Pink Floyd – The Endless River (2014)

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Determinedly uncommercial, The Endless River is an album sure to thrill those who still find themselves riveted by Pink Floyd’s often-forgotten period between the Syd Barrett years and the career-defining supernova that was Dark Side of the Moon.

This era, from 1969’s More and 1972’s Obscured by Clouds, saw David Gilmour’s arrival spark a wave of rangy, largely instrumental experimentation. Instead of incrementally preparing for their eventual breakthrough, or perhaps telegraphing the Roger Waters-led novelizations of 1973-83, Pink Floyd raced to the edges of their considerable imaginations, mixing and matching inspirations, soaring to staggering new vistas, charging into sudden dead ends — and, all the while, playing without rules, without maps, without dogma.

The Endless River, itself a largely instrumental recording due on November 10, 2014 via Columbia, revives that sense of dizzying adventure in the only way it could — by presenting some of the last sessions with Gilmour, Nick Mason and the late Richard Wright recording together, in the studio. These loose jams, conducted in the runup to 1994’s Division Bell, would mark the first time a Pink Floyd album had emerged from collaborative demos since their 1970s hey day. And while The Division Bell was presented in a contained, song-based format, here we find them working outside of the lines once more.

Unsurprisingly, certain themes return from their storied past, and these become touchstones for a final album which ties together a number of loose ends on its way to completing Pink Floyd’s studio life. It’s Richard Wright’s last gift to Pink Floyd, which had often strayed well into pop ephemera after Roger Waters’ acrimonious 1985 departure, and to us.

You hear, in “It’s What We Do,” whispers of Wright’s sweeping contributions to Wish You Were Here, the last truly cooperative album from the four-man edition of Pink Floyd — and, still, the capstone in the keyboardist’s career. He begins with a cerulean turn then, after a lengthy declamation from David Gilmour, soars back to the fore with a thrusting synth. There’s a hint of “Us and Them” to Wright’s gorgeous ruminations at the piano on “Anisina,” something underscored by the appearance of saxophone and a heart-filling chorus. Gilmour’s approach on guitar for “Night Light” recalls “Coming Back to Life,” even as “Talkin’ Hawkin'” reveals itself to be a direct descendent of “Keep Talking.” Both “Allons-Y (1)” and “(2),” these thrillingly riffy stompers, seem to have grown out of ideas first plumbed in The Wall. “Calling,” meanwhile, is a bold return to the more structured psych rock of Meddle.

That said, The Endless River isn’t simply a valedictory moment. There’s some rock to go with all of this ruminating. “Sum” and “Skins” pushes back — and hard — against the accepted idea that this might be nothing more than a collection of ambient asides. Gilmour plays with a furious, rangy wit, while Nick Mason unleashes these building-crumbling cadences. It’s as free-form, and as thunderously aggressive, as anything we’ve heard from Pink Floyd in decades. And then there’s “On Noodle Street.” With its spacious groove, this is the closest Pink Floyd might ever get to jazz. “Autumn ’68,” at least by its title, would appear to be a sequel to Wright’s spunky “Summer ’68” from Atom Heart Mother. A churchy organ quickly dispels that notion — as Wright explores deeper into the classically tinged corners of his muse often lost on the arena-rock crowd that began following Pink Floyd after Dark Side.

Much has been made, meanwhile, of this album’s loose leitmotif of friendship beyond simple communication, of a connection deeper than speech — something that harkens back to The Division Bell, too. That theme starts with the opening “Things Left Unsaid,” a moment dotted with snippets of conversation between Wright and Gilmour, and builds toward Gilmour’s lone vocal on the concluding “Louder than Words” — which begins with the familiar sounds of those aforementioned bells.

On one level, Gilmour seems to be drilling deeper into the sense of emptiness that he — and Pink Floyd itself — still feel with the loss of Wright, who died in 2008 after a bout with cancer. On another, however, it’s easy to see this as a requiem for all of the arguments that ever distorted this band’s considerable legacy. Over the years, the sturm und drang between the warring camps of Gilmour and Waters tended to obscure what they’d accomplished together.

The Endless River doesn’t simply attempt to frame a third-act sense of forgiveness, as welcome as that may be. It does something more important still: This project reminds you, in its own uncompromisingly throwback fashion, of everything that made Pink Floyd so fantastically weird, so wildly intriguing, so very different back then. And again, though apparently for one last time, today.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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