Dark Side of the 'Island'


March 5, 2006


To be a Pink Floyd fan in 2006 is to live with unrealistic hopes and chronic disappointments. One of the most inspiring bands in the classic-rock pantheon, the group evolved through several great incarnations, including the psychedelic pop band of the mid-'60s, the expansive jam band of the late '60s and early '70s, and the quartet that won phenomenal success with four indelible masterpieces: "The Dark Side of the Moon" (1973), "Wish You Were Here" (1975), "Animals" (1977) and "The Wall" (1979).

Pink Floyd Mach IV began with "The Final Cut" (1983), a flatulent disc that found bassist Roger Waters, who had long since morphed into the primary lyricist, wresting control from his veteran bandmates. You probably know the rest: After one of the most acrimonious splits in rock history, guitarist David Gilmour, keyboardist Rick Wright and drummer Nick Mason continued for a time as a band devoid of intellectual substance -- "A Momentary Lapse of Reason" (1987), "The Division Bell" (1994) -- while Waters forged ahead as a high-minded conceptualist lacking musical inspiration, as on "The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking" (1984) or "Amused to Death" (1992).

Rarely have two opposing camps so thoroughly needed each other, and rarely have they been so dead set against reuniting. But fans' hopes were given an unexpected boost last summer when, against all odds, our four heroes came together for a brief set of classic oldies at Live 8.

Alas, the echoes of that performance were still ringing when the now sixty-something millionaires vowed there wouldn't be an ongoing encore. "The offer was made to tour with a lot of money, and it was with or without Roger," Gilmour recently told the British press. His answer: a resounding "no" seconded by Waters, whose pretensions finally grew more inflated than the band's famous floating pig when, after 16 years of struggling, he premiered his French Revolution-inspired opera "Ca Ira" in Rome last November. (Noted the Italian newspaper, La Repubblica: "Waters is not so much Verdi or Puccini, more Andrew Lloyd Webber ... [it was] like an elephant trying to take to the air with a small pair of wings.")

Now comes "On an Island," Gilmour's first solo album in 22 years, and the third of his career. True Floyd heads know that the first two, "David Gilmour" (1978) and "About Face" (1984), suffered from a serious shortage of ambition, and were only marginally more interesting than the extracurricular offerings of Wright and Mason. But, ill-advised as ever, we had reason to hope this time, especially when reviewing the roster of impressive art-rock names Gilmour tapped to help him, including co-producer Phil Manzanera of Roxy Music; Wright, who plays Hammond organ on one tune and sings on another, and backing vocalists Robert Wyatt, Graham Nash and David Crosby.

Unfortunately, the fleetingly pretty "On an Island" is, overall, a paint-drying-dull example of New Age snoozak -- unfocused, meandering and curiously short of the distinctive, soaring, ultra-melodic solos of Gilmour at his best ("Dogs," "Comfortably Numb"). The biggest problem isn't even comparing it to Pink Floyd; it's trying to stay awake through the uninspired, languid and lugubrious grooves.

Gilmour can still rock out when the spirit moves him -- witness his fiery playing on Paul McCartney's set of '50s rockers, "Run Devil Run" (1999) -- and he can be charmingly entertaining even in his mellow old-fogy mode, as on the acoustic performance captured on the 2002 DVD, "David Gilmour in Concert." It isn't even inconceivable that he could make a great New Age album; ambient house Floyd acolytes the Orb have made a career out of it.

Instead, the opening instrumental bombast of "Castellorizon" finds the guitarist emptying his junk drawer of half-baked riffs, which range from spacy blues to misplaced bluegrass. Ten tracks later, "On an Island" closes with the sunny acoustic ditty "Where We Start," its strongest song, but only because it's a conscious attempt to imitate the lilting Floyd toss-offs on '70s soundtracks such as "More."

The tunes in between -- many of them co-written with Gilmour's wife Polly Samson, who also lent a hand on "The Division Bell" -- range from actively annoying (as on the pointlessly repetitive "Take A Breath" or the sing-songy "This Heaven") to unforgivably slight and insipid ("Shamelessly, aimlessly so blue/Midnight moon shines for you," Gilmour coos on "The Blue") to absurdly misguided (why would we want to hear one of the greatest rock guitarists ever playing saxophone ... badly -- on "Red Sky at Night"?). But even those descriptions make the overall bland-out sound more interesting than it really is.

In a 1995 interview that stands as one of the most frank I've ever done with a bona-fide rock legend, Mason tried to explain how Pink Floyd's once boundless ambitions had narrowed over the years. "In the beginning, you think that you can do anything," the drummer said.

"Your breadth of vision in 1967 is like 100 feet, but 30 years later, you have learned so much that you have found the areas where you operate best. It's not laziness, but now you operate within 3 feet. One has to make a very conscious effort to break those boundaries."

This album fails because Gilmour has made no effort at all -- he's unwilling to push himself and unwilling to work with people who might. Sorry, Dave, but no man is an island.