Pink Floyd took a break from recording to tour their recently-released Momentary Lapse of Reason from 1987 to 1990, but that didn’t mean that there weren’t ideas churning in the band members’ heads. After years of brain-storming and working on the rough edges of their performance on their previous album, the band released The Division Bell in 1994. By this time, the band had regained their confidence and went all-out in promoting the album, including their hugely-successful P.U.L.S.E. world tour, which cemented the band’s reputation for futuristic laser light shows that accompanied the music. The band’s chemistry was back in full swing, and judging by the fruits of their labor, it definitely shows.
The album opens with “Cluster One”, an ambient instrumental track that, at first, makes me think my speakers are broken. There’s a cluttering of noises at the beginning that sounds like the combination of water bubbling and static. It’s a little pestering at first, but I immediately forget about that once I get to the heart of the song. The track is essentially an experiment between David Gilmour’s guitar and Rick Wright’s keyboard.One of the members must have thought one day, “What if we can record our instruments having a conversation amongst each other”, and this was the result. I didn’t really catch on to the pattern of “dialogue” between the two instruments until halfway through the song, which probably indicates how well the two factors blend into their environment. The rest of the track almost seems like the less-sinister cousin of “Careful with that Axe, Eugene”. This is either a love-it-or-hate-it track and can probably act as the deciding factor as to whether or not you’ll enjoy the rest of the album. In my case, I was right on board.
The next track, “What Do You Want From Me”, has a little more punch to it and the most attitude out of any of the songs on the album. The song, which is based on an argument between Gilmour and his then-new wife and co-lyricist, Polly Samson, is confrontational without being demeaning. Gilmour’s delivery is that of a cornered animal wanting to make its move, but can’t due to a soft spot that’s constantly being exposed. He wants to prove his point, but is afraid to because he might hurt himself as well as the person he’s fighting against, a “Hedgehog’s Dilemma” that would reap more consequences than benefits. Gilmour is not trying to be like Roger Waters with the unflinching snake bite in his lyrics, but he does want to stand his ground as a strong voice for the band. The backing vocals add to the funk style of the track, which is lifted from “Have a Cigar” yet again. The second half of the song switches into a melodic key change, adding to the panache that the song has to offer. The fighter becomes more sympathetic.
If I were to condense The Division Bell into five words, one of those words would be “euphoric”. The album spares no expense in creating a vast sound for the listener’s imagination to run around in. The music of the album soars above valleys and clouds, beginning with “Poles Apart”. The song is essentially an career introspection disguised as a direction forward. The “golden boy” in the song is possibly a reference to Syd Barrett, making this Gilmour’s turn to talk to the musical madcap through new material. Unlike Waters’ odes of Barrett, however, it’s not smothered in the occasional self-gloating. It accepts Barrett for who he is and the choices he’s made. The musical interlude about halfway into the song brings back some familiar sound effects, including the motorcycle engine from the Atom Heart Mother Suite and the bells from “Fat Old Sun”. The clownish excerpt may seem out of place, but it does little to ruin a touching and overall solid song.
The second instrumental, “Marooned”, is more concrete in direction and concept. The track was written to emulate the feeling of being stranded on a deserted island, but it also acts a showcase of Gilmour’s guitar playing. Basically, the song is a giant Gilmour guitar solo with a story behind it. The level of admiration the listener has for Gilmour as a musician and songwriter will most likely determine how good of a track this is. The delay and control on the guitar flows and changes constantly, leaving nary a dull moment in the song. He even applies a “seagull effect” that’s similar to the one used in “Echoes”, another shoutout to the band’s glory days. The song earned the band a Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental, so they must have been doing something right with this song.
The weakest song on the album is “A Great Day For Freedom”, which may be about the band breaking away from Waters, but that’s up for debate. The song is melodramatic in melody and could almost pass off as being a parody of over-indulgent stadium rock. The chorus’ mellowness isn’t working in favor of the song this time. It sounds like it was pasted from another song that was recorded for the album, but never used. The song is probably a filler track and a vehicle for Gilmour to use in an attempt to squeeze in a solo. I really can’t think of any important reason why the song should have been kept on the album in the first place. The band wouldn’t have lost anything if they decided to take it out. If you’re an album completist and you feel you need to listen to every song on an album to complete the experience, consider this an intermission.
“Wearing the Inside Out” is Rick Wright’s greatest achievement since rejoining Pink Floyd, which is incredible given how minimal his creative input was during the 80s. The song is also my favorite on the entire album, painting a picture of a man yearning for communication and human warmth, with only a messy room and a television to keep him company. The themes in the song are very reminiscent of The Wall’s general thematic content, but unlike the story in the latter, there’s a glimmer of hope for redemption rather than the inevitability of cycling through self-inflicted isolation. That hope comes in the form of Gilmour chiming in for a verse, essentially telling the narrator that there are people out there who can give him a helping hand. The backing vocals act as reality’s echo from the perspective of the narrator. While Wright sings of how he feels, the vocalists map out the situation at hand. This haunting scenario is fittingly accompanied by hypnotic, synth-driven instrumentation, which is to be expected, given that this track was completely written by Wright himself. A cameo appearance by Dick Parry on his sax, his first album collaboration with the band since Wish You Were Here, adds to the bittersweet flavor of the song.
“Take It Back” was the major single off of the album, receiving a lukewarm response among listeners mainly due to it sounding like the band pulled a fast one on U2. Lyrically, it can be interpreted as either the portrayal of a dysfunctional relationship or man’s mistreatment towards the earth. The track is rich with rippling guitar effects, featuring an intro that signifies big things to come. Nick Mason’s drumming contributions to the album have been insignificant up to this point, where one can really notices his drumming efforts on the track. Not one of his best, but definitely something to note in regards to this album. The instrumental break features the nursery rhyme “Ring Around the Rosie”, a possible allusion to Barrett once again, but it’s use in the song has yet to be determined. Despite that, the track never fails to provide me with an adrenaline rush from beginning to end.
The jubilation continues with “Coming Back to Life”, a liberating track that actually serves as a dedication to Gilmour’s wife. It is also the only song on the album to be completely written by him, and ironically, it’s one of the album’s strongest tracks. The song opens with an arresting yet soulful acoustic solo before breaking into Gilmour’s eagle call of a vocal solo. The vastness of the intro makes it seem like the track was recorded on top of a mountain. The rest of the track lives up to the intro, especially towards the end. It might not be as big as the intro, but it is still an uplifting experience that makes me feel alive. The song’s themes of rebirth are presented in both a spiritual and human sense. One could say that they overlap with each other.. By starting a new life with the one his loves, he’s being reborn. Gilmour breaks out into one of the best guitar solos on the album, keeping up the momentum until the very end of the song. I’m left bewildered by the journey-within-a-journey that I had just been on.
The themes of communication are readdressed in the song “Keep Talking”. This song is noted for using voice samples from a UK TV ad featuring physicist Stephen Hawking as springboards to address the themes of the song. The song could be seen as a sequel to “What Do You Want From Me”, since it features the same confrontational nature minus the fire. The sympathetic tone from the latter is more emphasized, illustrating the yearning for connectivity that the narrator desires. Also like in a previous song, “Wearing…”, the backing vocalists act as the inner voice of the narrator, saying what he really wants to say, but rewords them so he can make it seem like he’s unafraid to ask those questions. The instrumentation is similar to that of Lapse, which is slightly underwhelming given how strong their musical efforts had been up to this point. Luckily, the strength of the song in its lyrics, making it worth a listen based on that alone.
“Lost for Words” is one of the happiest “take that” songs you will hear. It’s an attack on Roger Waters, and for the three-man Pink Floyd, this song was a long time coming. I don’t know if this was intentional, but the folk rock style that the band used underneath the album’s production style seemed ironic to use, since the bulk of Waters’ output were pastoral tracks like “Grantchester Meadows” and his work on his solo album Music from The Body. The use of the footsteps at the beginning might not seem much, but they do a lot for me in framing the topic of the song. It gave me images of Gilmour walking into a studio and confronting Waters there. The sound effects even compare the tension between the two to a boxing match at one point. The music is somewhat reminiscent of “Cruise”, a track off of Gilmour’s solo album About Face. The only difference is that this track is more folk/Americana-based while the other is reggae-inspired. The last two lines of the song couldn’t have been more blatant: “Well they told me that I could go fuck myself/You know you just can’t win”. The song has an air of self-satisfaction to it without being bloated. The band got something off of their chest and went on their way.
Despite all the different opinions people have on the album, many consider “High Hopes” to be in the pantheon of great Pink Floyd songs. The song carries the weight of it being both the last song on the album and the last of the band’s career. Nevertheless, it’s an appropriate swan song featuring sweeping orchestrations, passionate lyrics, and an overall epic feel. The lyrics, according to Gilmour, tell of the gains and losses people have faced in life, but with an autobiographical twist to it. The orchestrations, arranged by Michael Kamen, underscore the thundering chorus of the song, which thread into the message of nothing truly ending (“the endless river/forever and ever…”). The song’s melancholy is still there, but it transpires into a message of realism and seeing life as it is. Whether that is an uplifting or depressing message is up to the listener. The song sounds like a product of its time thanks to the piano and drums, but when a song like this sounds this good, age shouldn’t matter.
Pink Floyd went on to tour the album for several years until breaking up during the mid 90s, much to the dismay of its fans. Even so, it wasn’t like the band would lose anything by making that move, since they had long since cemented their place in music history. The Division Bell is an album that has its advocates, but I can see how people who are more biased towards Waters’ Floyd can hate this album. The lyrics are nowhere near as fierce and intense as Waters and the heaviness of the music is gone. The problem with that is that this album was being compared to that era. It’s better to take on this album as if it were made by a completely different band, which it kind of is. Everything that I love about Pink Floyd is here: the melodic structure of the music, the existential lyrics, the enormity of the album’s scale, etc. It was easy for me to like this album as much as I did. It’s an incredible improvement over A Momentary Lapse of Reason, a sophomoric effort compared to this one. The band sounded more tight-knit this time around and the musicianship was just as serious. The Division Bell plays with emotions more than intellect, though there’s a fair amount of substance between both. The balance between the two was what made the album work in my favor. The album may have been the band’s final salute, but it did little to sour the band’s career. Shine on, you crazy diamonds.
Key tracks: “Cluster One”, “Marooned”, “Wearing the Inside Out”, “Coming Back to Life”, “Lost for Words”, “High Hopes”