Monday, June 13, 2011

David Gilmour's About Face vs Pink Floyd's Final Cut

Yesterday I listened to About Face by David Gilmour and The Final Cut by Pink Floyd, back to back. Both of these are records I listened to extensively in my teens and twenties but not at all in recent years. I expected I would still like them but I did have some doubts. I have heard some Pink Floyd fans complain that Final Cut was either the worst of Roger Waters' navel-gazing or simply beneath the standard for Waters-and-Gilmour era Pink Floyd. My concern with About Face was that, like a lot of The Alarm's output, it wouldn't sound profound to me anymore, but just sentimental and affected.

I needn't have worried.

"Murder," and the other best tracks on About Face, are still great songs. Gilmour is still a great guitarist. It is bookended by the saturated, reverberating "Until We Sleep" and the poignant "Near The End." What is in between isn't consistently that strong but it's a solid record. I have to say, I have never gotten "Cruise."

Aside from a couple of dated backing vocals About Face could be a good rock/singer-songwriter record from any recent decade. At least, that's the case for the 8 tracks currently available on eMusic when I downloaded it a couple of days ago. It seems unlikely that having the other two would change my opinion at this point.

The Final Cut is, not surprisingly, more complex. I didn't know much of the story behind the record until recently. I knew the war themes had to do with Roger Waters' father but I didn't know about the links to Pink Floyd The Wall (the film, and lesser so, The Wall) and the Falklands war. You would think that "Maggie," mentioned repeatedly in the album's lyrics, would have registered with me as Margaret Thatcher, but it didn't.

Conceptually the album is successful in relating the tragedy and cost of war across generations. Waters' alternately whispered and bellowed vocals may have helped ingrain my life-long love for broad dynamics, but long before the end of the album they become predictable. The album's last two tracks, "Not Now John" and "Two Suns In The Sunset," are two of the strongest, as songs, but also feel bolted-on to the end of the track sequence. Being the album's only rocker, "Not Now John" sticks out like a sore thumb, neither thematically nor stylistically of a piece with the preceding eight tracks. Thematically it seems to tie in with "Money," "Welcome To The Machine" and "Have A Cigar." That's good company to be in, but here it is a square peg.

For me, Final Cut works emotionally, musically and thematically. The shortcomings I mention explain why some fans feel it falls short of monster classics like Dark Side Of The Moon and Wish You Were Here. Because I am so much more familiar with it than The Wall or the Styx concept albums, Final Cut defines the term in my head. It's hard for me to pick tracks out of the cohesive main body of the album as being stronger or weaker because they all flow and work together so closely, conveying a consistent mood of melancholy and tragedy that envelops classes and generations. Like I said, it works.

David Gilmour and Roger Waters both contributed hugely to Pink Floyd's greatness. Listening to these records together reminded me why Pink Floyd needed both of them. It also reminded me why I have always felt more connected to Gilmour. While I stand by my assertion that The Final Cut works, most of the songs don't stand alone well and processing the album as a whole is a bit of a job. Most of the songs on About Face are solid with or without the rest of the record. "Murder," for example, may not be the most probing song ever about the taking of human life and it certainly doesn't have the scope of the entire "Final Cut" but by itself, or on a mix tape, it is much more satisfying than most of the tracks on "Final Cut," pared away from the whole of the album.

Final Cut also under utilizes Gilmour. It is widely held that it is more of a Roger Waters solo record, akin to "Pros And Cons Of Hitchhiking," that a "real" Pink Floyd album. I really enjoy Gilmour's guitar playing and feel his voice is at least a match for Waters'. In Floyd, they both often sang in character. Even though "Final Cut" is largely about Waters' feelings about father's death in WWII, most of the vocals seems to still be in character. "About Face" feels like it is Gilmour's own voice. This is neither good nor bad on the whole but it leaves me with a bit more of an emotional connection to "About Face," even though "Final Cut" is a very emotionally provocative record, in a more theatrical way.

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