, tying Gilmour's heartfelt wailings down through a series of chords which are both simple and sublime. And unlike on Echoes (2001, #31), where the track only runs to 2:03 before fading out, here this great track is presently completely unexpurgated, allowing you to bathe in its fragile beauty without a care in the world.

One work of genius is gently followed by another. 'A Great Day For Freedom' is the shortest track on the album, weighing in at only 4:18, but don't think it's a lightweight. The lyrics, as ever with the Floyd, are ambiguous: On the day the wall came down/ The ship of fools had finally run aground refers both to the fall of the Berlin Wall and to the band's relationship with Waters (through Gilmour has denied this interpretation, it's certainly a plausible way to read it).¹ Like much of the first half of the album, this track has a great sense of sadness and mourning at its centre, a feeling of doubt about the present coupled with some kind of contentment about the future. It's a strange combination of feelings, but Gilmour is not flustered, stretching his vocal range to bring out the most in the way of emotion. This is the ultimate Floyd grower.

'Wearing The Inside Out' is an interesting piece, being the first track on which Wright sings lead vocals since 'Time' from The Dark Side Of The Moon (1973, #23). The first thing that anyone will notice is that his voice hasn't aged nearly as well as Gilmour's; where Gilmour can still sail the high registers with an ethereal grace, Wright's is ragged and breaking. In a way, however, this helps the track and the album as a whole, bringing an understated grace into the mix to dismiss any accusations that the latter-day Floyd are all big sounds and no substance. Wright's voice whispers across the soundscape created by his keyboards, forcing you to listen intently but rewarding you at almost every turn.

Up until this point, one criticism which could be laid against this Pink Floyd record is the lack of a knock-out single. But these accusations are safely laid to rest with 'Take It Back'. While the term 'knock-out' is hardly appropriate for the long and graceful introduction, once Mason begins to pound the snare you're certain that you have a hit on your hands. Having previously addressed the Berlin Wall and a decaying relationship, Gilmour now turns his attention to the environment, delivering a great set of lyrics which depict a relationship between Man and Mother Nature, a relationship of abuse and neglect which will eventually lead Nature to take it back someday. Not only is Gilmour in fine voice, but his guitar work is superb, combining a jangly solo with a razor-sharp backing part. Mason also appears to have come out of his shell, providing some of his classic tom-tom fills which made the band's earlier records just that little bit more interesting. A great track if ever there was one.

'Coming Back To Life' interpolates out of the previous track, beginning with a graceful, shimmering C-chord from Wright. But once again the song belongs to Gilmour, as he provides yet another sweet solo which lifts the spirits and warms the heart. It's a song of redemption and renewal, in both the band's life and in Gilmour's, through his marriage to Polly Samson during the Pulse tour. Mason's drumming provides a steady, contemplative beat over which Gilmour can serenade and thank his lover, allowing you to simply sit back and enjoy the show.

Having jumped heavily into the personal on the previous track, 'Keep Talking' brings us back to the bigger picture and the album's central themes of communication and relationships. Once again it's a slow starter, taking its time to build through various interwoven riffs and tape loops. Eventually Stephen Hawking comes in and begins the 'lyrics' through segments culled from his BT adverts in the 1980s. But soon all product placement is pushed aside when Gilmour thunders into view. Having led us in slowly, his lyrics and delivery steadily become more heady and claustrophobic, dragging you back to the paranoid centre of the band under Waters. This is a fantastic piece, an honest and genuine song about the desperation of being alone and the human desire for contact (no wonder this album has been nicknamed the 'anti-Wall').² The band are playing meticulously tight but there is still plenty of room for flair, for both Mason and Wright. And at the end of the final desperate chorus, Gilmour straps on his talkbox and beats Peter Frampton at his own game (see my review of Frampton Comes Alive! (1976, #66). Great stuff.

Of all the songs on The Division Bell, 'Lost For Words' is the most obvious allegory to the band's relationship with Roger. For all Gilmour's denials and ambiguities, the lyrics are among the clearest on the album in terms of the parallels they draw. Musically, it begins liltingly, with Gilmour switching to a great-sounding acoustic, and Mason demonstrating that drumming can be an understated art as well as an overstated one. But the second the lyrics come in, the little grey cells click into action. No-one can fail to spot the clues in the final verses:

Can you see your days blighted by darkness?
Is it true you beat your fists on the floor?
Stuck in a world of isolation
While the ivy grows over the door

So I open the door to my enemies
And I ask could we wipe the slate clean
But they tell me to please go and fuck myself
You know you just can't win

Even if you don't buy the resemblance, this is still a charming song which once again finds the three remaining members in solid form and with little to prove.

The album concludes with 'High Hopes', which arrives to the sound of church bells and bees and signals the final departure of Pink Floyd. Wright's poignant piano perfectly counterpoints the tolling bell, creating a melancholy mood which descends over the whole experience. But rather than being a simple song of doom and gloom, this finds the Floyd reflecting on all that has passed in nearly 30 years in the music business. And while they may conclude that the grass was greener and the light was brighter, there is never any sign of them falling apart at the seams; they still sound as immaculate as they did all those years ago, an observation which is both a relief and a cause for sadness. Gilmour's delivery and playing are absolutely first-rate, infecting every note with a breathy wisdom and bittersweet weariness which encapsulate the band so well. It's the best possible eulogy to the greatest rock band of them all, and as the band retreat into the ether, one cannot help but miss them.

While popular with the fans, The Division Bell was slated upon its release, with critics describing it as tired and formulaic. Tom Graves of Rolling Stone remarked that "the album... gives off the uncomfortable whiff of middle-age... Gilmour... seems bored or dispirited."³ Once again, they couldn't be more wrong. This album sees the renewal of the spirit of Pink Floyd that was somewhat tarnished on the previous album. While Momentary Lapse had to compete with Waters and prove that the band could carry on, this is more laid-back, more content and more immaculate as a result. While Gilmour's lyrics will never match the savagery of Waters', here he has crafted some beautiful sets of verse, tackling subjects with a subtlety and artistic flair which is the very essence of his musicianship. The album achieves that rare thing of being both tightly focussed and relaxed with itself, allowing the songs' quality to come through without fear of being rushed. It's a beautiful, ethereal piece of work, requiring a great deal of patience on first listen, but thoroughly rewarding in the end.

4.18 out of 5

¹ G. Fuller, 'The Color of Floyd', http://www.pinkfloyd-co.com/band/interviews/djg/djg94.html. Accessed on July 6 2009.
² 'Pink Floyd: After Roger Waters', http://web.adminsites.com/4482U7T2/web/pinkfloyd/afterwaters.asp. Accessed on July 6 2009.
³ Tom Graves, 'Pink Floyd: The Division Bell' (June 16 1994), http://www.rollingstone.com/artists/pinkfloyd/albums/album/219753/review/5943409/the_division_bellAccessed on July 6 2009.