As one of the two post-Roger Waters albums Pink Floyd released, The Division Bell remains difficult to contextualize. Much had changed in the years since the first of these two albums, 1987’s A Momentary Lapse Of Reason. The legal wrangling that had kept keyboardist Richard Wright out of the band were over, however his exact place in the group was unclear and a point of contention. Gilmour was freshly remarried and recovering from his cocaine addiction, yet his struggles to produce new Floyd material without Waters remained. To assist in the songwriting process, the band recruited bassist Guy Pratt, former Floyd producer Bob Ezrin, and Gilmour’s new wife, Polly Sampson.
Sampson’s role would prove a major frustration for the Floyd camp. Originally, she had been involved merely as a form of encouragement and support for Gilmour, but that quickly evolved into a fully credited songwriting partner. Producer Ezrin in particular was irked, seeing Sampson as somewhat of a hanger-on and a potential hindrance to completing the album. “It wasn’t easy at first. It put a strain on the boys’ club and it was almost clichéd to have the new woman coming in and then get involved with the career.” More frustrating still was Wright’s skewed voting on which tracks would make the cut, perhaps a byproduct of his aggravation over his lack of full band membership. “It came very close to a point where I wasn’t going to do the album,” Wright would explain years later. “I didn’t feel what we agreed was fair.”
All of which makes the cohesiveness of The Division Bell all the more remarkable. Unlike its predecessor, the album has an overarching theme: the breakdown of communication between people, in many cases making thinly veiled references to former leader Roger Waters. On “A Great Day For Freedom,” Gilmour sings about “the day the wall came down,” an obvious allegory to both the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Waters dominated Floyd album, The Wall. Gilmour makes his feelings even clearer on “Poles Apart,” which celebrates early band member Syd Barrett (“you were always the golden boy then… you’d never lose that light in your eyes”) while painting a darker portrait of Waters (“it never bothered you anyway, leading the blind while I stared out the steel in your eyes”). Even the vaguer “Lost For Words” reads like a fuck you to Waters, “While you are wasting your time on your enemies engulfed in a fever of spite, beyond your tunnel vision reality fades like shadows into the night.” Waters isn’t the only target on The Division Bell. “What Do You Want From Me” shows Gilmour taking on his fans (“settle in your seat and dim the lights, do you want my blood, do you want my tears?”), and “Keep Talking,” which samples Stephen Hawking, addresses the invention of the spoken word. Regardless of the exact subjects and individuals being referenced, the concept of communication as a great but limited tool can be found at the heart of all the songs on album.
Last year’s remastering of The Division Bell was long overdue. Many contemporary reissues of analog recordings suffer from “iPod remastering,” i.e. pushing for a louder mix while sacrificing the sonic dynamics of the original tapes. Thankfully, that is not the case here. The reissue is intended to be heard on quality audio gear and the mix stays true to the original album. Much like the Beatles’ 2010 reissues, The Division Bell sounds great when heard on any platform. Granted, the album has flaws that no remaster can cover up, and it is not essential listening for those only interested in the ’70s glory years. That said, the album has aged well, and a complete telling of the Pink Floyd story cannot be told without it.