Friday, 13 November 2009
Pink Floyd "The Division Bell" (1994) (News, Views and Music 47, Revised 2014)
Pink Floyd “The Division Bell” (1994)
Cluster One/What Do You Want From Me?/Poles Apart/Marooned/A Great Day For Freedom/Wearing The Inside Out/Take It Back/Coming Back To Life/Keep Talking/Lost For Words/High Hopes
‘I spent too long on the inside-out’
Hello everybody, lots of warm wishes to you, so glad that you’re here to read about ‘my’ album. I was just saying to Storm Thergy the other day – how silly that people think I don’t really exist as a sentient big stone headed being, that I was just built in a field at great expense for a Pink Floyd album cover and then dismantled the next year. And yet here I am fifteen years later, still full of the joys of ‘my’ part in what looks like being the last ‘proper’ Pink Floyd album and ...and...where was I?
- You were saying some nonsense about how wonderful you are when you should have been saying ‘hello’
Oh yes, I haven’t introduced ‘him’ yet have I? That’s Mr Division Bell Head #2 and he hasn’t agreed with a word I’ve spoken since the day we were carved. I mean, I know we’re meant to represent the division between communities and mankind's irreconcilable differences with each other but still...you'd think he's at least smile every so often. I mean there's so much to be glad about. How many other obelisk structures can say they represent a huge and unexpected comeback for one of the greatest bands that ever lived?! I mean think about it - seven years of silence, fan conviction there would never be another Pink Floyd album and suddenly - zoom - straight to the top of the charts, just like the old days!
- Yeah but ‘Division Bell’ isn’t exactly ‘Dark Side Of the Moon’ is it? Why couldn’t I be on the front of an album with Roger Waters or even better Syd Barrett still in the band? Then I could have been really something...
Hmm. As you can see we’ll never agree about anything. And that seems to go for fans too who seem to be really, err, ‘divided’ over ‘The Division Bell’. There’s one half of fans who think it’s just a glorified David Gilmour solo album (as if ‘The Wall’ and ‘Final Cut’ weren’t just glorified Roger Waters ones!) and another half who don’t even notice the missing members and think it’s one of the finest Floyd records of all, oblivious of who worked on it. The truth is probably somewhere in-between...
- No I’m right, as usual...
Big head. Now what was I saying?... Oh yes, both sides have a point and so we’ve been invited by those kind and talented people at the AAA...
- Those people who write too much about forty year old albums that hardly anybody owns you mean?
Yep, those are the ones. They’ve invited us to speak and give both of our views about the album so here goes nothing. The album came out hot on the heels (well, seven years is hot by Floyd standards) of ‘A Momentary Lapse of Reason’ and is that album’s better in every way. The recapitulation of oft-heard Floyd motifs has been kept to a minimum here but somehow, despite the lack of common riffs and structure, this album sounds far more like a Floyd album than it’s fellow Waters-less predecessor which was trying a bit too hard. There are far less outside writers here, more band presence and a determination to make this feel like a really good Pink Floyd album rather than merely a very good contemporaneous album. Rick Wright is finally back in the band where he belongs (after being 'fired' after 'The Wall' shows) and as a full-time member too, not just the 'hired hand' he was on 'Momentary Lapse'. Nick Mason actually plays on this record all the way through too (he was generally replaced by session drummers on 'Lapse'). David Gilmour seems to be thriving in the looser, calmer arrangements (most of this record was created on his houseboat, moored on the River Thames) and without the pressure of record company expectation to 'sound' like Pink Floyd as in 1987, but with the added confidence and blessing of a record company who still couldn’t quite believe how well that last record had sold. Above all else, though, this really is Pink Floyd, together, again at last, ahhh! Fanboy bighead glow! How thrilling to have a real live democratic 'band' back together again for the first time since about 1975!
- Woah woah woah hold it right there Breadhead! I know you haven't got any arms and your eyes are made of gongs (!) but the next time you get the chance just have a closer look at the CD booklet. There’s way too much Gilmour on this album – I mean I love the guy’s voice and guitar and everything but eight vocals on an album of eleven tracks with two instrumentals in there? Even Roger worked with the rest of the band more than that sometimes! Also, this album isn't really a David Gilmour record – though there isn’t a regular collaborator there's still dozens of co-writers just like before, all trying to write like the Floyd. I mean, he even hired his wife Polly Samson as 'literary editor' to re-do the lyrics and make sure they're up to scratch. And as for Rick and Nick, they may be here but I can barely hear them!
Well, alright then, I confess that they don't get an awful lot to do, but whenever they do get something to do you can tell it's them, which is a big improvement on last time. Rick for instance gets his first proper bona fide song on a Pink Floyd project since co-writing  'Shine On You Crazy Diamond' a full nineteen years earlier. Nick is audibly playing if you listen closely - no one else has quite such a distinctive rattle and drive (and the 'parody' of 'The Wall' era Floyd on 'Poles Apart' could only have been played by a band member who was at the original sessions). And if Gilmour is co-writing with other people, so what? At least these songs sound like the 'real' Gilmour speaking to us compared to the ersatz Floyd that played on the last album and it's nicely consistent: rock solid you could say! Surely even you can see how much of an improvement this record is: there are no clunky atmospherics-for-the-sound-of-it tracks here a la  ‘Signs Of Life’ (which is basically a doodle on a synth with somebody rowing a boat on a lake – for four minutes!) and no embarrassing lapses into spoof paranoia this-is-what-Roger-did-and-got-away-with-so-I’m-going-to-do-it-too moments like  ‘A New Machine’. Indeed, there is no ‘bad’ track on the album, no mistaken ideas or hideous period traps that virtually every other band still going in this period fell into: a testament to the amount of hard work and effort put into the project by ‘our’ boys, as this is something you could hardly say about any other Floyd album barring perhaps ‘Piper’ and ‘Moon’. The instrumentals 'Cluster One' and 'Marooned' even show how in touch with modern music Pink Floyd were - it beats anything by Radiohead!
- Ah, yes, but none of it is all that thrilling is it? I mean there’s none of the album I’d actively want to skip or anything (which is just as well because my makers at Hipgnosis forgot to give us any hands) but there’s nothing I’d catch my breath for except perhaps one track which I’ll be decimating, sorry discussing, later in the review. I’d also struggle to pick out anything on this album that could possibly have taken place on an earlier Floyd album without sounding wrong and the updated sound – all 1990s twinkly synths and electrified drum patterns – isn't as bad as some other period releases but still anathema to those like me who were crafted and moulded to a soundtrack of ‘More’ and ‘Meddle’, real adventurous albums that truly challenged everything the Floyd name stood for. 'Keep Talking' gets dangerously close to hip-hop during the opening instrumental, while 'Take It Back' suffers from the ultimate insult anyone could hurl at it: it sounds like U2! Not even good era U2! And as for beating Radiohead: that should go without saying. It's Pink Floyd we're talking about here after all – they were around before Radiohead were out of shorts and into FM wavelengths!
What a grump. I'm just glad you didn't compare Pink Floyd to The Spice Girls. Surely it’s obvious the band had to evolve by using modern technology? I mean, everybody does it.
- Yes and look what a hash they make of it, even talented people like CSN released ‘Live It Up’ after all (editor's note: this was the record reviewed by the AAA the week before)...
What have you been doing borrowing my albums when my back is turned? Not that I have a back of course, just a big head...Anyway, yes, there have been many many mistakes with modern technology, but this album isn’t one of them. I mean, just listen to that lovely introduction on ‘Cluster One’ – that’s your cue little birdy who nests on my big bonce, press ‘play’ on the tape machine now – it may be played on more modern technology but it still sounds like The Floyd to me. And just think of the mistakes that Roger Waters made on his solo albums in the 1980s – they’re far worse in terms of using technology just to sound modern and trendy instead of because it suits the songs.
- Ah yes but then there’s ‘Amused To Death’ isn’t there? That used modern sound in a far better and more subtle context than Division Bell’s theme of, erm, divisions.
Stone me, it looks like we're never going to agree on anything so let's not try. Let's talk about something safer I know you'll enjoy. Let's talk about us! That striking album cover! What a fab concept eh? Two giant heads which look on first glance like one complete head 'talking' before you realise are actually two heads in profile looking at each other. What a great idea - and what a great design, with so many little bits and pieces for the Floyd collector to pick up on! The background shot is the general childhood home of most of the band, the clock tower at the back is Ely Cathedral where the 'bell' sound was recorded - even the fact we have gongs for eyes is a clever tribute to the Roger Waters days (I love a good gong-bash me!) And look at how much time and expense went into making not just our stone-created selves but our metal cousins built in the same field and used on the pictures for the CD and vinyl editions (we stone guys are from the cassette version – and naturally are by far the best looking!)
- Yeah, time and money which could have been saved by using photo-shop! I mean, we do look good on T-shirts I have to admit, but I've seen prettier flying pigs than you!
What a heart of stone you have brother! You have to admit, surely, that we fit the idea of the album really well. And what a Pink Floydy theme it is: lost communications. Such an English theme, taking in being reserved and keeping feelings in check - a theme that contributed to the 'madness' in 'Dark Side' and the whole character of Pink in 'The Wall' protecting himself, now given a whole album of exploration! Just look at the clever way the theme is interwoven across the record. The record's first track with lyrics, 'What Do You Want From Me?' is the epitome of a couple not talking to one another. David Gilmour movingly tells us about trying to reconcile with Roger Waters and 'wipe the slate clean' only to be told something even a mouth made of stone wouldn't want to repeat on 'Lost For Words'. 'Poles Apart' equally movingly looks at the changing characters of Syd and Roger and how both lost the ability to 'talk' with the rest of the band for different reasons. 'Keep Talking' urges people everywhere to do just that, an atmospheric paranoid song about grievances held for too long where Stephen Hawking, of all people, demands people listen to their inner emotion. Rick's personal soliloquy 'Wearing The Inside Out' is gorgeous in context too, explaining the album theme of withdrawal via his own mini-breakdown when he got kicked out the Floyd. Even 'A Great Day For Freedom', a rare Floyd song about current events, ties in nicely with the theme: the fall of the Berlin Wall signifying a day when people could think for themselves and not live in an isolated bubble. Even the very end of the record follows the theme: that's long-term road manager Steve O'Rourke given his own section of the album to himself after many years of pleading to be on there somewhere - and that's toddler Charlie Gilmour putting the phone down on him mid-way through his 'hellos'!
- Granted, there's much more of a 'theme' to this record than 'Lapse Of Reason'. But isn't it all a bit one-dimensional by Floyd standards? I mean, 'Dark Side' is such a popular album because it's about every aspect of the human experience and 'The Wall' had already covered similar ground fifteen years earlier. Some of these songs seem a little overwrought to be honest and others just seem desperate to somehow be related to the theme: I mean 'Keep Talking', it's a BT advert for crying out loud not a Pink Floyd song!
Ha, you're just stoned! It's a great concept - it gives Dave the chance to address the many problems Pink Floyd has had down the years, with moving references to Syd and Roger. The first a 'golden boy' who 'lost the light in his eyes', the other an egomaniac with 'steel' in his eyes, complete with the 'Wall' greeting  'Hey, You!' just so we get the point about who Dave is singing to! 'High Hopes' too is Gilmour's most personal song of them all, a moving ballad that starts with all sorts of Pink Floyd past sound effects from buzzing wasps to bird calls and a Cambridge setting clearly about Gilmour's youth and how much happier it was (which is even more explicit in the Cambridge-set video).
But Pink Floyd used to write about subjects much bigger than themselves! Reducing the Pink Floyd story to a personal saga is like reading some great philosopher's diaries: art should be bigger than the self! There’s nothing here with the sense of loss or spectacle or ‘Wish You Were Here’ or ‘The Final Cut’, two real Floyd concept albums that no other band could have done.
Ah yes, but think of how many real life stories are buried away in 'Dark Side' and 'The Wall', mister! Songs can't always be taken from 'Head' lines you know!
But it's just a gimmick! The way that all that nonsense on the internet turned out to be a gimmick - all that 'Plebius Enigma' thing set up by EMI without the band's knowledge, which used the early days of the internet to lead fans into believing that there were ‘clues’ that could unlock deeper secrets in this album if they wanted them to. Imagine how disappointed everyone else was when they found out that, actually, the songs really all that ‘surface’ after all! The truth is, the record company had to make something up to make 'The Division Bell' more interesting than it really was, because it was such a one-note idea on it’s own.
But 'The Division Bell' is interesting! I mean what a groovy name for a record, about the distances between us all – and that’s a Floydian concept, right? No less a figure than writer Douglas Adams came up with the title name (after friend Gilmour struggled to come up with one, despite having used that very phrase in the lyrics - Adams ended up getting a very large cheque to hand over to his beloved extinct wildlife charities featured in his series 'Last Chance To See' as a ‘thankyou’), which despite what many think isn't about the band or past references: instead it's the bell that's rung in the House of Commons when a political vote is taking place, where everyone chooses to go left or right.
- I missed any songs about political voting. Who did Pink Floyd vote for again?
Hopefully not David Cameron or Donald Trump – they’ve both got a bigger head of rocks than me!
- At last, something we agree on!
Here's something else you'll agree on, Rocky II. Just look at that running time: sixty-five whole minutes! The longest studio Floyd album after ‘The Wall’ and, erm, ‘Ummagumma’! The Floyd could have gotten away with giving us the usual forty and we'd have accepted it: that’s value for money that us. As this AAA website we’re on keeps saying, longer albums tend to be proof of a band fizzing with ideas, with so many good ones there's nothing to throw out!
Yes but is that still effort enough? I mean I hardly rush home from a hard day's standing in a field having birds land on my head to go home and play this album the way I do, well, pretty much any other Floyd record. In many ways that lengthy playing time is the undoing of this album - everything simply goes on for so long without really working out what it's meant to be doing, with endless solos, two instrumentals that go nowhere and eleven songs that could all have stood a minute’s worth of trimming each, easily!
Alright then, boulder breath, just answer one thing for me. Back in 1993, when we heard that the Floyd were working on a new album, do you remember that apprehension of 'gee I hope they don't mess it up like last time?' I think we're agreed: 'Division Bell' is more than the merely 'fair forgery' of 'Momentary Lapse' (even if Roger, predictably, still called the record ‘rubbish from beginning to end’). It has a life of its own, a sound quite unlike any other Floyd album. It isn't always trying to go back to the past, but stretching out to ideas of uncontrollable anger and depression and moody new age instrumentals no other Floyd record ever did before. And yet when it does go back to the past its still all fitting and so very beautiful, with discussions about what happened to Syd and to Roger and to Rick- a much nicer rounded full stop to such a great legacy than 'Momentary' would have been. Yes 'The Division Bell isn't perfect, but it's a good record made in trying circumstances that proves that the Floyd were a band without Roger Waters and that, had they chosen to, the old trio still had the talent and nous to write for a 1990s audience who fully believed in everything they had to say. The magic and spectacle of Pink Floyd is very much there in 'The Division Bell'.
- The question, though, is whether that magic is there enough. We're agreed that 'The Division Bell' is a big improvement on 'Momentary Lapse' but does it really hang together as well as past classics? Gilmour is a great frontman and his guitar is terrific throughout, but he struggles to cope with the pressures of having to do all the writing and singing. If this had been a 'true' project then Rick should have got more to do than just one song and poor Nick doesn't even get a cameo reading out aeroplane checks this time around! Is this really the way that a legacy like no other ought to end - as the band must surely have known it would - after twenty-seven amazing years? Would the 1967 or 1968 line-up of the Floyd have settled for such a low horizon at the end of their days or dreamed of going out with a bang akin to  ‘Arnold Layne’ or ‘Piper At The Gates Of Dawn’?
Maybe not, but would the 1967-68 Floyd have been capable of making an LP like this? 'The Division Bell' is the sound of an older band - maturer, wiser and with more feelings of nostalgia and loss and heartbreak. The two can't really be compared.
- The strange thing is, though, 'Piper At The Gates Of Dawn' is also a wise, mature, nostalgic album with Syd Barrett waxing lyrical for his childhood. The two records are actually very similar, with moody instrumentals surrounding paranoid edgy songs about not being able to express something, plus novelty songs but about the Berlin Wall and BT adverts this time around rather than gnomes and scarecrows. We’ve rather fittingly gone full circle, which is nice. The difference is that 'Piper' is thrilling, exciting, an action-packed journey that always travels somewhere new and could go off into something ground-breaking at any moment. You know exactly where every song on 'The Division Bell' is going to go after the opening few seconds as most of these tracks find a few nice chords – and stay there!
That's as maybe, but you can't expect a band with an average age of twenty-one to sound the same as one with an average of fifty. 'The Division Bell' was exactly the right album for the circumstances of the time, as good as could be expected given everything going on behind the scenes and arguably better than anyone expected after its predecessor, one last hurrah fully deserving of the band name...
- ...But one that still pales compared to past classics.
Bah! Where can I get a head transplant done at this time of night? Anyway just wait for me to give my opinion of opening instrumental  ‘Cluster One’ and then you can have your say. An intriguing sound effect kicks off the album in tried and tested Floyd fashion, sounding like static picked up by a geiger counter or some such technological noise and the whole piece sounds as if it’s going to be one of those paranoid Floyd rockers they used to kick their albums off with (see  ‘One Of These Days I’m Going To Cut You Into Little Pieces’). But no, underneath the bubbling, swaying synth lines comes another ecstatic magical riff which is then joined by Gilmour’s guitar at its most blissed out and laid back. The interaction between Wright’s new age swirling organ, barely-there piano and Gilmour’s guitar is delightful, like a laidback re-recording of  ‘Echoes’ at half the speed, and as early as the first track is giving us the band interaction people cried out for so desperately when ‘Lapse Of Reason’ came out. There’s not much going on here, perhaps – and the release of ‘Endless River’ made up of outtakes from this album’s sessions in 2015 suggests there were far better instrumental overtures that could have been used – but many of the best Floyd tracks over the years haven’t featured much going on and after ‘A Momentary Lapses’s sheer noise it’s nice to hear an album taking it’s own sweet time about things…
- And this is like many of the best Floyd tracks without actually being one of them. There’s no real urgency here, just a lot of sound effects and waffle and that tease at the beginning that suggests an epic sense of something rising out of the Earth only for the track to go nowhere slow makes what comes after it all the worse. It’s as if the Floyd are marking out the ‘divisions’ between their youthful vigour (!) and current middle age, swapping their acid light shows for pipes before our ears and expecting us to applaud them. Bah!
Hmm no pleasing some people, sorry I mean heads. Alright then – try the next track for size  ‘What Do You Want From Me?’ This one really is a loud powerful rocker, full of some of the most blisteringly angry lyrics in the band’s canon. Legend has it the sentiments are true, too : Gilmour and wife/lyricist Polly Samson used the title phrase during a row (though they’ve not yet let on to fans who used it to the other!) and after calming down decided it would make the perfect idea for a song (what better way to make things up with your partner than to write a song about your row – no wait, on second thoughts, that’s a terrible idea!) What’s morethe sentiments sound real in a way none of the 1987 album did; Gilmour’s brassy huffy vocal is one of his very finest, raw and punchy, his faults on display and in great contrast to the ‘perfection’ of the backing track which he could never live up to, his guitar spitting out random bile in protest. The sound is a pretty memorable re-enaction of past glories, with Gilmour’s instrument letting off steam while Wright’s Wall-like keyboard bleats set up ‘walls’ to knock him down. A word too for Nick Mason’s drumming – wandering round the kit as if in search for a solution and finding none, just trying to break through the silence with whatever kit roll he can come up with. The middle eight – often a weakness of Floyd songs in the past – is a classic too, sounding like weary resignation over the fact that both people in the argument are equally stubborn and unlikely to back down as Gilmour agrees that ‘you can have anything you want’ in an attempt to end the row. The theme of division and miscommunication is spelled out pretty well even this early on and full marks to the three-man Floyd for actually daring to pull off a half-theme album here after doing so well in the past.
- But after a promising beginning this song loses steam badly. After we’ve heard the first complete run through from verse to chorus the rest of the song is mainly repetition and the middle eight that you like so much only works musically – the lyrical references to ‘making daisy chains’ to rhyme with ‘stand out in the rain’ sounds like a real beginner’s error. This song might work if it was left raw, but all that extra huffing and puffing gets in the way of the ‘real’ emotion. Despite the promise, by the end of this track it sounds like a good idea turned into a somewhat dreary song which has gone on several minutes too long and which can’t even begin to compare to past glories constructed in a similar manner. It also sounds far too stylised and rigid, every note worked out far in advance – where oh where is the famous Floyd fluency that used to run through all their ‘epic’ 1970s work?
Honestly, no wonder that guy gives me such a ‘headache’. Alright then big nose, try this for size –  ‘Poles Apart’, a lovely ballad from Gilmour which does what many fans had been dreaming about for years, giving us a history of the band in song through Gilmour’s eyes. As every fan not brought up on the dark side of the moon knows, the first verse is about Syd Barrett and the second about Roger Waters and the final ending bidding a sad farewell to them both (‘the rain fell slow, down on all the roofs of uncertainty, I thought of you and the years and all the sadness fell away from me and did you know?...I never thought yoiu’d lose the light in your eyes’) is one of the most moving passages of all Floyd songs, full of pride and hurt and sadness like few songs before or since in their canon. The cute Floyd references (Barrett ‘losing the light’ in his eyes harks back to the Floyd song about Syd  ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’ with the ‘steel shutters’ as his eyes and the line  ‘Hey You’, as Roger has ‘steel’ in his complete with bubbling Waters-like bass jumps, is a direct copy of ‘Hey You’ from ‘The Wall’) are also special for fans and deserving of praise. The title is a good approximation of why the band fell apart: Syd got too spacey and Roger got too earth-bound, with Dave stuck in the middle trying to keep the ship afloat. The tune is a memorable one too with rising and falling acoustic guitar riffs sounding like the waves on the beach enveloping Gilmour’s steady strong vocal which hangs more or less on one note throughout, acting as the steady buffer against his partner’s more emotional antics. Once again the song really fits the album theme well, with its polar opposites repelling each other. So what’s not to like?
- Well, the last verse aside, the lyrics aren’t very charitable are they? Gilmour’s long had a ‘ranting’ streak in his nature – his second album ‘About Face’ recorded in the midst of the Floyd problems in the mid-1980s is nearly one forty-minute long moan about how Dave is really the star and keeps being passed over by ‘lesser’ men. Barrett was Gilmour’s friend long before either of them was in the band and Gilmour’s lines about ‘why did we always tell you you were the golden boy?’ seem unfair – Barrett really was the golden boy right up until 1968 when he cut himself off from fame and music and the light going out in his eyes wasn’t his fault, it was a tragedy the band should have helped him cope with not something to laugh at. And the verse about Roger isn’t much better – fair enough if Dave’s using his music as therapy because Roger’s handling of the Floyd affairs in the 1980s, closing down the band and assuming the others didn’t have enough talent to continue, was atrocious. But these four lines are far too nasty to make it to record – one released to many of the people who loved Roger’s work it has to be said, while Dave blames Roger for the ‘years of sadness’ and the rain he finds himself in – although the most cutting line is about ‘leading the blind while I stared out the steel in your eyes’, a very churlish reference to Mason and Wright’s loss of faith in the band that they’d joined long before Gilmour. And that instrumental passage in the middle that sounds like an evil funfair, what’s that doing in the middle of the song? It doesn’t fit at all! If I want creepy nightmares about clowns I’ll watch the Conservative Party Conference, not listen to Pink Floyd!
Hmm you may have a point there. But what about  ‘Marooned’? Surely we’re on safe territory there – there are no lyrics to quibble about and most fans at the time pointed to this track as their favourite. I can see why too – even slower than ‘Cluster One’ but far more eventful, this is an emotional instrumental outpouring that sounds like a close cousin of George Harrison’s ‘Marwa Blues’ from final album ‘Brainwashed’ – it has the same unspoken sadnesss and melancholy at its heart that speaks far louder than all the words on the album put together. Gilmour’s playing has lost none of its edge and Wright is, as ever, a very sympathetic listener and echoes his colleague’s playing well without getting in his way. The emotion in some of the pair’s ghostly interaction is breathtaking as they trade lines instinctively, far better than anything on ‘The Endless River’ anyway!
However, compare it back to back with, say, ‘The Great Gig In The Sky’ and the emotion sounds false and hollow. There’s only faux drama here, with the players remembering passion without actually feeling it or even having a clear subject for their grief and sadness to go on (the title ‘Marooned’ would seem to imply being ‘lost’ but this instrumental sounds too sure of itself, as if looking back over some past loss or upsetting memory rather than being involved directly). It’s also far too long at five and a half minutes (even if it is one of the shortest tracks here!) and outstays its welcome by about the third minute. Even the return of the crows from  ‘Echoes’ falls flat in context, sounding very wrong. Thank goodness for the tracks coming up...
Hang about there, Head, you’re getting A-Head of yourself again.  ‘A Great Day For Freedom’ is one of the deepest tracks on the album, a brooding ballad with a great deal of genuine drama taking place that studies the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Could it be, too, that this is the charity-minded Gilmour finally approving of something his ex-partner Roger Waters did? (Directing his own star-studded show of ‘The Wall’ at the very spot where the Berlin Wall had existed) and hinting at some gentle thawing of the issues between them in tandem? Just listen to the verse that ends ‘even though you needed me it was clear I could not do a thing for you’ – if that isn’t the Waters-Gilmour love-hate relationship (both ways) I don’t know what is. The references to walls coming down is very Floydy, whether physical or mental, although the rest of the track makes it clear that this is more of a story song about how wonderful freedom is after years of incarceration and the gradual loss of contact between people on either side of the ‘wall’ (yeah, I can’t think what that’s a metaphor for Dave!..) The tune is pretty lovely too – it has a very sing-songy melody-line that seems to offer fragile hope in a major key before being trampled on underfoot by an epic production of strings, harmonies and plentiful guitar overdubs in a minor key before rising upwards once more on the guitar solo. Unlike many songs that try to disguise their harmonic twists and turns, this one is proud of them, flaunting the differences between them – especially at the end when Gilmour’s major key solo just about manages to navigate its way over the top of the minor key backing without falling over.
It is a lovely song I grant you, but a) releasing a song about the fall of the Berlin Wall five years after the event isn’t exactly topical and b) there have been much better songs on the same theme over the years. Gilmour can’t do politics as well as Waters and what he does here sounds overblown and stagey, an outsider’s view of revolution not someone in the thick of the action. This song’s lyrics are all about spectacle but, not for the first or last time on this album, the lyricist and melodicist are working from two different song sheets and the music is subdued and hesitant in comparison to the words. To be honest, though, this song falls down more through its performance than its composition – Gilmour sounds awkward with the words (even though it’s, surprisingly, one of only two songs from this album he revived for his solo tour a few years ago) and the added extras detract rather than add to the drama at the heart of the song. Not that bad though I have to admit.
Ah-ha, I seem to be getting the upper head on this album at last! And things come my way even more with the next track  ‘Wearing The Inside Out’, which is easily the best thing on the album and represents the long-awaited return of Rick Wright to the Floyd fold. Kicked out during ‘The Wall’, missing for ‘The Final Cut’ and reduced to being a paid session player for ‘Momentary Lapse’ after taking legal advice, this is the Floyd’s founder member reclaiming his keyboard seat in the most memorable way possible. Wright long held himself to be a poor lyricist – not true as a quick scan through the AAA obituary for him last year will show – and for this album had started working with sympathetic soulmate Anthony Moore, whose fragile tender tones are a far better fit for Rick’s melancholy than Gilmour’s stubborn-ness. The latter’s lyrics about isolation and being cut off are far more memorable than Gilmour’s abstract ones about being cut off behind walls, sounding far more real and moving, and really do sound like the sort of things Wright might have been thinking about when his own band decided to kick him out, as he ‘stays out of sight…no more than alive, barely survived’. Practically all of the pair’s short-lived output will be on this theme – see the 1996 Wright solo record ‘Broken China’ for the rest – but this original template is by far the best (even if that record is meant to be about Rick’s wife’s depression, not his). Rick is now so small, so mute, so overlooked ‘I barely hear when I think aloud’. The backing vocalists chanting away like a Greek chorus also works better than it does elsewhere on the album, while Rick gets his own back on Roger by quoting his line about ‘bleeding hearts’ from  ‘Outside The Wall’. The song gets even better courtesy of the twist at the end where Gilmour sings a verse in defence of his old friend (a defence lacking at the time in the 1980s, I have to say) which sounds like a real ‘welcome back’ moment for Rick. A word too for Gilmour’s guitar work which is at its expressive best here with something to really get his teeth into and successfully channels all of the frustration of the song into one long outpouring of frustration, grief and stubborness. Rick’s vocal is pretty good too, with his breathy light fragile voice a good match for David’s confident lead – indeed it’s a great shame that this is the only time on a post-Waters record where you can hear the two sing together as they always had a great blend to my concrete ears – I don’t care what any fans say.
- Certainly not me, for once I think we agree on something on this record. All I will say against this song is that the lyrics are often something of a mouthful (‘extinguished by light I turn on the night’) and the use of a female choir at the end of the song threatens to tip the song over into theatricality they sound that unbalanced.
Wow, is that it?
Blimey, perhaps I’d better press on now that I have the advantage.  Take It Back’ comes next and really divided fans on its release – some saw it as contemporary claptrap that sounded too much like faux Floyd followers U2 for comfort, while others saw it as the most exciting thing on the record. Certainly it’s exciting – Gilmour seems to be having a ball with the vocal here and uses his full range on the song. The choir and booming Nick Mason drums also seem to belong in this song more than the others – this song is all about being bombastic, of having got through to the person you love that you are right’ and feeling sorry for them as a result (was it written straight after ‘What Do You Want From Me?’) and the arrangement really makes something of the song. The lyrics are much lighter than others on this record but add a nice contrast to the rest of the record’s musing about life and divisions – this one is about making peace, taking back past prejudices and words spoken in anger and is excited at the prospect of getting back together with a lost lover. The best line is ‘All of this temptation, it turned my faith to lies’, blinding the narrator to his own mistakes – a nice bit of humility often missing from Floyd records of any era! The end result is a jazzy, exciting rocker with a memorable minute-long opening that simply coasts on a sea of choppy guitar and gorgeous velvet synths. It’s a song that has a lot to offer and one that successfully breaks up the melancholy of the tracks around it, while Gilmour is in great voice while doing unusual things with his guitar.
- But oh that guitar! Gilmour is one of the world’s greatest guitarists – on that I think even we agree – but here he’s reduced to playing scratchy rhythm guitar like The Edge out of U2. Why? It’s not as if the song needs it! And Gilmour’s occasional lead fills are pretty miserable too, going with the flow instead of soaring like we know he can. And even though this song does break up the ballads, emotionally it breaks up the album a bit too much and sticks out like your sore nose. This is a song about peace, not divisions and Pink Floyd really struggle to sound naturally happy, while the lyrics about ‘pushing her to the limit to see if she will break’ sound like a very odd way of getting your way to me. Like many songs on this album you don’t need to hear it past the second minute either – after the opening it has nothing new to add and no real resolution to make by the end of the song. Oh and what’s with the instrumental break where a group of kids sing ‘Ring-A-Ring-A Roses’, a nursery rhyme that doesn’t even fit the scansion of the rest of the song, never mind the theme! Reprise of  ‘See-Saw’ would have made more sense!
Alright then, keep your concrete hair on baldy! What about  ‘Coming Back To Life’ then? One of those typically memorable Gilmour ballads about finding your way again when you thought you were lost, complete with a solo that sounds as if he means it and an expressive vocal that’s one of the best on the album too. The melody is nice, rounded in the way that few writers manage consistently barring Paul McCartney, and there’s yet more of that fine band interplay on this track. It’s unusual to hear this band crying out for help and that isolation is nicely conjured up by those heart-tugging ice-cold synths that somehow still bleed warmth, while Dave really does play a flamenco guitar part this time after his no-show on  ‘Is There Anybody Out There?’ Rather good it sounds too!
- Yes but blooming heck that drum beat – it stays the same rigidly throughout the second half of the song! And the sentiments – just as dismissive and sneering as ‘Lost For Words’, with lines about ‘staring into the sun’ whilst others ‘hang on someone else’s words’ but without the extra dimension of being about the band or even being that original. This is also one of the few songs in the Floyd’s canon that could have been recorded by anybody – and I mean anybody, even The Spice Girls – without having to be changed one iota. Floyd used to a special, inventive, uncopyable band with a sound all of their own – and this song has not one ounce of the originality they used to have. And that opening might well be a candidate for one of the worst by anybody – a boring steel guitar solo and then a gormless drawn-out verse where Gilmour’s needlessly echoey vocal is accompanied by one single synth note.  ‘Crazy Diamond’ used a similar trick but on that track the vocal/guitar pulled hard against the keyboard note and you were dying to hear it resolve itself (which it did eventually on about the fifth minute) – with this song you just want them to get on with it. The lyrics are confusing too – Gilmour has said in interviews since that it’s all about sex and using that to take his mind off his problems but if it is then he’s disguised it well – only the line about a ‘dangerous but irresistible pastime’ seem to vaguely tally. Some guitarists have all the luck. There’s just me in this field along with you. Hipgnosis could at least have made you a female head for me.
Speak for yourself, I’m going to go into a sulk now. Oh, no I won’t – next track is  ‘Keep Talking’, a song that begins with the energetic guitar phrase of ‘Take It Back’ reduced to a crawl, as if the narrator has woken up the next day with the sounds of hurt and violence ringing in his ears despite his decision of the day before. If ever there was a sulky band it’s the Floyd – the band who famously used to meet in the canteen of the recording studios and say ‘oh, are you in today? I didn’t know’ – and this song could almost be their theme tune. It is, as its title suggests, all about how familiarity breeds contempt and people who used to be close never say things to each other anymore. Listen out for special guest Stephen Hawking whose distinctive electronic voice underlines the importance of this song – how hard it is for some people to communicate and how everybody takes speech in vain, rarely saying what they truly think or mean. Very Floyd! Gilmour’s guitarwork is back to being his best here and Wright’s synth work isn’t far behind, giving this song a great uneven lolloping but still monstrous rhythm that rocks nicely. There are two things that stand out in this track – the first is a neat ‘reminder’ of 1977’s track  ‘Pigs (Three Different Ones’), with a vocoder doubling for a drooling, babbling idiot who cannot be understood (in retrospect it sounds like David Cameron having ‘fun’ with a pig during a Bullingdon Club ceremony!) and the second is the album’s favourite trick of suddenly switching from minor to major keys (with Stephen Hawking’s line ‘It doesn’t have to be like this...’) which is more successful here than elsewhere. All in all, this is a success – the one time on this record where the band go all out for a modern feel and come away with a song that wouldn’t have disgraced a past Floyd record.
- But the improvement in sound and ideas can’t make up for the lacklustre arrangement or the lack of interesting lyrics. There isn’t a single quotable line on ‘Keep Talking’, most of which doesn’t even rhyme and in different surroundings would be toothless enough for a boy band cover song (not The Spice Girls though - they’re not quite that bad!) The answering vocals are the biggest source of complaint, endlessly repeating ‘why don’t you talk to me, you never talk to me’ in a way that makes you want them to shut up – hardly the moral of the song! The lines don’t even rhyme. The fact that they’re sung by the biggest female gospel choir on the album yet doesn’t exactly help either – this should be a ‘personal’ fragile song, not a ‘universal’ bombastic one and the song suffers as a result. Oh and let’s rememver where the band got the inspiration for this song – from a flipping TV advert (BT’s ‘Just Talking’ adverts – Gilmour sought special permission to use Hawkings’ spoken word parts here). Honestly, what is it with Floyd members and girl choirs – Roger Waters can’t work without one either these days!
 ‘Lost For Words’ tackles the theme about divisions within the band (or at least, that’s what fans have taken it to mean – Gilmour hasn’t confessed to this one yet!) for the third time, but thankfully it’s a bit more successful than elsewhere. This song is a gentle acoustic number and even though if we were talking about Cat Stevens or early CSN records this would be the ‘bombastic’ one on the album, by Floyd standards it’s nicely under-produced and subtle. Gilmour’s throaty vocal is nicely forward in the mix, letting the gravel in his voice really shine through the song, and it’s the perfect setting for this song about trying to forgive your enemies, even if they can’t forgive you – or indeed themselves. It’s the sunny side up of all the drama and misery that engulfed the 1980s Floyd records, with Gilmour’s narrator deciding that he’s had enough of living in isolation and holding grudges – he’d much rather be living in peace and harmony instead. The last verse though – with the only use of a swear word in Floyd’s canon – puts a fly in the ointment, with somebody , presumably Roger, telling the narrator/Gilmour to ‘get lost’ in the unfriendliest terms possible. Charming. ‘you know you just can’t win’ is Gilmour’s painful reaction, spoken through gritted teeth and a poor reward for feeling ‘;persecuted and paralysed’ by betrayal across the rest of the song. Even so, this is a happy number with a pretty acoustic setting and a return for the birdsong that’s cropped iup every other Floyd album since ‘More’ in 1969. A mention too for the use of pictures to go with each of the sets of lyrics on the album – whilst some of them are just plain peculiar in typical Storm Thorgeson manner (e.g. a papier mache skull for ‘Great Day For Freedom’ made out of newspapers) the use of boxing gloves, unused, hanging up and waiting to be used with no one in them, is so very Floyd.
- While I don’t dislike ‘Lost For Words’, there’s a lot about it that puzzles me needlessly. The track starts off with a moody atmospheric opening played on a synth that’s much better than the song itself even if it only lasts for thirty-odd seconds and the Floydy use of a sound effect(a door shutting – not slamming as you’d expect) for once doesn’t quite work. You forgot to mention the lyrics to this one too brother – they’re the most ridiculously over-the-top and exaggerated on this whole album’s worth of over-the-top lyrics and yet they do fit perfectly I have to grudgingly admit: their use of really dramatic language as sung by Gilmour at his most gentlemanly makes all the histrionics of the past sound all the more ridiculous and the twist in the last verse about your enemy not wanting to forgive you like you forgive them makes him sound all the more stupid for holding onto past grudges as a result. Oh yes that’s the other thing – yet again on this album the Floyd can’t be bothered to write a proper middle eight so we get an instrumental-with-sound effects instead. And what do we get? A football match! What on earth...?
Hmm, I’m lost for words now. No hang on, of course I’m not!  ‘High Hopes’ is the last song and the second true classic cut on the album. It was the earliest track written for the LP – even if it is at the end – and according to Gilmour in interviews later he felt it set the tone for the record as a whole. Certainly it shares many of the album’s austere but optimistic moments, not least the title phrase referring to ‘the Division Bell’, although it seems odd that this song that inspired a whole concept doesn’t actually have that much to do with the concept (this is a much more usual Floyd tale of broken childhood promises and lost opportunities).This song instantly feels deeper than most of the album, as if Dave is writing from the heart rather than just to fill up an album and it’s a moving, sombre, fitting goodbye to the Floyd canon. Everything feels so serious all of a sudden: the gorgeous repeated three-chords piano lick and the constant hammering of a bell throughout the song that sound like the beginnings of the civil war, not just the division of politicians casting their votes as implied by the album’s title. Each verse is cleverly about some different division too – the first is about the battle between country and industry, with one overtaking the other to the regret of most of its inhabitants; the second, about a ‘ragged band that followed in our footsteps’ surely another verse relating to how much music got wasted due to the petty Floyd in-feuding over the past decade or so and the third and fourth are about simple jealousy for things over people have and we have not. All through it Dave remembers his childhood and his innocent vision of how life was meant to be – the ‘nights of wonder’ as he looked forward to what life might have to show him, a world of ‘magnets and miracles’, contrasted against the grim realities of what could be. In a way it’s the Pink Floyd story as told through the same magical hob-goblin angle as where we started back in 1967 with Syd in charge, as a ‘ragged band’ who must surely be the Floyd go on a journey from the imagination of their early years to something much darker. Note the reference to being tied up by ‘myriad  small creatures’ who were probably gathered together in a cave and grooving with a pict too! Dave finds his narrator ‘sleepwalking’ into this brave new land of adulthood, little bit by little bnit, sometimes finding himself back in the old childish world and now having to make a decision, which he does to the sound of the ‘division bell’. Anyone who doubts how personal this song is should check out the rare music video, which features lots of places from the Floyd’s and particularly Syd’s childhood including  ‘Grantchester Meadows’. It’s a brave band who end their last album with the words ‘the grass was greener, the past was brighter’, but the Floyd were always a band who looked back to their past – even their early songs were spent looking backwards to a time before there was a band, so this last great attempt at nostalgia seems very fitting somehow. Gilmour admits too that he still wants to do more, his hunger ‘dissatisfied’, despite having reached ‘dizzying heights’ with ‘flags unfurled’ that he once only dreamed of. The result is a highly moving song even if you don’t know the Floyd though, one that seems to switch between hope and fear, between chorus and verse as the sound of tradition in the form of that bell both ties us down and fades away unrepentant, as if something is greatly lacking in our lives by the end of the song. A late-period classic, this is a masterful piece of writing. Listen out too for much-missed band manager Steve O’Rourke who finally gets his moment of glory on a Floyd record after several years of nagging – ringing up Gilmour’s then-infant son Charlie only to have the phone hang up on him – a perfect way to end an album about mis-communication!
- For once I haven’t got much to say except that, again, the lyrics are decidedly clunky in places (‘...leaving the myriad small creatures trying to tie us to the ground’, a confusing line if ever there was one) and the fact that the second half of the song – which suddenly gets loud and noisy – is far less effective than the chilling early part. There are too many in-jokes here as the song slightly suffers from being weighed down by them all, while the idea of paying tribute to a band’s entire career and effectively patting yourself on the back seems a little odd to me. Not bad, though, not bad at all.
So there you have it. If even we can agree on that, then you too can have ‘High Hopes’ for this album because that doesn’t happen often, I can tell you. ‘The Division Bell’ has confused and - yes - divided fans and critics since the day it came out (it’s the only Floyd album nominated as both their best and their worst by different reviewers at the time of release). In actual fact, it’s probably neither and ‘The Division Bell’ is an album that falls squarely down the middle; an album with much to recommend and yet much to avoid at the same time. It can’t compare to past triumphs but neither can it quite compare to past mistakes. Certainly if it does turn out to be the last Floyd album of all – which it kind of is, with only box sets and outtakes from this album’s sessions released as ‘The Endless River’ in 2015 to go – it’s a fairly impressive way to say goodbye. This record ‘feels’ like a Pink Floyd album in a way that ‘A Momentary Lapse’ never did, with Dave, Rick and Nick working together from the start this time even if Gilmour still does 80% of the work here. Two classic tracks might not sound much for an album with eleven tracks on it, but the rest of the album isn’t bad; it just isn’t always that good either. If you’re a new comer to the Floyd legacy then you probably don’t want to start with either of the two Gilmour-led albums, but if you’re interested to hear more then by all means dig out this often impressive, always interesting album to see how Pink Floyd could successfully update their sound for the 1990s. And as a bonus you get to dig our beautiful bonces on the cover too! Now that's the best reason for owning this album of all!
-Amen to that, brother, at last we agree on something!
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