I’ll get straight to it – the most remarkable thing about The Endless River is how it goes out of its way to convince you that it is not a real Pink Floyd album.
You can learn most of what you need to know about The Endless River before you even listen to it. You could start with the title, which is taken from the final lines of 1994’s The Division Bell: the lines that we’ve been assuming would be the last ones we’d ever hear from Pink Floyd.
Then, you might move on to the track titles. And, maybe you’d recognize “Autumn ’68” as a reference to “Summer ’68,” a similarly-titled track from 1970’s Atom Heart Mother. You might conjecture that the ridiculously-named “Talkin’ Hawkin'” features Stephen Hawking’s second guest appearance with Pink Floyd, after The Division Bell‘s “Keep Talking.”
And, what about the lyrics? There’s only one track that has them, “Louder Than Words,” so a quick skim shouldn’t take long. You’ll find references to heartbeats and pulses, evoking both the famous opening of The Dark Side of the Moon, and the title of the band’s final live album, P.U.L.S.E.
By now, you might be suspecting that this album isn’t meant to stand alone as an independent work. This, after all, is a lot of history to have to contend with on a “new” album.
Okay, so you’re ready to give this thing a listen. But, of course, we’re forgetting a major part of the pre-album experience: the massive paratext that you’ve been immersed in for months now. By that, I mean the reports, interviews and track previews that have been cropping up on your Facebook news feed or your magazine stand, depending on how closely you fit Pink Floyd’s target demographic.
And, from that paratext you would have gleaned a couple of key facts. Firstly, that this album is composed largely of doctored outtakes from The Division Bell. It’s been painstakingly arranged so that it doesn’t feel like an outtakes collection, but the band has been entirely transparent about the fact that it is one.
And secondly, that The Endless River is intended as a tribute to the band’s keyboardist, Richard Wright, who died in 2008, along with any hopes you had that Pink Floyd would ever tour again.
Knowing these two facts, you really weren’t that surprised to find so many references to Pink Floyd’s back catalogue littering The Endless River. This, after all, is a backwards-looking project.
You listen to the album. It fulfils your expectations, given that those expectations were so expertly managed by the way that this album was marketed: not as a new volume of the Pink Floyd saga, but as an epilogue to a story that ended definitively in 1996. This isn’t just an old band relying on the appeal of nostalgia to sell copies; this is David Gilmour and Nick Mason actively undermining their new album’s place in the Pink Floyd canon.
Because it’s not a real Pink Floyd album. It’s a Pink Floyd commemorative object.
But why does any of this matter? I mean, really; this is a band that was already a nostalgia act when they folded in 1996. The fact that they were silent for nearly 20 years prior to The Endless River seems like it ought to make this album into something of a big deal, but the fact that they’ve been irrelevant for even longer undercuts that significantly. Their album is the biggest musical pseudo-story of 2014.
And yet it was massively successful. It went to number one on the U.K. charts, it is now the most pre-ordered album of all-time (ousting One Direction), and it may have been at least partially responsible for a spike in vinyl record sales the likes of which we haven’t seen since… 1996, interestingly.
The fact that a Pink Floyd album that’s not actually a Pink Floyd album sold that well is telling. It certainly doesn’t prove that there’s a demand for new Pink Floyd music. Because, after all, this isn’t that. It does prove, however, the extent of the abiding respect that exists for Pink Floyd’s legacy.
And that is exactly what a commemorative object is for.