Review Summary: In my opinion this album is undeniably a classic from its first, quiet tenuous moments all the way through to its glorious, cathartic finish, and it is not only irreplaceable in the history of my musical development, but also in the very history of music
While Wish You Were Here
is nowhere near as grandly ambitious as their take on the then-new rock opera form presented in The Wall
, nor as commercially successful or widely known as their breakout success Dark Side of the Moon
, I feel as though this album is their greatest masterpiece. A true magnum opus in only five tracks, this album explored the frontiers of ‘70s progressive rock, while still tackling painfully personal topics for the band. The seminal bookending split-track of ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’ and the song ‘Wish You Were Here’ were both dedicated to the band’s former front man, Syd Barrett, whose descent into drug-addled madness caused his ejection from the band, yet also provided for the eventual focusing of the band’s sound in the direction which brought them fortune and success.
Following their amazingly widespread popular and critical recognition over Dark Side of the Moon
, Pink Floyd chose to dedicate their next album, this one, to the humbling task of eulogizing the memory of the one whom they had lost, expressing through simple but emotionally evocative lyrics the pain the band felt at their inability to have him there with them in the time of their ascendancy in the musical world. The instrumentation is superb, with impeccable use of horns, saxophone, slide-guitar and a nebulous, but complex space rock sound on ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond,’ yet mastering even the simplicity of the acoustic guitar on ‘Wish You Were Here’ with its movingly simple chords and wrenching lyrics.
The album's first track, 'Shine On You Crazy Diamond' opens slowly, using synthesizers to project the image in the mind's eye of something like the sun cresting over the hills, using soft and mellifluous sounds to ease the listener in. It is the sound of what one would expect from a Pink Floyd album, the sounds of a band best experienced with headphones on, eyes closed, lights off, and lying motionless on a bed, letting the ears and the mind be the only guides along this musical journey they have laid out for you, the listener, the only one in the room, the only one in the world at that moment. And the listener is unsurprised when they hear the chords of an equally soothing guitar solo, which seems to undulate ever so easily and serenely, the reverb presenting nothing really surprising in this Pink Floyd sound. But, then, out of nowhere comes a tinny, almost harsh four note progression, insistent in its repetition, clanging like an iron bell over those undulating hills over which you have just watched the sun calmly rise, and a steady thumping of drums rushes in and the track simply explodes with sound. Blues-inspired guitar twiddles about in a distinctly un-calm manner; the drums burst through unannounced aside from the persistent light tapping on the hi-hat; the synth comes in, far less sedate this time around; and in the back of it all remains that four note progression. It is the progression which brought the song into its own, opened it to full bloom, and while it eventually fades away into the background then ceases entirely as the other instruments take the spotlight, and the singing comes in with its shining, multi-faceted imagery, that simple catalytic note progression was undoubtedly there, and the listener, and the song itself will not forget it. Getting any sense of parallels here? Then let me lay it out for you: that four note progression is sometimes called "Syd's Theme." Simple as the song is in its instrumental and lyrical methaphors, it is insanely effective, and by the time the two saxophones come in for their solos near track's end, the listener has bought into the basic premise of the song, and the album as a whole, with not only interest but alacrity.
Following the opening track, the album explores the machinations of the music industry with two eccentric, slightly out-of-place, but overall pleasurable tracks. They help to speak, if a bit obliquely, on the topic of the band's issues with artistic direction, the demands placed upon them by record labels and even fans, and the affect these things have had on the band, its potential for success, and the cohesion of its members. ‘Welcome to the Machine’ showcases the manner in which the industry depersonalizes the individual, transforming them from inventive youths to fame-and-fortune obsessed figureheads, using mechanic synthesizer sounds and muscular electric guitar, alongside the robotic singing (distorted through microphone dissonance), to set the mood of the industrial production line of goods manufacture, rather than art creation, that the band clearly feels the industry has come to embody. ‘Have a Cigar’ is a quirkier track, connecting the impersonality of the music industry to the band specifically, through the story of a fictional, sycophantic music producer who seeks to jump on the Pink Floyd band wagon after their success with Dark Side of the Moon
, impertinently including himself in the “we” of the band in his statements, and at one point showcasing his complete cognitive dissonance when he asks, “And by the way, which one is Pink?” The track uses a particularly attractive coupling of guitar and bass riffs to pull the listener into the song from its start, like the producer pulling the band into his office with an implacable charm, but increases in texture with keyboards and a smattering of synth thrown in, before moving into a rather exuberant showcasing of its quite odd choice for lead singer (not even a member of the band), to fully hammer home the concept of the strange, glad-handing empty suit who is the song's primary focus.
But then the album takes a slow but dramatic shift back to the crucial theme of this record as a whole, with the seminal acoustic track ‘Wish You Were Here.’ The song begins with the sounds of a radio being tuned from one station to the next, a person searching for just the proper sentiment across the airwaves, yet all the stations are heard as if through a velvet fog, which dampens the sound to a dull, malaise-inducing timbre. Yet the radio eventually settles on the simple, endearing acoustics that comprise this song’s basic chords, and it is brought into auditory "focus," if you will, the quality of the sound increasing a thousandfold, developing into a warm, resonant, yet mournful chord progression, and finally the beauteous lyrics come sweeping in like a cool breeze, yet with images that weep of longing. Then, suddenly it’s ending, almost too soon to accept, as it leaves the listener with one of the most powerfully moving series of lyrics in all of music, lyrics which help to redefine the poignancy of the post-Barrett music of Pink Floyd, and the complexity of the band's message: “We’re just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl, year after year / Running over the same old ground – what have we found? The same old fears. / Wish you were here.”
And after that ballad of unequaled emotion, the listener finds themselves being borne upon the sound of the wind at track’s end, and urged on to sweep through the second half of ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’ which becomes a roller coaster ride to the album’s end, with multiple bass guitars, ranging synthesizer work, almost innumerable rhythm guitars, and a complex steel guitar solo. Yet, in its final moments the song shifts from the varying, untraditional time signatures of the rest of the grandiose undertaking that are the first eight parts of ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond,’ and shifts its ninth with a marching 4/4 time. It is funereal in its slowness, yet possessing of an odd, unplaceable feeling of sunny resplendence, with simple drum parts, dainty keyboard, and a subtle sampling from ‘See Emily Play’ (an early-era Pink Floyd song, written by Syd Barrett, of course after another of his hallucinatory drug trips), thus completing the eulogistic effect of the album as it shines out its final musical moments, like a sun beaming down upon the listener. Truly, this album runs the gamut of instrumental and lyrical complexity, and very simply embodies all that Pink Floyd was as a band, in a mere forty-four minutes.