For Pink Floyd, space has always been the ultimate escape. It still is, but now definitions have shifted. The romance of outer space has been replaced by the horror of spacing out.
This shift has been coming for a while. There was Dark Side of the Moon and “Brain Damage,” Wish You Were Here and the story of founding member Syd Barrett, the “Crazy Diamond.” And now there’s Animals, a visit to a cacophonous farm where what you have to watch for is pigs on the wing. Animals is a song suite that deals with subjects like loneliness, death and lies. “Have a good drown,” they shout dolefully as you drop into the pit that is this album: “Have a good drown as you go down all alone/Dragged down by the stone … stone … stone … stone … stone …” Thanks, pals, I’ll try.
It’s no use. Like all Floyd records, this one absorbs like a sponge, but you can still hear the gooey screams of listeners who put up a fight. What’s the problem? For starters, the sax that warmed Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here has been replaced by a succession of David Gilmour guitar solos — thin, brittle and a sorry substitute indeed. The singing is more wooden than ever. The sound is more complex, but it lacks real depth; there’s nothing to match the incredible intro to Dark Side of the Moon, for example, with its hypnotic chorus of cash registers recalling the mechanical doom that was Fritz Lang’s vision in Metropolis. Somehow you get the impression that this band is being metamorphosed into a noodle factory.
Maybe that shouldn’t be surprising. Floyd was never really welcomed into the Sixties avant garde: space rock was a little too close to science fiction for that. But the extraordinary success of Dark Side of the Moon (released nearly four years ago, it’s still on the charts) culminated almost a decade of ever-expanding cult appeal and gave the band an audience that must have seemed as boundless as space itself. The temptation to follow through with prefab notions of what that audience would like — warmed over, spaced out heavy-metal, in this case — was apparently too strong to resist.
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Even worse, however, is the bleak defeatism that’s set in. In 1968 Floyd was chanting lines like: “Why can’t we reach the sun? / Why can’t we throw the years away?” This kind of stuff may seem silly, but at least it wasn’t self-pitying. The 1977 Floyd has turned bitter and morose. They complain about the duplicity of human behavior (and then title their songs after animals — get it?). They sound like they’ve just discovered this — their message has become pointless and tedious.
Floyd has always been best at communicating the cramped psychology that comes from living in a place like England, where the 20th century has been visibly superimposed on the others that preceded it. The tension that powers their music is not simply fright at man’s helplessness before technology; it’s the conflict between the modern and the ancient, between technology and tradition. Space is Floyd’s way of resolving the conflict.
Of course, space doesn’t offer any kind of real escape; Pink Floyd knows that. But spacing out is supposed to. (Spacing out has always been the idea behind space rock anyway.) Animals is Floyd’s attempt to deal with the realization that spacing out isn’t the answer either. There’s no exit; you get high, you come down again. That’s what Pink Floyd has done, with a thud.