Roger Waters’ acclaimed 1992 album Amused to Death is enjoying a welcome re-release this month, with an incredible new sound mix that will, especially to die-hard fans, make this work resonate more potently than ever before whilst offering a new listening experience.
The former Pink Floyd frontman’s solo career saw him exploring weighty and pertinent subject matter, and Amused to Death was prescient when first released nearly quarter of a century ago, yet its themes and concerns are even more pressing and relevant to contemporary western society.
One such theme is our obsession with living vicariously through screens. Waters’ biting criticism is about how television rules our lives, nullifying our ability to think for ourselves and distracting us from concerning ourselves with social injustice. We can only imagine his horror at the iPhone and iPad, and the rows of isolated mute commuters spending every second of their travelling time glued to one screen or another that those devices engender.
Amused to Death also picks up on a subject always close to Waters’ heart – war: its causes and what it says about humanity and its failure of the imagination. Waters throws into the mix the instigator of so much tribalism and warfare – religion, where attacking self-righteous moral crusades in the What God Wants movements could easily pertain to the second Iraq War that was still a decade away at the time these songs were written.
Despite the multiple themes which all receive a fair hearing, there is very little fat on the album. Everything has its place. The Ballad of Bill Hubbard, which bookends the album, constructs unsettling sound around the narrative given by “Raz”, an elderly WWI survivor who recounts the harrowing time when he had to leave a friend and compatriot for dead in no-man’s land, and how the experience haunted the rest of his life. Each song in between builds on the established themes. It’s consistently good and rewarding, and although it runs to over an hour in duration, it never sags nor feels bloated, unlike the falteringly superb Pink Floyd album The Wall, the vast majority of which was Waters’ work.
Subtle it isn’t. The moving opening narrative cuts to a vox pop of a schoolboy explaining why he enjoys watching the news when there’s a war on, “to see if our side’s winning or if our side’s losing”. This morphs into the sound of chimpanzees fighting. There’s a song about modern warfare with the contemptuous title, The Bravery of Being Out of Range. One doesn’t have to dig very far to discover Waters’ socialist sympathies and his disgust for foreign intervention and oppressive government. Yet that can’t be held up as a critisicm of Amused to Death. Its power lies in the fact that Waters is unapologetic in the strength of his views, and relentlessly pursues the themes that obsess him, his vocals often rasping in anger and disgust. It’s the album’s honesty and ferocity that makes it so special, so powerful. True, some of the language and references are dated now, or would be considered politically incorrect (Taiwan is dismissed as a “shoe factory”, for example) – but then would it be any different if he’d written it in 2015? Waters isn’t a man for pulling his punches.
This album won’t appeal to everybody. Waters’ unrelenting cynicism (OK, it occasionally mellows into biting sarcasm, such as the hilarious lines in Amused to Death attacking Andrew Lloyd Webber) and righteous anger can be wearing if you’re not willing to be seduced into the story he tells and the world he creates. For those who find themselves willingly courted, Amused to Death is a rich, finely-woven, magisterial album that stands up to, and indeed entices repeated listenings; and may well be one of those albums one frequently revisits where it’s impossible to be sated for long. There’s a dizzying array of guest artists, with Jeff Beck providing the aching guitar accompaniments long a hallmark of Waters’ and Pink Floyd’s music, whilst Don Henley, Rita Coolidge and PP Arnold supply guest vocals that allow for a greater octave range than Waters’ authoritative but limited voice. In keeping with his socialist principles, none of the guests is given unnecessary limelight – it’s all nuanced musicality serving the concept of the album.
The sound quality of this release is stunning. The re-release is available in a variety of formats, but we found the Blu-ray (which includes a 5.1 surround sound version as well as stereo) and CD more than satisfying. Some songs, such as The Bravery of Being Out Of Range, are so different that they sound brand new. Many others have interesting twists on a familiar sound and additions or enhancements that shed new light on familiar songs. Above all, though, the remix brings the emotional content of the music to the fore. Starker, simpler songs such as Watching TV (which in part alludes to the events of the Tiananmen Square massacre – only three years prior to the original release), gain an intensity that greatly adds to the emotional punch. From Watching TV to the end of the album we couldn’t shift a lump in the throat. Amused to Death is one hell of a journey, best-enjoyed in a single sitting. Kudos to Waters and colleague James Guthrie for overseeing Amused to Death reaching its full potential and power.
Another word in favour of the re-release is the new cover art by Sean Evans, which replaces the functional design of the original release, that was hardly as iconic as some of the Storm Thorgerson artistry of the Pink Floyd designs. The simple yet effective imagery goes to the heart of the album’s sentiments and Orwellian inspirations.
Amused to Death is an unforgettable album, and one of the crowning achievements of Roger Waters’ considerable contribution to music. When you consider the banality of Pink Floyd’s post-Waters output being released at the same time, we can be very grateful Waters forged his own path and achieved his crowning glory: Amused to Death.