This may be art rock’s crowning masterpiece, but it is also something more. With The Final Cut, Pink Floyd caps its career in classic form, and leader Roger Waters — for whom the group has long since become little more than a pseudonym — finally steps out from behind the “Wall” where last we left him. The result is essentially a Roger Waters solo album, and it’s a superlative achievement on several levels. Not since Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” twenty years ago has a popular artist unleashed upon the world political order a moral contempt so corrosively convincing, or a life-loving hatred so bracing and brilliantly sustained. Dismissed in the past as a mere misogynist, a ranting crank, Waters here finds his focus at last, and with it a new humanity. And with the departure of keyboardist Richard Wright and his synthesizers — and the advent of a new “holophonic” recording technique — the music has taken on deep, mahogany-hued tones, mainly provided by piano, harmonium and real strings. The effect of these internal shifts is all the more exhilarating for being totally unexpected. By comparison, in almost every way, The Wall was only a warm-up.
The Final Cut began as a modest expansion upon the soundtrack of the film version of The Wall, with a few new songs added and its release scheduled for the latter half of 1982. In the interim, however, the movie, a grotesquely misconceived collaboration between Waters and director Alan Parker, was released to a general thud of incomprehension. Around the same time, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, irked by the unseemly antics of an Argentine despot, dispatched British troops halfway around the world to fight and die for the Falkland Islands.
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That event, coming in the wake of his failed film statement, apparently stirred Waters to an artistic epiphany. Out of the jumbled obsessions of the original Wall album, he fastened on one primal and unifying obsession: the death of his father in the battle of Anzio in 1944. Thus, on The Final Cut, a child’s inability to accept the loss of the father he never knew has become the grown man’s refusal to accept the death politics that decimate each succeeding generation and threaten ever more clearly with each passing year to ultimately extinguish us all.
The album is dedicated to the memory of the long-lost Eric Fletcher Waters, and in one of its most memorable moments, his now-middle-aged son bitterly envisions a “Fletcher Memorial Home for incurable tyrants and kings,” one and all welcome, be they pompous butchers in comic-opera uniforms or smug statesmen in expensive suits. He presents a ghastly processional: “… please welcome Reagan and Haig/Mr. Begin and friend, Mrs. Thatcher and Paisley/Mr. Brezhnev and party…. And,” he coos, “now adding color, a group of anonymous Latin American meat packing glitterati.” With these “colonial wasters of life and limb” duly assembled, Waters inquires, with ominous delicacy: “Is everyone in?/Are you having a nice time?/Now the final solution can be applied.”
As fantasy, this has a certain primordial appeal. But Waters realizes that all the Neanderthals will never be blown away. What concerns him more is the inexplicable extent of fighting in the world when there seems so little left to defend. In “The Gunners Dream,” a dying airman hopes to the end that his death will be in the service of “the postwar dream,” for which the album stands as a requiem — the hope for a society that offers “a place to stay/enough to eat,” where “no one ever disappears … and maniacs don’t blow holes in bandsmen by remote control.” But Waters, looking around him more than thirty-five years after the war’s end, can only ask: “Is it for this that daddy died?”
In the past, Waters might have dismissed the gunner’s dream as an empty illusion from the outset. Instead, though, Waters insists on honoring his sacrifice: “We cannot just write off his final scene/Take heed of his dream/Take heed.” Without a commitment to some objective values, he seems to say, we sink into a brutalizing xenophobia — an “I’m all right, Jack” condition explored with considerable brilliance in the withering “Not Now John.” In that song, the deepest human truths are cast aside in a frenzy “to compete with the wily Japanese”: “There’s too many home fires burning/And not enough trees/So fuck all that/We’ve got to get on with these.”
With a Sixties-style soul-chick chorus bleating “Fuck all that!” in the background, and guitarist David Gilmour pile-driving power chords throughout, “Not Now John” qualifies as one of the most ferocious performances Pink Floyd has ever put on record. In the context of The Final Cut, it is something of an oddity; for while the music has an innate architectural power that pulls one ever deeper into the album’s conceptual design, the performances and production are generally distinguished by their restraint — even the fabled Floydian sound effects are reduced to the occasional ticking clock or whooshing bomber. Attention is mostly devoted to the music’s human textures: the gorgeous saxophone solos of Raphael Ravenscroft, Ray Cooper’s thundering percussion, shimmering string washes, the sometimes gospel-tinged piano of Michael Kamen (who coproduced the album with Waters and James Guthrie) and, on every track, the most passionate and detailed singing that Waters has ever done.
Whether this will be their last album as a group (the official word is no, but Wright is apparently gone for good, and even the faithful Nick Mason relinquishes his drum chair on one cut to session player Andy Newmark) is not as compelling a question as where Waters will go with what appears to be a new-found freedom. He plans to record a solo album for his next project, and one hopes that just the novelty of becoming a full-fledged human will be enough to keep him profitably occupied for many years to come.