Very Smooth Sailing
As a solo album by a member of a band that hasn’t released new material in 12 years, On an Island has been stunningly successful. It topped the charts in Gilmour’s native England, made the American Top 10 on first-week sales of nearly 100,000, and has made a similar impact throughout Europe. You can put this down to both the timeless popularity of parts of the Pink Floyd catalog, and the still-reverberating buzz generated by the reunion of the original Floyd lineup at Live 8 in 2005. Sensing that Floyd is a done deal, the fans want something, anything new to grasp, and they’ve said as much in “user reviews” for On an Island. Is the record any more than that, a stand-in for a grand Floyd Comeback Album and Tour?
To be fair, On an Island sounds exactly like an album by a 60-year-old, semi-retried, Upper Class British multimillionaire guitar legend, recorded with his famous friends—and the wife—on his floating houseboat studio anchored on the River Thames. It’s laid back beyond measure, sparse, leisurely, unforced—that last trait arguably missing from the pair of Gilmour-led Floyd albums. Whether all this results in Gilmour’s most personal, genuine musical statement or a resounding bore is a matter of perspective and personal taste.
Gilmour was a huge part of the expansive Pink Floyd sound, so it’s inevitable that On an Island is going to sound like a Floyd record to some extent. Nothing if not calculating, Gilmour has embraced this fact, working with Dark Side of the Moon engineer Chris Thomas (who co-produced along with Gilmour and Roxy Music’s Phil Manzanera, a neighbor) and Floyd’s other musical lynchpin, keyboardist Rick Wright, not to mention Roger Waters’s musical replacement, bassist Guy Pratt. Sure enough, the sparse, sunrise-like instrumental “Castellorizon” could be the opener from any of several Floyd albums. Then the title track floats by on Wright’s sustained Hammond chords, bearing some mean-sounding guitar jabs from Gilmour and ex-Roxy drummer Andy Newmark’s best Nick Mason impression, and you’re thinking this is the kind of breezy, wistful, midtempo sound-pillow found on much of Floyd’s Meddle.
Gilmour’s time-defying voice only adds to that impression. His carefully-mannered, high-pitched singing is still the essence of hard-won calm; the guy could sing a credit card statement and make it sound beguiling. But there’s a sense of relaxation, intimacy and closeness that’s unique to this album. Even Gilmour’s solos, while as sharp and perfectly pitched as ever, seem to ripple along with the backing tracks more than break against them.
On an Island provides all the placid reflection and prettiness its title implies. The problem, or what may be heard as such, is that by its end, Gilmour’s all but fallen asleep in his chaise lounge. “Take a Breath” is a passable straight-ahead rocker, and “This Heaven” a nice blues stomper. After the wonderful acoustic ballad “Smile”, however, the last couple tracks are so near-ambient and slow they’re barely there.
Tempos throughout the album range from lax to nonexistent, with most everything creeping over the five-minute mark. That’s not bad in itself; thank Heaven Gilmour didn’t decide to “rawk”; but it does put more focus on the lyrics. They’re not bad, either, at least not the ones written or co-written with said wife. The general theme is midlife contentedness with an underlying vein of agnosticism. Gilmour’s admitted he’s not much of a lyricist, a notion confirmed by solo composition “Where We Start”, basically high school love poetry without the lust.
On an Island finds Gilmour taking absolutely no risks, has nothing to pull out of its hat. Maybe that’s the point—that Gimour’s earned the right. Those looking for more than a placid day on the Thames will have to look elsewhere.