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Otium cum Dignitatae

Friday, October 03, 2008

Nearly A Laugh, But Really A Cry

(I actually wrote this back in the late '90's for The Antagonist, but it never saw print, and I'm just in the mood to put something here, as I've been working my ass off lately, and haven't had time to blog.)


The concept album. It unfortunately conjures up images of Yes, or Emerson, Lake and Palmer. But a lot of good bands did them (The Kinks, in particular). If you buy the story that the 'White Album' by the Beatles is actually them merely making fun of everyone else currently active in music at the time, that also means that one of their best albums is a concept album, sort of. In any case, it's an idea that could see some reviving, in competent hands.

Toward the end, Pink Floyd did almost nothing but concept albums. This one I'm reviewing in particular just happens to be the most dark, cynical pondering on the state of humanity that I've ever heard.

You know the concept, right? The human race is basically broken down into three subgroups; dogs, pigs and sheep. It begins with this little calm-before-the-storm number called "Pigs on the Wing (part 1)". Just acoustic guitar and Roger Waters' voice. It sort of sets you up with what this album might really be about: what if no one really gave a good grey shit about anyone else?

And we roll into "Dogs". It begins really quietly, building as the lyrics begin: "You've got to be crazy/ Gotta have a real need..." To be a dog in this world is to be vicious and mercenary. On one hand, they're speaking of gangsters and thugs, but it soon becomes clear that they're talking about stockbrokers and businessmen, too. "You've got to be trusted/ by the people that you lie to/ so that when they turn their backs on you/ you'll get the chance to put the knife in..."
But they're also literally talking about dogs. It gets into what the end is like for you, as a dog. After all is done, and you've done as many people that've stood in your way, you cease to be useful, and are to be hunted down and destroyed. You flee, cancer eating your guts, knowing full well that one one of these days, they're gonna put you in a bag and throw you in the river.

The last verse is a list of everything that has happened to you in your dog life (or dog-man life) that took you to where you are now -drowning.
"who was given a pat on the back
who was breaking away from the pack
who was only a stranger at home
who was dragged down in the end
who was drownd-ed all alone
who was dragged down by the stone...

The music is thick, richly produced. You can hear every dog recorded clearly, like it's in your backyard. The music is so slick, it's almost dull. It's a lot less musically adventurous than a lot of their albums, but a lot more menacing. It gives you even more of an impression that all of this is inevitable.
For whatever it's worth, it's also sort of clear that old Rog considered himself a dog.

Then a pig grunts, and "Pigs (Three Different Ones)" begins. It is a sweaty, nightmarish funk thing. It, of course, is about the folks set above us all by society.
The first two are merely rich people. People who are able to believe they are safe. This delusion lends a bit of piety to itself; "And when your hand is on your heart...You're nearly a good laugh/ almost a joker..." But as with all of them, "You're nearly a laugh, but you're really a cry..."
The final pig is different; not just rich but powerful. "Hey you White House...You house-proud town mouse..." And this pig too feels that all is right in this world that has given it so much, yet cannot help but feel that breath on their necks that suggests otherwise: "You're really a real treat/ all tight lips and cold feet...And do you feel abused? You've got to stem the evil tide/ but keep it over the hillside..." Even the rich and powerful are terrified and hunted.

But the scariest track here has to be "Sheep". That's you n' me he's talking about there. "Harmlessly passing your time in the grasslands away/ only dimly aware of a certain unease in the air..." Wm. Burroughs said that dogs are the lynch mob animal. But no- who is most easily led, through their fear? That's you n' me he's talking about there!
"Meek and beleagured you follow the leader down well-trodden corridors into the valley of steel..." Yes, we sheep can be counted upon to shovel a couple generations worth of us into the fiery maw of hell if we're sufficiently convinced that we're in danger. And if the fear of the dogs won't do it, there's always God.

This twisted version of the Twenty-Third Psalm slithers into the middle of the song:
"The lord is my shepard, I shall not want...
With bright knives he releaseth my soul
he maketh me to hang on hooks in high places
He converteth me to lamb cutlets...
Lo, we shall rise up,
and then we'll make the buggers' eyes water...

Religion is all you have as a sheep; the possibility of revenge. "Bleating and babbling I fell on his neck with a scream...Wave upon wave of demented avengers march cheerfully out of obscurity into the dream..." And when the foe is smited? "You'd better stay home, do as you're told/ stay out of the road, if you want to grow old..." Then one of those great leads that Dave Gilmour pulls out of his ass roars onto the scene, repeated over and over until the song fades back out. It's no mistake that there is so much repetition on this album. Everyone's stuck in their category until death. Eternally at war and bewildered.

You feel like you've been through a storm. And right on cue comes the calm after the storm, "Pigs on the Wing (part 2)". It's fragile, and cautious. It knows that too much has already been said. It sort of tenuously says, well, at least you n' me care about each other, right? And that counts for something, right? Well, maybe; no conclusions are drawn there.
Above all else, this album has led me to question why so many suburban American teenagers listen to Pink Floyd on acid. You'd have to ignore the lyrics. But on the other hand, this album makes me oddly exhilarated, usually in that nice-to-know-someone-else-is-thinking-this-too sort of way, but it's there.
The Floyd album to trip to, by the way, is "Ummagumma".



Blogger DavidPetrucci said...

This is the BEST review anf point of view I've ever seen about this album, Congratulations!

7:07 PM  
Blogger Simon said...

Nice review. I have always thought the third pig, rather than THE White House, was Mary Whitehouse, a conservative self-appointed protector of the moral high ground in 70's Britain. "You house-proud town mouse" and "Mary you're nearly a treat, but you're really a cry"

12:15 PM  

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