The Endless River is a very difficult project to pin down. This “final album” from Pink Floyd was made by compiling over 20 hours of unused sessions from the development of their 1994 record, The Division Bell. They’d toyed with the idea of releasing The Division Bell as a double album, one disc of traditional songs and one of ambient instrumentals, but the concept was shelved. Now, 20 years later, several years after the death of keyboardist Richard Wright, they’ve melded those sessions together along with other archived audio and some new takes to create what’s been branded as the band’s swan song. However, the success of The Endless River as an “album” is evasive.
The record is largely instrumental and is divided into four distinct (though unlabeled) movements — each occupying an album side on the vinyl release. Of the 18 tracks, only the final song has lyrics. The music is beautiful and distinctly Floydian, but it’s also extremely derivative of many tracks from The Division Bell, as well as earlier Pink Floyd songs. These tracks aren’t just familiar, but contain presumably intentional and very noticeable echoes. For these reasons, The Endless River is a hard sell as a “new album”; instead, it could be called the world’s most lavishly appointed collection of outtakes.
As a whole, The Endless River is a very evocative collection of music. Though it aligns itself with the smoother side of Pink Floyd rather than the ferocious snarl of “One of These Days” or anything from Animals, its moods explore a diverse and exciting terrain. But, as part of the greater whole of Floyd records, it’s an oddity, more relevant for its context in the band’s history than the music. The prevalence of cues from Division Bell suggests that The Endless River is made up of improvised work that developed into the previous record’s songs. The nods to earlier records like Meddle and A Saucerful of Secrets could be explained as the band dabbling in older tracks with an inevitable tour on the horizon. Deleted lines from Stephen Hawking’s “Keep Talking” monologue only serve to hammer home that you’re listening to Division Bell‘s cutting room floor.
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This is an undeniably fantastic presentation for this previously unreleased music: Making it a standalone release rather than a bonus disc for The Division Bell Deluxe Box was the right call. But, as a final offering from one of the greatest rock acts in history, The Endless River serves as a fair basis for the question of what exactly constitutes an “album.”
The simple answer is intent. When Gilmour and Mason went about putting this work together, it was done as a conscious final statement from the players who devised the core sound of Pink Floyd. It’s also to some degree a love letter to their dearly departed friend, whose work was largely underplayed for most of the band’s later records.
Roger Waters’ songwriting and creative direction were essential to Pink Floyd’s identity during the height of their career, but the sound of Pink Floyd was never his alone. Just as Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford are Genesis regardless of who’s fronting the band, or just as David Byrne doesn’t sound exactly like Talking Heads without Weymouth, Frantz, and Harrison, the memorable and defining music of Pink Floyd was always chiefly in the hands of Gilmour, Wright, and Mason. The Endless River sees the band doing what they’ve always done best: making jazzy and contemplative rock music.
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It’s an odd thing for this album to come 20 years after most of it was recorded, but that doesn’t seem to be of much consequence to Gilmour and Mason. In recent interviews, the band’s two remaining members speak of the project as if, for the first time in a long time, some tremendous weight has been lifted. In fact, the intent of The Endless River is made plain with their closing manifesto, “Louder Than Words”. The lyrics are without a doubt some of the weakest ever to find their way onto a Pink Floyd album. However, the statement of “Louder Than Words” is a poignant one — about friendship, ego, songwriting, and perhaps even public perception as to “which one’s Pink?”
The redemption of this recycled music is in the hands of the fans. For everyone who looks at post-Waters Floyd as glorified Gilmour solo albums, these instrumentals could be what you’ve been waiting for since 1983. For fans of Division Bell, it’s at the very least a killer bonus disc. In the tapestry of Pink Floyd, The Endless River doesn’t end on as powerful a musical statement as Division Bell‘s “High Hopes”, but it does end on a profoundly more personal note for a band that’s taken us on 50 years of incredible sonic journeys.
Essential Tracks: “Allons-Y (1)”, “Autumn ’68”, and “Eyes to Pearls”