One of the many reasons I anticipated the invasion of Iraq so restlessly in 2003 was that I knew it would irritate Roger Waters enough to compel him to generate some new songs. By now, Waters fans are accustomed to his only being comfortable releasing new material one or two songs at a time, so here they are. The pros and cons of this approach are the same. We get to hear music that ordinarily might never find a home in an album. Some of Waters' most compelling songs are in this category--"Molly's Song," "Get Back to Radio," "Lost Boys Calling," and now, "Leaving Beirut." Then there's the chaff, which includes the overdone "Each Small Candle" from 2000's live album and the "A-side" of this single, "To Kill the Child." But at least we are spared the agony of anticipating another magnum opus that will never come. (I assume Waters' much-hyped opera Ca Ira sits on the same shelf as Guns n' Roses' Chinese Democracy.) Some gratitude is therefore due for this release, though it's ironic that while the lyrics address America in the second person, Americans seeking these tracks on CD must sacrifice twenty bucks for the Japanese import. Fortunately, the B-side is a twenty-dollar song.
"Leaving Beirut" is twelve minutes of mostly spoken-word narrative over a stark, plodding instrumental backdrop reminiscent of both "It's a Miracle" and the psychedelic bridge in "Dogs." It forms a compelling soundscape, and several refrains of sung verses keep it from becoming tiring over twelve minutes. The moment these parts kick in, it is apparent that there is a great song lurking somewhere here. Think back to the first time you heard the chorus of "Comfortably Numb," "Us and Them," "Brain Damage," or "Three Wishes," and you have an idea of how instantly captivating and utterly Floydian the melody of these verses is.
Unfortunately, the song is handicapped by the nauseatingly idiotarian lyrics. The song's thesis is that the allied campaign in Iraq is objectionable because a young, hitchhiking Waters once enjoyed the hospitality of a pitiful Lebanese couple. Follow that? And it's disappointing because in so many ways this is a regression for Waters. When he premiered "Each Small Candle" on the last night of his 1999 tour, he told the audience, "I had trouble making any sense out of the whole thing in Kosovo. I found myself not quite knowing what I thought about it all, which was a problem for me, because normally I do know what I think about things." The result of this reflection was a decent song (until Waters contaminated it with an incongruous power-ballad arrangement for the 2000 shows) that eschewed kneejerk antiwar histrionics to limn a moment of decency in which a Serbian soldier attended to an Albanian woman and child wounded in the crossfire. In 1999, Waters reflected on the episode, "In that image, I found some sense." "Leaving Beirut" instead offers Howard Dean-like tirades ("Oh George! That Texas education must have f___ed you up when you were very small"), sickening moral equivalence ("Terror is still terror, whosoever gets to frame the rules. . . . Now we are Genghis Khan, Lucretia Borghia, Son of Sam"), and the exalted peer pressure practiced by impotent European elites ("America, please hear us when we call. . . . Don't let the might, the Christian right, f___ it all up for you and the rest of the world").
All this soapbox bloviating makes it hard to give the song as many listenings as it deserves. Even if one agrees with the politics, how many times can one withstand the same stump speech? Hopefully the song contains enough substance to transcend it, the way one's opinion of the Falklands War is immaterial to appreciating The Final Cut. But I suspect the trite vitriol of some of the lyrics will always be an asterisk next to a song that could otherwise have been a masterpiece.
"To Kill the Child" has no such aspirations, nor could it. It starts harmlessly enough, then segues to the kind of throwaway, jaunty '80s-style pop that Waters hasn't stooped to since "Radio Waves." The second and third verses consist of a laundry-list recitation of stray images and phrases reminiscent of Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire." The song ends more interestingly and mildly rewards additional listenings, but if it wasn't a Roger Waters song, it never would have occurred to me to play it again. The message of the lyrics is no more imaginative than "Leaving Beirut"'s (war is bad because kids die, war is bad because it's all about oil), but in the context of the uninspiring, unmemorable music, that defect is rather less tragic here.