Though it in no way endangers the meisterwerk musical status of Dark Side of the Moon (still on the charts nearly seven years after its release), Pink Floyd's twelfth album, The Wall, is the most startling rhetorical achievement in the group's singular, thirteen-year career. Stretching his talents over four sides, Floyd bassist Roger Waters, who wrote all the words and a majority of the music here, projects a dark, multilayered vision of post-World War II Western (and especially British) society so unremittingly dismal and acidulous that it makes contemporary gloom-mongers such as Randy Newman or, say, Nico seem like Peter Pan and Tinker Bell.
The Wall is a stunning synthesis of Waters' by now familiar thematic obsessions: the brutal misanthropy of Pink Floyd's last LP, Animals; Dark Side of the Moon's sour, middle-aged tristesse; the surprisingly shrewd perception that the music business is a microcosm of institutional oppression (Wish You Were Here); and the dread of impending psychoses that runs through all these records — plus a strongly felt antiwar animus that dates way back to 1968's A Saucerful of Secrets. But where Animals, for instance, suffered from self-centered smugness, the even more abject The Wall leaps to life with a relentless lyrical rage that's clearly genuine and, in its painstaking particularity, ultimately horrifying.
Fashioned as a kind of circular maze (the last words on side four begin a sentence completed by the first words on side one), The Wall offers no exit except madness from a world malevolently bent on crippling its citizens at every level of endeavor. The process — for those of Waters' generation, at least — begins at birth with the smothering distortions of mother love. Then there are some vaguely remembered upheavals from the wartime Blitz:
Did you ever wonder
Why we had to run for shelter
When the promise of a brave new world
Unfurled beneath a clear blue sky?
In government-run schools, children are methodically tormented and humiliated by teachers whose comeuppance occurs when they go home at night and "their fat and/Psychopathic wives would thrash them/Within inches of their lives."
As Roger Waters sees it, even the most glittering success later in life — in his case, international rock stardom — is a mockery because of mortality. The halfhearted hope of interpersonal salvation that slightly brightened Animals is gone, too: women are viewed as inscrutable sexual punching bags, and men (their immediate oppressors in a grand scheme of oppression) are inevitably left alone to flail about in increasingly unbearable frustration. This wall of conditioning finally forms a prison. And its pitiful inmate, by now practically catatonic, submits to "The Trial" — a bizarre musical cataclysm out of Gilbert and Sullivan via Brecht and Weill — in which all of his past tormentors converge for the long-awaited kill.
This is very tough stuff, and hardly the hallmark of a hit album. Whether or not The Wall succeeds commercially will probably depend on its musical virtues, of which there are many. Longtime Pink Floyd fans will find the requisite number of bone-crushing riffs and Saturn-bound guitar screams ("In the Flesh"), along with one of the loveliest ballads the band has ever recorded ("Comfortably Numb — "). And the singing throughout is — at last — truly firstrate, clear, impassioned. Listen to the vocals in the frightening "One of My Turns," in which the deranged rock-star narrator, his shattered synapses misfiring like wet firecrackers, screams at his groupie companion: "Would you like to learn to fly?/Would you like to see me try?"
Problems do arise, however. While The Wall's length is certainly justified by the breadth of its thematic concerns, the music is stretched a bit thin. Heavy-metal maestro Bob Ezrin, brought in to coproduce with Roger, Waters and guitarist David Gilmour, adds a certain hard-rock consciousness to a few cuts (especially the nearfunky "Young Lust") but has generally been unable to match the high sonic gloss that engineer Alan Parsons contributed to Dark Side of the Moon. Even Floydstarved devotees may not be sucked into The Wall's relatively flat aural ambiance on first hearing. But when they finally are — and then get a good look at that forbidding lyrical landscape — they may wonder which way is out real fast.