Fifty years ago, few fans of music would disagree that Pink Floyd released one of the pivotal rock albums ever made in The Dark Side of the Moon. It isn't my favourite by them, but it's a gem and it stands up half a century on. Roger Waters was in Floyd back then. In fact, he wrote the lyrics to all these songs, so it seems a little surprising that he would feel the burning need to remember it on its anniversary by re-recording it. Then again, some of my favourite versions of Floyd classics have come through the reimaginings he's given them live, such as Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun.
What all that means is that that I came into this with open ears, even though everything I've read about it from those who heard it before me has been negative. It's more different than I expected, almost shockingly laid back; much darker in its reflections on life; and missing not just guitar solos but all of Alan Parsons's groundbreaking samples. It's not so much a solo reimagining of an album as it is a reimagining of Waters's part in it, as lyricist and vocalist, but with everything else cut out. Much of the negativity may tie to that approach, which does seem fishy to me, but there's plenty to praise too.
I wasn't sold early, wondering just what Waters was trying to do with Speak to Me and feeling that he just knocked out Breathe on a first take and approved it without listening back. It's talky and it doesn't seem to say much, more spoken word poetry with subtle accompaniment than an album of rock music. I gradually found myself tapping into his wavelength, though, and got on board. It was Time that did it, because he nails the intonation on this one and the dreamy feel of this version of the song gets under the skin, with its sparse strings and other instrumentation notably below the beat and voice. It lost me a little towards the end when the strings found more prominence, but it was strong for a while, especially during the theremin solo.
Money has its moments too, with the opening word delivered with absolute relish. Again, Waters's intonation is pristine and the words have more meaning here than in the original. However, this is an approach that drags, so the song feels longer than it ever has in this version. Us and Them does little for me vocally, but the guitarwork in the middle from Jonathan Wilson is delightful, as subtle as it is. It can't really be called a guitar solo, but it evokes atmosphere with precious few notes. All the instrumentation follows suit, but if Dave Gilmour is famous for playing one note where others would play a dozen, this seems to deliberately aim at one for each dozen of Gilmour's.
I rather like Brain Damage, though it's as close to a traditional cover as any of these songs get, as driven as it is by the vocals. The backing is subdued, of course, but that ticking cymbal is the same and the subtle theremin and distant organ work very nicely. I'm not as fond of the strings again, a sole instrumental element to disappoint me. Everything else works, as minimal as it is. Eclipse is stronger again, because there's an echo to his deep vocal that's a higher and far more produced voice, presumably Azniv Korkejian's, and the dual voices are highly effective.
So some of this is definitely strong, but it's far from the norm. I can't say that The Great Gig in the Sky is better here, Claire Torry's iconic vocal workout replaced by a wistful reminiscence of a dead friend told in abstract snippets of memory. It works once, because we surely want to know what he has to say, but it gets old quickly on repeat listens. Speak to Me and Any Colour You Like are there and there's not much more to be said. On the Run is missing all its vibrancy and iconic electronica and it's not remotely better for it.
And that leaves this as a curiosity. It's not a bad album. Some of these songs would be praised if we thought they were new. There's some gorgeous production in place to generate the tones behind a few of these songs, like Time and Money, even if the drums remain too prominent. Waters himself improves on his original delivery on a few of these songs, most obviously Money. However, nobody in a parallel universe where The Dark Side of the Moon didn't exist until this version would call out how revolutionary and iconic it is. It's no replacement. Maybe it's a complement. Maybe partially.