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Consumed With Hate? The Wall

⚒️ Stop! Hammer Time...

The Crime: The Wall
The Guilty Party: Roger Waters, mostly
Overview: An ambitious project undermined by a lack of focus and some very specific technical limitations.

Why I Don't Completely Hate It...

Okay, okay, okay, I have to caveat the shit out of this thing right up front. First, I'll just say that "hate" is a strong word for my feelings about The Wall. I don't enjoy it. I have attempted on multiple occasions to enjoy it and each time I've come up short. This, much like my review of Sucker Punch, is less of a condemnation and more of an exploration of something that doesn't work for me but that I still kind of admire for what it's attempting. Second, you're probably wondering if I mean the movie or the album and the answer is yes. I'm lumping them together because The Wall was a multi-media event comprising an album, a film, and a concert experience. And the film and album are so intertwined that it really doesn't make sense to talk about one without talking about the other. So, with that table-setting out of the way, let's talk about Roger Waters' therapeutic art project...

The Wall is at once very personal and wildly ambitious. It explores the role of the artist in society, how certain children are ostracized because they don't conform, but then how the state tries to turn them into mouthpieces once they become successful. It's also very concerned with a burgeoning fascist movement in England in the 1970s--something that was especially troubling to front-man Roger Waters because World War II was not only in living memory, it had taken his father from him as well. It's also about not being able to connect with fans anymore, how Pink Floyd shows had become events rather than shared musical experiences. It's also about self-imposed isolation. It's also about loss and parental abandonment. It's also about drugs. It's also about depression.

It's a little unfocused, is what I'm getting at. In fact, my one overarching criticism of The Walls is that they try to do too much and don't really nail any of it. The movie is too much of an art piece to cohere narratively. It's got some bold and striking visuals, but the script feels like it was written by--not to put too fine a point on it--someone who's never written a script before. It's long on ideas but the main character, whose name is... sigh... "Pink," is too much of a cypher for you to have any investment in his plight. Also, when your story is about how being a rich and successful rock star is really hard, y'all... you gotta work a little extra to win the audience over. The story is less of a journey and more of a spectator sport. When Pink has a drug overdose and is rehabilitated by the state into a Nazi, it's hard to have a reaction beyond "well, that just happened." The climax is effectively a lecture from a cartoon pair of legs and... uh... nethers. And look, I can get behind experimental cinema. I liked Koyaanisqatsi. But that kind of art film is about nuance and texture and thought provocation, whereas The Wall seems content to repeatedly bash you over the head with theatrics and symbolism until you throw up your hands and scream "yeah, I get it." Only... it's also dense with ideas that feel under-developed, so you don't actually get it... you just feel bludgeoned by it.

The album, by contrast, feels like it goes too hard on narrative. Waters sings most of the album in character, but unfortunately that character has a frail, tinny, and deeply unpleasant voice. Don't Leave Me Now is basically unlistenable. Many songs prioritize theatricality over artistry. They have narrative drive and fanciful orchestration, but not a lot of musical heft or melodic emotion. It's a departure from the lush, atmospheric arrangements that we normally associate with Pink Floyd. The Trial is a big, didactic set piece. It's the narrative climax of the album, but it's also just kind of bad. Several of the songs feel half-finished or under-produced. Mother is a great example here. It starts out with guitar and vocals and then we fade in some keyboard and halfway through the rest of the band kicks in. It's serviceable, but it's very basic. Just look at Wish You Were Here, another song built around acoustic guitar and vocal. That song is much more inventive and fresh with the way it layers a few simple sonic elements and then pulls them back to make space for the vocal and then brings everything crashing back in. The songs on The Wall feel very by-the-numbers in comparison. One can't help questioning if they were maybe running out of time and money and ideas and ended up with a lot of arrangements that weren't so much "good" as "good enough."

Part of this may be due to tensions within the band. David Gilmour was increasing disengaged and Richard Wright was fired during the production of the album, meaning it was Waters handling the bulk of the composition. Part of it may just be the quantity, because there's a lot of music on this album. And it doesn't help that so many of the songs feel like... I don't want to say "filler" but more like... "sinew," if that makes sense. Look at something like Goodbye Cruel World. It's connective tissue there to set up themes for later in the album, but it doesn't have its own enjoyable flavor. It's just bridge material. And the album is littered with this stuff. There are three different tracks called Another Brick in the Wall, but the musical motifs of that song are strewn across the whole first half. There are two different songs called In the Flesh. And the second of those is followed two songs later by a less good but more theatrical re-hash of the same ideas in Waiting for the Worms.

And I find this hella frustrating, because there's some incredible music bookended between the two-minute meanderings. Comfortably Numb and Hey You are legitimate classics. Another Brick in the Wall Part 2 is, in my mind, a touch overrated, but it's still pretty great. And it's not just the radio songs. Young Lust and Run Like Hell are also excellent. And if it seems like I'm singling out the David Gilmour songs as the stand-outs... that may be a matter of taste. But these are the songs that are the least theatrical and the most fully produced. They're the songs that sound like Floyd. (Random aside: how bonkers is it that on this album Another Brick in the Wall Part 2 is one of the less theatrical songs?) Seriously, though, I think if you cut out the interludes and preludes and postludes and pared this thing down to about sixty minutes or so, you'd have a solid album, even with nonsense like The Trial. Keep the narrative, but strip it down to its essentials and let the art come the fore. There's only one problem with this plan.

You can't have a sixty minute album in 1979.

So let's talk about LPs. In 1979 the maximum length of one side of a record was around twenty-three minutes. Okay, to satisfy the pedants, that isn't 100% true, but the technology that allowed for longer record sides was brand new and not widely available. Records were also expensive, so there was an incentive to make sure they were full, so bands were aiming for about forty to forty-five minutes of music. And that's trickier than you might think, when you consider that you're trying to balance the flow of the album at the same time, and that songs in the 70s art rock scene tended towards the lengthy to begin with--Wish You Were Here opens and closes with two different thirteen-minute songs called Shine On You Crazy Diamond. And if you want to build a narrative on top of that, you're restricting yourself even more, because you have less leeway to move things around. But what happens if forty-five minutes isn't enough? Again, records are expensive. A double album cost about twice as much, so your audience isn't going to be very happy to shell out double the money for an extra fifteen minutes of music. So if you're going to go over forty-five minutes, you need to be able to fill seventy-five or eighty. And that's how you get overstuffed albums like this and their film adaptations.

Now here's where I pull back and say that even though I don't enjoy watching or listening to The Wall, I do admire it. Waters swings for the fences with this one. A lot of the criticisms I have here could also be applied to, say, The White Album, another ambitious project from a band whose relationship was on the skids that doesn't completely work but still has some amazing music on it. And you what? There's worse company to be in than The Beatles.

Next week we Meet the Robinsons... And no, I didn't put any effort into that joke, but neither did the filmmakers...

In CONSUMED WITH HATE, Kurt is revisiting media that he absolutely did not like one bit. See more posts.