‘Which one’s Pink,’ a gormless American record company suit is alleged to have asked Pink Floyd when they landed in California for their first US tour in 1967. Now, almost 50 years down the line, the question takes on a greater significance, or would do if ‘Pink’ refers to whichever member of this noble institution is leading the charge. First it was Syd, next it was Roger and then it was David, with Nick content to be led in whatever direction the more assertive members of the group would take him. Now, finally, it seems to be Rick, who in absentia dominates The Endless River in the same way that Syd dominated the Piper era, Roger the Dark Side and Wall period and David the Lapse Of Reason and Division Bell. That’s fitting, too, as I have always felt that their unassuming keyboard player contributed far more to the group’s music than he was ever credited with.
If there’s a sense of riding off into the sunset with this album of enhanced outtakes from the sessions for 1994’s The Division Bell, then it’s a ride worth taking. There is a great deal of very lovely music on The Endless River, almost all of it instrumental with Wright’s keyboards the dominant instrument throughout. It’s unmistakeably Floydian too, with echoes in places of Dark Side Of The Moon and Wish You Were Here, their two greatest records, along with Gilmour’s signature echo-drenched guitar and Mason’s fat pudding drum sound. There’s even a few of those half-heard snippets of conversation, the significance of which lends weight to the album’s vaguely conceptual message that dialogue is a wiser path than confrontation.
The record is divided into four ‘sides’, each one offering seamless tracks, most of them quite short, that flow naturally together, and each side has a distinct mood. There’s a suggestion of ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’ in the second track of side one, ‘It’s What We Do’, the sound of which is indeed what PF do, those sustained guitar notes over a Rhodes electric piano and synthesiser washes, and understated cymbal-free drums held back until just the right moment. If this side, for my money the best of the four, showcases the haunting, mysterious Floyd, then the second offers up a livelier group, and Mason is given the second track, ‘Skins’, virtually to himself on which he rattles around his Rototoms with nothing much behind him bar a few angular guitar shreds. It’s here, on the opening ‘Sum’ that I detected a hint of ‘Time’ from DSOM, the same pulse; and in ‘Unsung’, the same song’s big chord; and, in the stirring melody of ‘Anisina’, a touch of ‘Us And Them’ as it sways gently into the clarinet and saxophones played by Gilad Atzmon.
Side three has no fewer than seven short pieces, the highlights of which are ‘Autumn ’68’ on which Wright gets to play the enormous pipe organ at the Royal Albert Hall, and sounds a bit churchy as a result, and the closing ‘Talkin’ Hawkin’’, which features the inimitable voice of physicist Stephen Hawking intoning: “Mankind’s greatest achievements have come about by talking.” This idea is carried over to side four which opens with three more instrumentals, the first recalling David Bowie’s more chilling excursions in this area, the second the theme from a Western and the third some ringing acoustic guitars with an electric over the top. Finally, there’s the only vocal track, ‘Louder Than Words’ with lyrics by Gilmour’s wife, the writer Polly Sampson. “We bitch and we fight,” sings David, hopefully not about his marital relationship but about the bitter hostilities that have undermined the Pink Floyd’s existence since Roger Waters abandoned the group after The Final Cut in 1982. However, ‘Louder Than Words’ is actually a lovely mid-paced ballad sung to perfection in Gilmour's now throaty voice and which, as you know it must, climaxes with a full-on soaring guitar solo that reaches for the heavens, only to topple away at its highest point and dissolve into an enigma with just a hint of those half-heard conversations.
It would be wrong, I think, to judge this album by the standards that Pink Floyd set in the past. It is, after all, offcuts, snatches of ideas that were abandoned, and by and large it is ambient music, floaty and ethereal, and lacking the full-throated splendour of the Floyd at the top of their game. There’s none of Barrett’s whimsy or Waters’ weary resignation, both of which were key elements of their best work. But there’s still plenty for fans to enjoy on Endless River, an echo of a glorious past and a fitting end to the career of this much loved and very English group.