Listen to this track by psychedelic and progressive rock granddaddies Pink Floyd. It’s “Louder Than Words”, the sole lyrics-based song as taken from their final album under the Pink Floyd name, The Endless River. The album came out of scouring through the tapes leftover from 1994’s The Division Bell sessions, looking for gems that were good enough to release as a new record. After reviewing the tracks in their original form, overdubs were layered on top to make them new tracks by surviving and current members David Gilmour and Nick Mason.
The reasons for the release, after having been hounded by press and fans for so long around the subject of a reunion, are artistic. But, they’re also sentimental. And whose sentiment are we experiencing when we hear this song, so self-referential as it is (although with lyrics not from the band, but a close insider – guitarist David Gilmour’s wife Polly Sampson)? Well, there is something of trace of self-examination over nearly fifty years of existance as a band. But, I think it delivers something else that is more universal, too.
The subject of reunions and comeback records and tours is a hot one. Some side with the “better to burn out than fade away” camp. Others take the “why stop now?” track. There are all kinds of factors which affect which direction the conversation will go in, both among fans and journalists, and among band members themselves behind closed doors. In my view, there is no absolute answer, and I don’t believe that these things are always down to money, although money is always a factor. I think a factor that is equally compelling when it comes to reunions is this: coming home.
Here’s an observation to be thrown out or considered at your leisure. Acrimonious break-ups from the 1960s and even into the 1990s always seemed so final. For those involved in them, being trapped in a band meant limiting one’s artistic potential, risking the possibility of playing those same old songs at some State Fair, growing older but still with the clinging expectations placed on one by one’s younger self. But, what has taken some time to percolate since then is the idea that a band is a community, a living thing that takes its shape from the lifeforce of each member. Given enough time, it becomes their spiritual and artistic home whether they choose to acknowledge it or not.
At this point in history when bands exist in the ever-present now thanks to the Internet, the cultural impact of many bands on us and on their members exists beyond break-ups. Johnny Marr is still a Smith, even if he and Mozz, who is also eternally a Smith, never get back together (which they surely won’t, and probably for the best). It exists beyond death sometimes, too. John Lennon, murdered in 1980, is still a Beatle in 2014. So is George Harrison, gone since 2001. Mick Taylor and Bill Wyman played with the Stones on their 50th anniversary tour last year. Because, they are still Stones, even though they’ve left the band. The list goes on and on down the rock family tree.
For established and multi-million selling acts, perhaps this isn’t any more or less true than the local band in your area that has been together just as long, still playing the same circuits in their sixties as they did when they were in their twenties. But, it is certainly more dramatically apparent when a seminal and influential band like Pink Floyd get together again, with a backlog of work together that is a matter for public record, and long enough established so as to see the whole shape of the thing that has been created by them.
To me, that’s what this song embodies best, and with a very apt title to boot. This song is a celebration of what Pink Floyd sounds like, never to be faithfully reproduced again because some of the lifeforce that made it possible is no longer available. In this case, it is the sound of the three-membered version of the band, with Gilmour on guitar, Nick Mason on drums, and Rick Wright on keyboards. Wright died in 2008 of cancer, leaving behind one-third of the palette from which Pink Floyd drew to create their sound, and never to return beyond what we’re hearing on the new album.
As such, this song is more than just a way to stretch out the life of a band, or brand, to capture an existing record-buying market. This isn’t the umpteenth reiteration of the Wall. It is a backward looking reminiscence, certainly, and unabashedly so. But, it carries with a “look what we’ve done together that no one else could have done” sentiment that makes it poignant, not cynical or egotistical. It is imbued with a sense of wonder. That is its appeal.
Bands are tenuous things, it seems to me. It takes a great amount of work to keep them alive, which is why so many of them end in tears, disappointments, court cases, and bitchy interviews in music magazines. But, after a certain point, they take on a life of their own, drawing from the personalities and the strengths of each contributor to become a kind of cultural entity, with each past and present member making up the fabric of its being. And when that happens, all of the baggage can be put down in light of the awe that such a living thing can inspire in those who gave birth to it, even if it’s for the last time.
For more about this song, and the album which will be the final new statement from Pink Floyd watch this interview with Gilmour and Mason for their thoughts on the making of the album and what it means to them.