Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Re-considering The Final Cut

Is it for this that Daddy died?
Was it you?
Was it me?
Did I watch too much TV?
Is that a hint of accusation in your eyes? - "The Post War Dream," The Final Cut

"Roger Waters and David Gilmour might never resolve their spat, but you can revisit their halcyon days with the staggering 14-CD Pink Floyd box set Oh By the Way (Capitol/EMI), which includes all of their studio albums. And no, you can't order it without The Final Cut." (Spin, January 2008, p. 32)

I know that I generally don't cover pop matters, but that doesn't mean that I don't sit and think about pop records. Indeed, if you ask - and no one has to date - I can go on ad nauseam about my opinions concerning pop music, past, present, and future.

I am moved, though, to mount a defense of Pink Floyd's last Roger Waters-directed album (more on that anon), The Final Cut. This record, more than even Animals, is generally considered the nadir of Floyd's Waters-era artistic pretensions and dearth of quality. That is, to my mind, the single dumbest judgment on a record ever. Indeed, while Slominsky's Lexicon of Musical Invective, might have worse judgments on better music, there aren't too many similar modern judgments. Except for the (un)conscious fanboyism that has more or less made Blonde on Blonde Dylan's popularly-considered best record (when Planet Waves, Blood on the Tracks, and Highway 61 Revisited are all better by half). Here is a passage from Chris Ott's generally right review of the 2004 reissue (despite its hosting at the more-than-usually risible Pitchfork Media),
I can think of few pop songwriters who've delivered their diaries with enough conviction to transcend the medieval, lifeless nature of oral tradition, and I can think of only one other rock critic as touched by The Final Cut as I've been over the years. Kurt Loder awarded The Final Cut Rolling Stone's sacrosanct five star rating in issue 393, comparing Waters' gripping linear narrative to its only conceivable peer, master storyteller Bob Dylan. An unflinching, out of control spiral toward the center of paternal identity, Britain's stiff upper lip, and the idiocy of war, The Final Cut fulfills the promise of The Wall's most poignant moments, gutting sons, soldiers, and the unknowing inheritors of their sacrifices eight ways from Sunday.
In some regard, The Final Cut was the first Roger Waters solo-album, but only insofar as everything after and including Wish You Were Here is a Waters solo disc. The progression from The Dark Side of the Moon through Wish You Were Here, Animals, The Wall, and - finally - to The Final Cut is a single-minded one. At the risk of being too overblown and metaphysical, Waters' big four cover alienation, societally and personally. Everything in that arc tends toward The Final Cut. Instead of a bloated, arrogant rock-opera about the alienation and creeping insanity of some fictional artist, Waters' final Floyd record explores the causes of that alienation.

The Final Cut is, at its heart, a withering social critique of Margaret "Maggie" Thatcher's England. Mary Whitehouse merited a similarly unpleasant commentary in Animals' "Pigs (Three Different Ones)," but she did not permeate the record the way Thatcher seems to in The Final Cut. Waters is performing a balancing act in the record: between the feeling of hope, loss, and distress created at the end of the Second World War and the bleak reality, as he saw it, of 1970s and 1980s England. "The Gunner's Dream" is the most piercing pronouncement of the ideals of the War and what it meant to the participants,
Somewhere old heroes shuffle safely down the street
Where you can speak out loud
About your doubts and fears
And what's more no-one ever disappears
You never hear their standard issue kicking in your door.
You can relax on both sides of the tracks
And maniacs don't blow holes in bandsmen by remote control
And everyone has recourse to the law
And no-one kills the children anymore.
And no one kills the children anymore.
But, with a sharp twist, after the Gunner narrates his hopes and aspirations for society after the war, the proper narrator of the song bursts in, agonized,
Night after night
Going round and round my brain
His dream is driving me insane.
In the corner of some foreign field
The gunner sleeps tonight.
What's done is done.
We cannot just write off his final scene.
Take heed of the dream.
Take heed.

This is strong stuff, considering the early-1980s pop milieu into which this track was dropped. Mr. MacMillan (uttering the line in 1957) was premature when he uttered, "Most of our people have never had it so good." The music of the 1980s seemed to take this to heart, churning out synth-heavy pop with a relentlessly cheery message, but then roared Roger Waters, singing a "requiem for the post-war dream." This was jarring, but - then again - most good art is. Waters seemed to have created Brechtian alienation for his listeners. By talking about the War and the betrayal and loss of its values, Waters made an obvious breach with listeners either too young or too unconcerned to bother with the matter.

This record is Waters' most consistent and emotionally harrowing work, and it deserves to be. It demands that the listener explore, in a deep and meaningful way, the issues that it presents. "Maggie, what have we done?" is a question to be answered by the listener. As much as The Wall was self-indulgent muttering by a rock-star bothered about being a rock-star, The Final Cut is a spare, emotionally raw exploration of why that rock-star is so bothered. Indeed, our record in question seems to be the organic outgrowth of The Wall's stretch from "Mother," to "Comfortably Numb," and had the Final Cut tracks been interpolated appropriate with those songs, there would be a work of almost staggering artistic power. What's done, though, as the man said, is done.

The best analog for The Final Cut is Springsteen's Nebraska. Both are song-driven, spare, and emotionally powerful records. They also approach the same issues from different sides. Tell me that songs like "Two Suns in the Sunset" don't have echoes and counterpoints in songs like "Reason to Believe." Springsteen, through a loose retelling of the Starkweather killings, comments on a situation that Waters explores from a causal basis. Combined, Nebraska and The Final Cut make a potent blend of cause-and-effect for 1970s isolation, desolation, and the strangeness that affected the decade. Springsteen looks at the everyday influences on the self, so to speak, while Waters looks at the broader historical and philosophical contexts that shape and drive the same lyrical entity.

Forget the hangover from 1968 and 1969.

This one goes back to D-Day, and even earlier to 1939 and 1941.

The Final Cut and Nebraska, too, have a similar standing in the artists' oeuvres. Listeners don't know quite what to make of them. That, though, does not diminish the deeply personal and artistic statements by the men driving those records.

So, you might not want The Final Cut in the poorly titled Floyd box, but it's there and if you skip it, you're missing the point.


At 10:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice argument, but in the end the record is still self-indulgent mush. Whatever political points are buried under an egocentricity not seen since Ein Heldenleben. It (like The Wall, and newer phenomenoms like The Matrix) is perfect for morose, self pitying teenagers. However, at some point us non-artists have to grow up and enter the real world.

Actually, the difficutly in taking this entry seriosuly is your aside on Dylan. One can certainly argue that Highway 61 and Blood on the Tracks are better than Blonde. But Planet Waves? As much as I love The Band, this record is a relative trifle in (both of their) output.

Still, I remain a big fan of your work (and a fellow Wagnerite).

At 5:33 PM, Blogger Patrick J. Smith said...

OK, you caught me.

My fondness for Planet Waves isn't based on some sort of objective rationale, but the fact that it isn't as unrelentingly dour as John Wesley Harding or as preachy as Slow Train Coming. It earns my respect for not depressing me to the point where I run for the Paxil or making me feel like I just sat through Mass.

As to The Final Cut, I could say that all of Floyd's post-
Dark Side
records are self-indulgent mush.

I wouldn't be too wrong, either, but that doesn't mean that they don't have their charms.

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