The Endless River is the answer to The Endless Question. ‘When is the new Pink Floyd album coming out?’
Well here it is, the first recorded musical statement from the band after two decades of silence – a third of their entire career. Somehow the timing feels right, in the season of Remembrance, for David Gilmour and Nick Mason to effectively call time and bring their musical union to an elegiac close.
The album’s title comes from the last sentence sung by Gilmour on their previous album, 1994’s The Division Bell, and the music’s origins lie firmly in those sessions. At that time keyboardist Rick Wright was still with us, and this album marks his passing. The recycled musical material features his input on a number of varied instruments, the big draw a recording from 1968 on the organ of the Royal Albert Hall.
A few Floyd fans have been pining for the return of Roger Waters, while others were hoping The Division Bell would be the last chapter for one of Britain’s musical flag bearers. Yet neither has happened. Waters is nowhere to be seen, unsurprisingly, and in its mining of previous material The Endless River could be seen as an afterthought, an unsuitable epilogue to an epic career.
It is a relief, then, to report the material assembled by Gilmour and Mason hangs together well on the whole, divided as it is into a vinyl-friendly four parts, or ‘sides’ – suites in a progressive rock sense. Gilmour has always been a ‘less is more’ guitarist, and his playing elevates Side 1 effortlessly, without making it a fully convincing whole. Part 2 has much more kinetic energy, thanks to Nick Mason’s animated contribution on a range of percussion.
There are few vocal interjections, but those that do appear are either clips of speech – Stephen Hawking appears again – or the one fully fledged song on the album, with words written by Gilmour’s wife and muse Polly Samson. There is a quiet but persistent resentment, from the early clip in Things Left Unsaid, where they “argue and fight, and work it all out”, to the observation that “We bitch and we fight, diss each other on sight” at the beginning of Louder Than Words. After 45 minutes without a lyric this is a striking and lasting statement – so Waters has, after all, made his mark on the album.
Elsewhere we have what amounts to a collection of sketches and postcards from those Division Bell sessions, featuring Brian Eno-esque washes of sound that are distinctive in their own way. It is all very pleasant headphone music, but not ultimately fully formed – though at least in their defence Gilmour and Mason did not pretend it was going to be anything more.
There are some highlights though. Mason really lets rip in the cathartic if partially formed Skins, while the ecstatic Anisina pairs the saxophone of Gil Atzmon with Gilmour’s guitar to reach for the heights. Side 3 is the high point of the album, though, with a joyous slab of keyboard work to kick-start Allons-y before Wright’s majestic Albert Hall moment, Autumn ‘68.
There are keen reminders of the bands and artists Floyd have influenced while they’ve been away. The opening minutes immediately evoke thoughts of The Orb, while the recurring theme of Allons-y would surely find a match in the riff books of Lindstrøm and Todd Terje.
Whether you enjoy this album will depend completely on how you approach it, Pink Floyd fan or otherwise. It is a genuine thrill to hear new material from them, but it comes with the caveat that every way you turn it’s like a series of pictures of old friends who have long since moved on. In the passing of time they’ve aged a bit, and though they can still intermittently move us with their thoughts, it is difficult to see anywhere they could go from here musically. It is the right time to go.