“Is there anybody out there?” echoed voices from inside the Wall chant ominously.
These lyrics, which reeks of desperate need for connection, give a glimpse of what makes Pink Floyd’s concept album “The Wall” such a haunting and important experience that remains relevant.
Released in November 1979, the album is celebrating its 40th anniversary. The depictions of war, isolation and descent into madness feel frighteningly prophetic in 2019 with reports of loneliness and disaffection steadily rising among young people. With the rise of radical and often violent political groups—particularly alt-right ones, which are evoked by the track “In the Flesh”—there’s a general feeling that the world is falling apart around us and each individual is completely alone and powerless to fight it. This is the core tenant of Pink Floyd’s masterwork.
The album represents the apex of the increasing bleakness of Pink Floyd’s material during the 1970s. Albums “Dark Side of the Moon” and “Wish You Were Here” dabbled in darkness, but featured tracks with an unmistakable shred of sentimentality. “Animals” provided a metaphorical, dystopian view of the world as represented by farm animals, but ultimately backpedaled on its premise in the final track by providing a message of hope and unity among mankind.
There is no such sentiment in “The Wall.” It’s a perfectly grim cautionary tale—warning listeners to not become so isolated and cold to the world that they drive themselves to violence and insanity.
The story, following a rock star named Pink, traverses his life from his birth and childhood to his fame and downfall. Each traumatic event in his life leads to the construction of a metaphoric “Wall” in his mind—representing the barrier between his feelings, ego and the outside world. Pink becomes increasingly devoid of empathy and reason—climaxing in a hallucinated trial inside his head for his crimes wherein he is forced to “tear down the Wall” and expose his inner self to the world. What happens after this is a mystery.
This narrative is circular with the final track “Outside the Wall” segueing back into the instrumentation of the first song “In the Flesh?” Roger Waters can be heard murmuring “Isn’t this where…” In the album’s beginning, if listening carefully, Waters can be heard finishing “…we came in?” When someone allows themselves to be vulnerable, it’s inevitable they will become too traumatized by the outside world and reconstruct their Wall. So the cycle continues.
The story is partially autobiographical for Waters and includes some biographical elements of ex-member Syd Barrett, a standard for Floyd albums of this golden era. “The Wall” serves as a sort of window into the dark sides of Waters’ mind and artistry. The album itself is a peek inside his Wall.
The overall sound palette of the album is eerie and foreboding. The bass lines and drums repeat in a steady march in many tracks—creating a militaristic, fascistic hellscape in the listener’s mind. David Gilmour’s signature slow-burning guitar solos are where the album is able to capture a sense of beauty among the horror. Every note and chord wails out—creating this intense blend of raw passionate fury and deep melancholia.
Waters’ vocals are an absolute highlight and show off his range of expressiveness. “Empty Spaces” sees Waters droning on in a groveling monotone while the penultimate song “The Trial” features his talent in both voice acting and mimicking regional accents of the U.K. His impressive vocals sway from the comical, over-the-top vaudevillian to chilling weariness and warbled screams—boiling over to a booming and seething rage as he voices the monstrous Judge at the climax.
Richard Wright’s keyboards add gravitas to each track—making them feel weighty and almost gospel-like, which is particularly shown in the introductory track “In the Flesh?” Wright’s piano playing adds a certain fragility to “The Trial” and sometimes tenderness to songs like “The Thin Ice,” which begins with a sound reminiscent of a downbeat pop single from Eric Carmen and shifts into a mournful solo by Gilmour.
At times, the album allows a reprieve from the darkness with tracks like “Goodbye Blue Sky” and “Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2.” The former is almost reminiscent of The Beatles’ “White Album” and the latter features a funky, catchy guitar riff—continuing to include thematically intense lyrical content.
Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” stands tall among its peers. While fellow rock albums of that year such as The Clash’s “London Calling” and Tom Petty’s “Damn the Torpedoes” remain good listens, they are definitively dated. They represent either important shifts in music history or simply trends at the time. “The Wall” is more than that. It is both sweepingly epic and deeply intimate with timeless themes that are inherent to the human experience.The genre-bending structure along with its use of experimental sound effects and smooth transitions still feels fresh four decades later.
Listening to “The Wall” doesn’t feel like being transported to 1979—it feels like being transported to another world—and yet, one that feels so familiar because it exists in everyone.
Matt Cotter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @NevadaSagebrush.