I spend a ridiculous amount of time worrying about being old.
I know I’m not – at 31, I’m no young’un, but I’m not ready for the retirement home just yet. But I worry about it. I work in an office full of young people, all dreamy-eyed and ready to take on the world, and pretty much every day, I’m reminded that I used to feel that way. I feel ancient, dust and bones.
So it’s good to remember that there actually are old people in the world, and they think I’m barely out of the womb. Take, for example, David Gilmour, who just turned 52 last week. Gilmour is best known as the guitar player for Pink Floyd, a band who put out perhaps their most acclaimed album (Dark Side of the Moon) before I was born, and did what I consider their best work while I was learning to read and finger-paint.
By the time I was 10, it was all over for the Floyd – their visionary, Roger Waters, had departed for a bizarre solo career, and Gilmour had taken the reins. He led the remaining band through a couple of pale imitations of Floyd albums, including the first one I ever heard, A Momentary Lapse of Reason, which came out when I was 13. I’m ashamed to admit it, but my teenage self thought Gilmour a genius and Waters a hack because the former could sing on key and jam out a 10-minute solo.
It took a while, but I came around.
Put next to works like Animals and The Wall, those last two Floyd albums are comparatively lifeless, especially The Division Bell. Neither one pushes beyond the “Comfortably Numb” template – slow songs, full of spacey keyboards, Gilmour’s serviceable voice getting out of the way of his guitar more often than not. It’s a wonder that Bell took seven years to make, but you could chalk that up to the difficulty involved in getting the remaining trio (including drummer Nick Mason and keyboardist Richard Wright) together to record it.
But there’s no excusing the 12-year delay between Bell and On an Island, Gilmour’s new solo album. For one thing, even though it’s billed as a solo record, it sounds exactly the same as recent vintage Floyd, if not a little more laconic. The songs are all slow – and not even slow burners or slow builders, but just slow – and Gilmour’s guitar rules the day, taking long expanses of sound to say very little. If you liked the last two Floyd albums, you will like this. There’s almost nothing to distinguish them.
The physical sound of On an Island is as glorious as anything Gilmour has done. In their day, Pink Floyd broke new ground in sound design, and really opened up what you could do with standard stereo. Records like Dark Side presented an almost unheard-of depth of field, which works even if you’re not stoned, and it was this kind of restless experimentation that made even their early stuff shine. Somewhere in the ‘80s, though, Gilmour settled on a sound, and this is it – thick, rich, deep and clear, but front-and-center. The mystery Floyd wove so well is gone, and in its place are synth washes.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but these are lazy, contented synth washes. On an Island wafts in like a summer breeze, and occasionally whips up into an actual wind, but not often enough to notice. It’s an old guy’s record, no doubt about it – the title song is the soundtrack to a walk on the beach, and the whole album (save “Take a Breath,” which we’ll get to in a second) sounds like one of those new age discs with the pictures of sunsets on the covers, the ones you find in the nature stores.
The best word, in fact, for this is “soothing.” It’s the sound of fading out gracefully, of dying in your bed at 98, surrounded by family. It’s nice and all – practically every song has an orchestral backing, and some of the arrangements are sweet – but it all drifts by. The first time I listened to it, I didn’t know when it was over – I only realized it minutes later. The sound here is just a few steps above silence, which may have been the intention, but it doesn’t make me want to listen to it again.
That’s not to say that none of it is effective. The closest this record comes to rocking is the mid-tempo, occasionally silly “Take a Breath,” which incorporates actual rhythm guitar crunch. That one is over way too quickly, but thankfully “This Heaven” is only two tracks away, with its slinky acoustic riff. I like the half-melodies in “A Pocketful of Stones,” the best of the eight (!) ballad-things. The rest of it blends together, a long sustained note with an echo-laden guitar solo over it, interrupted occasionally by a strummed acoustic with an echo-laden guitar solo over it.
The easy blame for this is Gilmour’s age. These are sweet lullabies for the rest home, the work of a guy who is content with his life. I would never even suggest that 52 is old – look at Paul McCartney, making some of his most vital solo music at 63 – but rather that age is a state of mind. Gilmour has decided to be old, and to make happy and pleasant music for those who don’t want to be challenged or moved. It’s wallpaper, background noise, something to put on while ironing, and it’s a shame. With Waters composing operas and Gilmour giving us this ambient nothing of an album after more than a decade, it seems there’s nothing left of the Floyd we knew.
Ray Davies fares better with his first solo work, but mainly because he’s Ray Davies. At 61, he’s a rock and roll legend, the leader and visionary behind the Kinks. In his day, he wrote catchy, complex pop songs like nobody’s business, one after the other in a seemingly unbreakable streak. He dove into conceptual works in the ‘70s, and fell apart completely in the ‘80s, but for a while there, he was almost unbeatable.
So now here’s Other People’s Lives, amazingly his first solo album in 42 years of recording, and the first we’ve heard from him in about a decade. And it’s probably not what you’d expect. It’s a big production, a chamber-rock album with pianos and horns and, occasionally, big guitars. It’s also a collection of sometimes twee pop songs that wipes its arse with most of the Kinks’ ‘80s work, and if it’s not quite a return to form, it is a reminder of his considerable skills.
Other People’s Lives is a darker album than you might think, too, opening with a torrent called “Things are Gonna Change” that puts its narrator through the wringer, ending up on the other side with a defiant “I bloody well will.” Some of it’s a little standard, like the Tom Petty-ish “Run Away From Time,” but for every one of those, there’s a minor-key twist like “Creatures of Little Faith.” Davies stumbles on an amateur clod like “Is There Life After Breakfast,” but shines one track later on the shuffling “The Getaway.”
His lyrics have deteriorated over time, and I wish someone had advised him against lashing out at the internet on the title track – that’s a sure fire way for a 61-year-old to appear desperately out of touch. But Ray Davies fans won’t be disappointed in this record – spotty as it is, it’s the best thing he’s done in ages, and he certainly doesn’t sound ready for the shuffleboard court here. Listen to the booming backbeat on “Stand Up Comic,” one of the best tracks here, and try to imagine yourself at 61, and tell me if you’ll even want to listen to stuff like this without saying, “Turn that down, kids!” It’s not genius, but it does rock.
Davies even manages to sound as contented as Gilmour without sacrificing energy, or sounding ready for a nap. The closing track is the title number from last year’s EP, Thanksgiving Day, and it sounds just as good here, celebratory and sweet. It seems to me that there are two types of aging musicians – those who slowly fade into irrelevance, and those who keep fighting and pushing themselves, even into their golden years. That second group includes folks like McCartney, and Todd Rundgren, and thankfully, with this record, Ray Davies.
Next week, the mirror image of this week, as I try to jump aboard the Arctic Monkeys bandwagon.
See you in line Tuesday morning.