Review: Pink Floyd – The Division Bell (2xLP, 2016)

Pink Floyd - The Division Bell

Despite – or perhaps because of – Pink Floyd‘s immense success in the 1970’s with a three-album-strong string of classic albums, latter-day material from the band was, and still is, met with a more lukewarm reception from audiences. Reception towards the band’s output soured with 1983’s The Final Cut, ostensibly a Roger Waters solo album brimming with raw emotion, Waters‘ distinctive wavering vocals and, of course, his trademark biting sarcasm. With Waters being ousted from the band not long after, 1987’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason was instead by and large a David Gilmour affair. Despite Gilmour‘s beautiful vocals and noticeable improvement in the lyrical department (especially considering he hadn’t penned lyrics to a Pink Floyd song since 1972), AMLOR was even more of a disappointment to Pink Floyd fans than the Final Cut, with common complaints being the heavier emphasis on radio-friendly material and the lack of the raw emotion that Waters used to bring to the band. Despite both albums having come to be thought of as somewhat underrated in recent years (and deservedly so), at the time fans and critics alike were geared to hate what they assumed would be another disappointment in The Division Bell. Instead, what we have here is an unexpected change in the Pink Floyd style, and the perfect album with which to cap off their distinguished careers.

Last year, The Division Bell was re-issued as part of the Pink Floyd 2016 Remasters series, with full length non-edited tracks for the very first time on vinyl and remastered from the Original Analog Master Tapes by legendary mastering engineer Doug Sax at The Mastering Lab. Originally, the album was edited to make the tracks shorter in order to fit on a single vinyl LP. With this new edition, the already great music sounds even greater.

But back to music — put simply, The Division Bell is moving. It doesn’t quite have the same untouchable level of emotive Gilmour solo-ing as previous Pink Floyd efforts, and nor does it have the unadulterated emotion of Roger Waters‘ vocals and lyrics. But what it does have is a tangible atmosphere of bittersweet nostalgia that seems to sum up the band’s career and lives to a T. At its worst (a certain “Keep Talking”) The Division Bell gives us a half-baked and shoddy attempt at catchy radio rock; but at its best (“Wearing the Inside Out”, “Coming Back to Life”, “Lost for Words” and “High Hopes”) the album conjures powerful and, more importantly, genuine feelings of sadness, reminiscence, nostalgia, take your pick.

Take, for example, “Poles Apart”. Although Gilmour would never admit it, The Division Bell has some undeniable references (to put it very lightly) towards the band’s past and a certain Roger Waters. “Poles Apart” effortlessly moves from a simply written and moving tribute to the band’s absentee frontman Syd Barrett (“Why did we tell you that/You were always the golden boy then/and that you’d never lose that light in your eyes?“) to a bitter snipe at Waters. Appropriately beginning with the words “Hey you“, the verse goes on to say “did you ever realise what you’d become?/and did you see that it wasn’t only me you were running from?/did you know all the time but it never bothered you anyway?/leading the blind while I stared out the steel in your eyes?” This is definitely not the only verse inspired by Waters to appear on the album, but is undoubtedly the most noticeable.

However, to suggest that The Division Bell only displays negative emotions would be entirely misguided. Having mentioned Syd Barrett earlier, it would not be too far-fetched to suggest that the majority of the album is indirectly inspired either positively by Barrett or negatively by Waters. They aren’t the only subjects of the album, of course, but they do seem to be reference points or catalysts from which Gilmour goes on to reminiscence about his childhood. At this point it’s hard not to point out just how far Gilmour progressed as a lyricist from the early Pink Floyd days (take “the Narrow Way” as an example) to The Division Bell; at some points on the album (“Lost for Words” and “High Hopes” being the absolute best) Gilmour’s lyrics can just about hold their own against Waters‘. Just look at the lyrics to “Lost for Words”, incidentally the most understated, simplistic and yet beautiful track on the record; “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 my door to my enemies/and I ask, could we wipe the slate clean?/but they tell me to please go and *** myself/you know, you just can’t win.

So, we’ve established that from a lyrical and emotional standpoint, The Division Bell is virtually flawless. However, it is not a perfect album, and it is from a technical perspective that it occasionally falls short. Gilmour‘s distinctive solos were undoubtedly a high point and trademark of the classic Floyd albums. The radio rock leanings that pervaded throughout A Momentary Lapse of Reason return at some points to drag down certain songs, most notably the frighteningly U2-esque “Take it Back” and the aforementioned clunker “Keep Talking.” Having said that however, there are songs on the Division Bell that can easily stand up to the best of Floyd‘s classic material, such as the aforementioned album highlight “Lost for Words.” Other songs that deserve mention in this regard include: “Wearing the Inside Out”, a dark, atmospheric piece that has the distinction of being the first song since 1973 to feature the melancholic vocals of keyboardist Richard Wright; “Coming Back to Life”, ostensibly a Gilmour solo piece that features some of his best vocals and lyrics to date; and of course the obligatory epic album closer “High Hopes.” Despite The Division Bell‘s lukewarm reception, “High Hopes” has gone down amongst fans as one of the best songs in Pink Floyd‘s catalogue; from the haunting tolling bell/piano combination that opens the song to the way the final line links in so perfectly with Syd Barrett‘s “See Emily Play” (“the endless river, forever and ever…”) “High Hopes” is not only a perfect album closer, but the perfect song with which to end the best of careers.

In summary, The Division Bell may not be perfect and it may be missing a few of the vital elements that made The Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here and Animals so flawless. But it makes up for all of that with the sheer power of its bittersweet reminiscences. And while it may not be perfect, it’s as damn near as anyone could hope to get while still missing a primary band member. It may not be held in brilliantly high regard but that doesn’t make it anything less than what it is; a testament to better times and happier places.

The grass was greener/the light was brighter/the taste was sweeter/the nights of wonder…

Track Listing:

Side One:

01. Cluster One
02. What Do You Want From Me
03. Poles Apart

Side Two:
04. Marooned
05. A Great Day For Freedom
06. Wearing the Inside Out

Side Three:

07. Take It Back
08. Coming Back to Life
09. Keep Talking

Side Four:

10. Lost For Words
11. High Hopes

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