“Give any one species too much rope/and they’ll fuck it up” is the cheery sentiment on Roger Waters’ Amused to Death. Originally released in 1992, the concept album imagined a future where the human race is lulled into oblivion by watching too much TV. Now, with people able to carry around their own entertainment devices 24/7, it seems remarkably prophetic—and sad, given that Waters’ warnings about the dangers of letting society become increasingly dumbed down have been so blithely overlooked.
The album also works as a metaphor for the rise and fall of civilization, opening and closing to the organic sound of crickets; humanity rising from, and returning to, the swamp. And maybe, Waters informs us in his dry, acerbic tone, that’s all we deserve. There’s a withering contempt expressed throughout the album for a society that reduces the tragedy of war to simply another piece of entertainment; a number like “Perfect Sense, Part II,” in which an announcer describes an attack with the same unbridled enthusiasm as a sportscaster (a role played by Marv Albert, the real-life “voice of the New York Knicks”), is a natural stopping point in a lineage that goes as far back as the days of the gladiators and runs right up to the reality TV motif of The Hunger Games.
War and consumerism are Waters’ main targets. “The Bravery of Being Out of Range” was written in the wake of the first Gulf War (“Just love those laser guided bombs/There’s really great/for righting wrongs”), but is just as relevant in these days of drone attacks. The biting “It’s a Miracle” celebrates the global expansion that has allowed Pepsi to be found in Peru, and Big Macs on offer in Tibet (while spitefully lacerating the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber to boot).
The meticulously crafted music is bold and robust, with same panoramic sweep as The Wall, Waters’ magnum opus he created while with Pink Floyd. Jeff Beck solos on guitar throughout, while the vocal contributions of Don Henley and Rita Coolidge help to sweeten Waters’ stern—and bleak—worldview; how else to view a lyrical sequence of resignation like “And the Germans killed the Jews/And the Jews killed the Arabs/And Arabs killed the hostages/And that is the news”? The music rocks on, but there’s no hope of salvation. “God wants a good laugh,” we’re told. But in Amused to Death, the joke’s on us.