If sentiment were the only measure of a lyric's worth, Roger Waters and David Gilmour would be on a nearly equal footing. Both address such issues as war, alienation, the need for open communication. Both paint large themes in broad strokes. But ultimately, a lyric's worth is in its literary quality--how well the words are put together. In this way, Roger Waters soundly trumps David Gilmour.
For the purposes of this essay, I will examine the best and worst lyrics of both. Of course, my choices are largely a matter of opinion, but I hope to make my case based on objective standards. I will ignore the musical value of these songs; I am concerned only with the lyrics. So: Waters' best lyric (for our purposes) is "Perfect Sense, part 1." (Actually, "Shine On, you Crazy Diamond" is a better lyric, but "Perfect Sense" is more useful for this essay.) His worst is "Radio Waves." Gilmour's best is... well, that's a hard one. His lyrics are, if anything, consistent. None of them stand out as awful, nor are any of them great. He turns a few excellent phrases, and more that are mediocre. But I have to make a choice. His best, as far as this essay is concerned, is "Sorrow." His worst is "Murder." Now, this illustrates that lyrics alone are the focus here, because "Murder" is one of my favorite songs from the Floyd panoply. I love the melody, the progression, the subject. But lyrically, it is one of Gilmour's weakest, for reasons I will explain.
Part of what makes a lyric good is its phrasing, meaning a good lyric sounds natural, and its words are well chosen. A good lyric uses no cliches, except ironically, and it uses sentence structure that is natural to the listener. Waters understands this. He wouldn't dream of mangling sentence structure for the sake of a rhyme. He is more likely to sacrifice the rhyme to save the meaning. Waters is a master of internal rhyme. Internal rhyme occurs within the lines, whereas terminal rhymes fall at the end of the lines. Waters also uses slant rhymes extensively. A slant rhyme is one that rhymes on the vowels or consonants, whereas an identical rhyme is just that: two words that sound alike. "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" is full of slant rhymes:
"Come on you raver, you seer of visions, come on you painter, you piper, you prisoner, and shine!"
In this verse, "visions" and"prisoner" are slant rhymes, as are "raver" and "painter," "piper" and "shine." Though I would be inclined to break this single line into two or four, the printed lyrics indicate that this is a single line, so these rhymes are also internal. In addition to the rhyme structure, Waters draws from Syd Barrett's life to make a real and cogent point about the subject of this song. Waters had to contrive nothing; he simply observed, with some poetic license. Barrett is a painter, and his first album with Floyd was "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn." He was arguably and demonstrably a raver and a seer of visions; he was a prisoner of his own psychosis. Waters hits the mark throughout this lyric.
However, on the same album, "Wish You Were Here," Waters makes a curious blunder. In the title track, he mixes metaphors:
"We're just two lost souls
swimming in a fishbowl
Year after year
Running over the same old ground..."
Which is it, running or swimming? Does he acknowledge this in "Perfect Sense, part 2" with "Both fish are running," or is this real military jargon? Probably jargon. In any case, Waters has earned our forgiveness for the mixed metaphor.
From "Perfect Sense, part 1":
"Time is linear
Memory is a stranger
History's for fools
Man is a tool in the hands
of the great God Almighty
And they gave him command
Of a nuclear submarine
And sent him back in search of
The Garden of Eden"
In this example, "linear," "memory" and "history" are internal slant rhymes, as are "man" and "hands." "Fools" and "tool" are internal identical rhymes. "Hands" and "command" are an identical terminal rhyme. Waters uses all forms freely, as needed, without compromising the narrative quality of the verse. The lyric flows to the end with the most subtle of rhymes: "command/back," (internal slant) "submarine/Eden." (terminal slant). In fact, Waters may not have even intended these as rhymes at all. They could very well be a happy coincidence; but this proves my point: good lyrics sound natural. (A strike against Waters in this lyric is his contraction of "history's" where he lets "memory is" remain uncontracted. This is a trivial point, and can be excused as a transcription error or an oversight. Certainly the enunciation of the song leaves room for doubt.)
Aside from the lyrical structure, the meaning of this song is intricate and accurate, within the album. "Time is linear/Memory is a stranger/History's for fools" illustrates the thoughts of the bamboozled monkey (submarine captain), who can't believe history repeats itself, that we have anything to learn from history. "Man is a tool in the hands/Of the great God Almighty" intimates the theme of "What God Wants" parts 1 through 3. Earlier, "The monkey sat on a pile of stones/And he stared at the broken bone in his hand." The pile of stones and the broken bone speak of the destruction of war. The monkey holds in his hand the product of his war, the broken bone of war's victims. Then the monkey "cleaned his hands in a pool of holy writing," figuratively washing his hands of the carnage he wrought from his nuclear submarine, by taking solace from scripture, that God is on our side.
Waters' poetry grabs us with the lines "When you add it all up/The tears and the marrow bone/There's an ounce of gold/And an ounce of pride in each ledger..." "The tears and the marrow bone" again symbolize the wages of war. The ounce of gold and the ounce of pride speak of the ultimate reasons for war: pride and profit. This line is echoed in "What God Wants, part 3," with "The monkey in the corner/Wrote the figures in his book." From beginning to end, Waters makes a poignant case for war's tragedy.
Compare Gilmour's lyrics from "Sorrow":
"The sweet smell of a great sorrow lies over the land
Plumes of smoke rise and merge into the leaden sky:
A man lies and dreams of green fields and rivers
But awakes to a morning with no reason for waking"
Here Gilmour uses consonantal alliteration, the repetition of stressed consonants: "sweet, smell, sorrow, smoke, sky." He uses internal slant and identical rhyme with "rise, sky, lies," and "dreams, green, reason," and "land, leaden." The narrative is natural, flowing, vivid. We know right away he's describing the aftermath of a war. Gilmour avoids his usual weakness for terminal identical rhyme and lets the subject guide the lyric. "Awakes... with no reason for waking" is powerful. Unfortunately, he bogs down in the next stanza, and uses almost no rhyme structure:
"He's haunted by the memory of a lost paradise
In his youth or a dream, he can't be precise
He's chained forever to a world that's departed
It's not enough, it's not enough"
The only rhyme is a terminal identical rhyme. Nothing wrong with that. And the last line breaks any promise of a rhyme structure, and that's good, too. It works. The sudden shift of metric structure in the last line accomplishes more than the rest of the stanza. But overall, the stanza is shapeless, held together solely by its broken meter and a single, obvious rhyme. It has the right number of syllables, and that's about all. "Haunted by a memory" is a cliche. Also, "lost paradise" has been a cliche since Milton wrote "Paradise Lost."
Gilmour goes on in the next stanza to more egregious lyrical failure:
"His blood has frozen and curdled with fright
His knees have trembled and given way in the night
His hand has weakened at the moment of truth
His step has faltered"
"Curdled blood" is a cliche, used without irony, solely as a space-filler, a rhyme-maker. "Trembling knees" is little better. "The moment of truth" is another cliche, and we have no clue how it relates to the rest of the lyric.
Gilmour manages to pull out of this trap, briefly, in the fourth stanza:
"He talks to the river of lost love and dedication..."
only to slip back to a confusing
"And silent replies that swirl invitation..." That troubling "And" mucks up this line; we don't know until the next line that he's changed subjects: "And silent replies..."
"Flow dark and troubled to an oily sea..."
Oh, I get it. But how does an invitation swirl? Gilmour's vagueness continues in the next stanza: "A grim intimation of what is to be." He would have done better to tell us what is to be, rather than make us guess.
"There's an unceasing wind that blows through the night
And there's dust in my eyes that blinds my sight
And silence that speaks so much louder than words
Of promises broken."
Gilmour uses the internal slant rhyme of "eyes, blind, sight, silence." He uses some alliteration, too, with "sight, silence, speak". That barely matters by this point. The meaning has been prostituted to the structure. Sight is what is usually blinded. At least it wasn't actions speaking so much louder than words, and the silence wasn't "deafening." Though deafness and blindness would... oh, never mind. This isn't "Tommy."
This stanza also fails in using the useless "there's." Is there? What image does "there's" conjur up? This word serves no purpose. Better to say "An unceasing wind blows..." And still, what does wind do, but blow? Gilmour would have done well to make the wind do something we don't already know, like "chill" or "scream," or anything but "blow."
Nevertheless, this lyric, in its whole, stands out as one of Gilmour's best. For what it's worth.
Gilmour does shine for a moment in "Yet Another Movie," with
"And still this ceaseless murmuring
This babbling that I brook..."
Wonderful! Clever! And yet this alone cannot make up for the disjointed, fragmentary lyric as a whole. Worse, he seems to regurgitate a cliche even Waters couldn't resist, with
"The seas of faces, eyes upraised..."
Waters, in "What Shall We Do Now?" mentions
And since I'm giving Waters the upper hand from the beginning, I can't overlook this.
I was tempted to name "Cruise" as Gilmour's best lyric. The song is packed with clever word play and puns on the Cruise missile and nuclear war, but "Sorrow" is still a better work.
OK. I said I'd discuss Waters' worst lyric, "Radio Waves." Actually, my indictment against Waters uses this song as a springboard, for it is but one of Roger's "list songs." I can't single it out, properly, without mentioning the songs like it Waters has inflicted on us since 1969, with "If." "When in doubt, make a list," Waters seems to think, and this list is worse than the rest. I had to decide whether "Radio Waves" or "What God Wants, part 1" was worse. Since "What God Wants" actually makes a point, I chose "Radio Waves." Here is a list of Roger's lists:
Did I miss any? Some songs, like "Dogs" contain lists, though the lyrics are not entirely lists. "Dogs" doesn't really belong here, except to show Waters' weakness for list-making, even in the wake of a great, complex lyric.
Even so, Waters manages to make interesting lists, full of internal and slant rhymes, using surprising words. I won't bother to analyze these lists here. But I do want to go on record as saying "QUIT MAKING LISTS, ROGER!"
Let me move on instead to Gilmour's worst. "Murder" is about John Lennon's assassination. It's a great song. I've already said that. But it also reveals Gilmour's greatest weakness--using unnatural phrasing to force a rhyme, and using terminal identical rhymes:
"Some of them standing, some were waiting in line
As if there were something that they thought they might find
Taking some strength from the feelings that always were shared
And in the background, the eyes that just stared."
Gilmour uses present and past tense in apposition in the first line: "standing," "were waiting." Not too bad, but unnecessary. And don't people stand when they wait in line? What's the difference? And what about the rest of them, who weren't standing or waiting in line? Compare Waters' "Outside the Wall":
"All alone, or in twos,
The ones who really love you
Walk up and down outside the wall
Some hand in hand,
Some gathering together in bands
The bleeding hearts and the artists
Make their stand
And when they've given you their all
Some stagger and fall--
after all, it's not easy
Banging your heart against some mad bugger's
"Walk up and down" isn't that great, either, but the rest of the lyric follows through. And we have a context. This vignette of a song uses stronger, more precise imagery. We know what these people are doing, and how they are doing it.
The second line of "Murder" is vague, it doesn't really mean anything. If Waters were forced to use these basic ideas, he would have used the active, rather than passive voice:
"As if they hoped to discover..."
For instance. That would have left a few syllables for more meaning. Waters probably would have taken a different tack altogether. My point is, this lyric is stuffed with weak words: "something," "there were," "thought," "might." Not bad words individually, but string them together, and you get a great nebulosity. "As if there were something that they thought they might find" Only one word does any work here: "find." And until they find it, we don't know what it is. "Outside the Wall" isn't too vigorous, either, but at least the words do some work.
Also in the first stanza of "Murder":
"Taking some strength from the feelings that always were shared
And in the background, the eyes that just stared."
We see Lennon's fans united by their hero's... lyrics. Ironic? OK. But how about leaving "some" strength out? "Strength" is stronger without having to share with "some." And who, in real life, would say "the feelings that always were shared?" This is unnatural phrasing. I offer no alternatives; I am not here to rewrite Gilmour's songs. And this one needs a lot of rewriting.
Continuing, the next stanza asks a series of unanswered questions. Usually that's a sign of weakness, but here, Gilmour captures the dismayed confusion over Lennon's senseless murder:
"What was it brought you out here in the dark?
Was it your only way of making your mark?
Did you get rid of all the voices in your head?
Do you now miss them, and the things that they said?"
That's not bad, but it could be better. The first line again uses unnatural phrasing, by omiting the pronoun "that." What was it THAT brought you..." Better still would be "What brought you here..." getting straight to the point, but Gilmour needs to make the meter fit. Waters wouldn't waste syllables for the sake of meter. And he would find a rhyme structure more interesting than "dark, mark, head, said." Not to mention "the things that they said." "Things?" How about "words?" That's not much better, but at least it's not "things."
"On your own admission you raised up the knife
And you brought it down, ending another man's life
When you were done you just threw down the blade
As the red blood spread wider, like the anger you made"
Again, not bad, but not great, either. We'll forgive Gilmour for almost Biblically replacing Chapman's gun with a knife. In fact, this is probably the strongest stanza in the song. We know blood is red, but OK. If only Gilmour could have maintained the strength of this stanza, I might not be singling it out. But he falls back on his forced meter, useless words and unnatural phrasing in the final stanza:
"I don't want this anger that's burning in me
It's something from which it's so hard to be free
But none of the tears that we cry in sorrow or rage
Can make any difference, or turn back the page"
"I can't escape my anger" could replace the first two lines, and it sounds more natural. No one wants anger. No one says "It's something from which..." unless they're trying to make the meter fit. The last two lines are serviceable. I won't find fault with them. I won't continue to nit-pick this otherwise excellent song.
Gilmour has wisely sought help with his lyrics since Waters left the band. Anthony Moore, of Slapp/Happy, wrote about 40% of the lyrics on "A Momentary Lapse of Reason," and makes a few appearances on "The Division Bell." In the latter, Gilmour's girlfriend-turned-wife, Polly Samson, co-wrote most of the lyrics. Even with all this help, Waters' absence is conspicuous. Without him, the band would be better named "Pink Fraud." Or "Pink Void." Or "Think we're Floyd". Whatever. With the Waters removed, Pink Floyd is dehydrated.