Pink Floyd - The Endless River (2014) - Review
This past summer, when author Polly Samson revealed the news that Pink Floyd would be releasing its first studio album in 20 years she described it as Richard Wright's "swan song [...] based on 1994 sessions." The announcement helped settle an ongoing debate to some degree: now we could conclusively say that Pink Floyd, as a band, still exists. The band's own official biography for the last few years has cast doubt: "Do they still exist? Who's to say? For at the heart of Pink Floyd, there has always been an enigma..." Although in recent interviews David Gilmour has made his feelings on the band's future clear, ultimately The Endless River may offer the most definitive answer. As it turns out, The Endless River is as much about the end of Pink Floyd as it is a celebration of the late keyboardist Richard Wright. Without doubt and ironically, given the fact this is an instrumental album with one unique exception, it turns out to be one of the most emotive pieces of work the band has ever recorded. In that light, Pink Floyd fanciers and those who have somehow become part of the band's extended universe – even you, the person reading this piece – will wonder where they fit as the curtain comes down.
The graceful effluence of the compositions that constitute The Endless River, the musical elements from the band's comprehensive history echoed in these, and the engrossing journey into the final and only lyrical piece on the entire album (Louder Than Words) answer the question about the band's future with perfect command, i.e., the album itself does a powerful job conveying finality and closure.
The Endless River is both a tribute to Wright and a commentary on the band's difficulties – a reflection of contradictory forces that have kept its individual members apart while nurturing a powerful creative bond that has had a profound impact on history. While the album is so introspective, it may have unwittingly tapped into something much more profound: somehow the journey leading up to Louder Than Words will feel like a fan's own: there's something truly 'full circle' about "this thing we do" as Pink Floyd enthusiasts. A part of us will want to believe the band had this in mind too while putting this great piece of artwork together, for after all, if this truly is the band's final act, those who have helped make Pink Floyd what it is and have helped sustain its ability to grow, develop, and have this profound impact on history would want to be a part of that final act... somehow.
The emotion The Endless River evokes summons a cognizance of the listener's own sojourn around the band (think of the degree to which the band's work has been part of the 'soundtrack to your life' – somehow, even as an instrumental album, The Endless River takes on a profound meaning in this respect). Therein lies what will eventually secure The Endless River's place in the pantheon of classic Pink Floyd albums: the emotional impact it has on the listener and the sense of closure it conveys over its "four movements".
Over the years, since the last Pink Floyd performance at London's Earls Court on the last night of The Division Bell Tour (October 29 of 1994), music journalists, music historians, and Pink Floyd enthusiasts have largely funnelled and settled in different camps with respect to the enigma of whether the Pink Floyd saga was truly over. Some felt that without an official band or management statement, specifically announcing 'the end of Pink Floyd' we had to conclude the band still existed – even if not active; meanwhile, debates have raged and heated arguments dragged on inconclusively around sources like Wikipedia about exactly when Pink Floyd became 'inactive' and 'ceased to exist' as a band by virtue of some immeasurable, undetermined, organic process. When we consider all of this, it seems fitting that Pink Floyd lays these questions to rest in such an ethereal and halcyon manner on The Endless River. This is not to say that the music on The Endless River is mellow (some is) but to say that as a listener, from the beginning to the end of the album you sense you are on a mission, heading toward a final destination: one that is at peace with finality as the journey approaches denouement in the lyrics of Louder Than Words.
Despite the paramount role The Division Bell sessions play in this album, it would be a critically negligent mistake to ignore the wide net The Endless River casts (on its own merit) over the entirety of Pink Floyd musical history. The Endless River manages to bridge two particular periods in the band's history seamlessly: the band's pre-1973 era and the 'Gilmour era' (i.e., the extensive, instrumental pieces from those early years are bridged to the melodic structures that have taken precedence under Gilmour's helm since the mid 1980s). This is not to say elements from the band's entire history are not spoken for in this production – it only means that in The Endless River the band drew deeper from the Pink Floyd well, into a period that could be easily cast as a relic in today's compressed music file culture. In many respects, it is particularly clear Mason and Gilmour approached this effort with a good grip of their place in history (unlike, perhaps, during the A Momentary Lapse of Reason period, when the band had its moments of self-doubt and insecurity, reinforced by fans who took the band's internal politics so personally they have yet to acknowledge the album's strengths and the band's accomplishments since).
The Endless River's strength is rooted in a rock-solid production – not only is the sound quality and the instrumentation balance impeccable, the clear and meticulous attention to detail results in one of the band's best-flowing albums: the journey from track-to-track is compelling and unified. The album comes to an end far too soon because the journey is so gripping.
Mason's drumming is especially sharp and expressive, particularly when compared to the band's last studio album, in which Mason's drumming was very safe and functional: The Endless River puts Mason front-and-centre and shoulder-to-shoulder with Wright on at least three tracks: It's What We Do, (in which some elements are reminiscent of the terribly underrated Welcome to the Machine), Sum (which boasts echoes of Echoes), and Skins.
Gilmour's performance throughout the entire album may represent one of his finest guitar moments: his strength as a guitar player has become increasingly defined by an unparalleled ability to use space and master the art of 'less is more'. His tone, combined with that knack for sustaining a note or allowing silence to pierce through a melody at the right moment, lends itself particularly well to an album without vocals. It remains to be seen how this album will be judged by guitar enthusiasts over time. By all measures, this could be regarded as one of Gilmour's most epic moments. What We Do, Sum, Unsung, Allons-y (1 and 2), and Eyes to Pearls are all great moments in Gilmour's art: once the novelty of the album subsides and people focus more carefully on the musical aspects of it, it would be a safe guess this album will rank high among guitar players for the substance of Gilmour's input. It is, simply stated, one incredibly elegant and perfect execution of guitar work and without doubt one of his most outstanding creative moments.
Of course, The Endless River is mostly about Wright and the band's desire to put him front and centre – to recognize and honour him. The texture, tone, and the depth of the effects in Wright's keyboard parts allow his work to frame the entire effort. This is what the album capitalizes on most as it deploys into a richness of sound the band had not experienced this abundantly since Animals or earlier. In fact, it may be fair to say that The Endless River makes one thing particularly clear and that is the breadth of the impact Wright had on the 'Pink Floyd sound' through the mid 1970s, and how that continued to define the band, even through those projects in which he played a minimal to non-existent role. Wright has a pronounced impact on all The Endless River tracks by design – but if there's one track you want to pay close attention to on that first listen it is Autumn '68, a haunting but very melodic recording of Wright playing the Royal Albert Hall's pipe organ in the late 1960s. Producer Phil Manzanera stated in an interview with Uncut that:
"At the time, playing the organ at the Royal Albert Hall was very controversial. When the Mothers of Invention played there, Don Preston went up and played 'Louie Louie' on the organ and it was considered sacrilege! It was a great moment of rebellion. It sounds silly, doesn't it? But it was a big deal for a rock band to get into the Royal Albert Hall."
The album sits in a unique place historically, not only because it is 20 years apart from its predecessor but also because it introduces new elements into the band's culture that will force Pink Floyd enthusiasts to part with some things they are all too familiar with – most noticeably the absence of Storm Thorgerson's artwork, which had dominated the Pink Floyd branding landscape throughout much of the band's journey. The talented 19 year-old Egyptian artist Ahmed Emad Eldin has now stepped in and provided the artwork for The Endless River. The question is whether he may have designed his first and last item for the band. When asked whether he might be commissioned for work on any future releases he responds (in good Pink Floyd tradition) ambiguously.
Either way, the absence of the branding many have associated with the band for decades, with few interruptions, is one significant difference, not to mention the means through which the majority of people will listen to this music – mediums that have never been particularly conducive to experiencing full albums or investing one's full focus on them.
The album's release is an event: a 'convergence of' or a 'clash of' cultures; whichever way you choose to see it, it appears the band has reached a genuine exit point so it may not make a difference, in the end. It is a classy exit: a hat-tip to a great musician and a confidently recorded album that is focused on exactly what the artists wanted to do. It so happens that this is an album Pink Floyd fans – even the most traditional of them – should be moved by and will eventually hold in particularly high esteem.
Many will look back on this album as the strongest from the Gilmour era, which is now officially the longest era in the band's journey based on the timing of this release and given the events that have taken place between it and its predecessor, The Division Bell. These events include Live 8: Pink Floyd's performance with Roger Waters, which celebrates its 10th anniversary next year. We did not expect a new Pink Floyd album this year and did not expect a reunion show at Live 8 nearly ten years ago until just weeks before the actual event. Maybe this will be a prolonged closure and we can anticipate other surprises soon. With Pink Floyd you never know – but something about this album feels quite visceral, a pretty strong statement that this really is it, the end. The Endless River is quite epic and sprinkled with traditionally Floydian crypticism: even after a dozen listens or so, I'm still not sure whether I'm being invited to 'complain'. No complaints here. This is an epic album.