Pink Floyd is one of my favorite groups of all-time. Their evolution from underground, prog-rock four piece to worldwide rock phenomena is nothing short of incredible, and their prolific writing over a nearly 50 year career means that their is no shortage of great music for fans of all eras.
Perhaps most importantly, Floyd has at least three albums, namely The Dark Side of the Moon, The Wall, and Animals, which are on the short list for greatest rock album of all time. The band’s run in the 1970’s, when each of these three where released, is simply breathtaking and it’s a run that will likely never be matched.
All that being said, there is one Pink Floyd album which, though often considered a part of their top tier and despite falling squarely in the center of their 70’s run, has never seemed to impress me as much as other works.
1975’s Wish You Were Here is a follow up to the break out success of Dark Side just two years prior. The ninth studio album from Floyd, it was the first time the band had taken much more than a year between releases, thanks to a much busier touring schedule. The record is entirely different from the rest of their catalog and was an especially radical departure from the fuller, more psychedelic sound on which they’d cut their teeth. It had always struck me as an enjoyable, albeit lacking, album from a band with much better works to offer, and as such, it was one of the last LP’s to be added to my now completed Pink Floyd vinyl collection.
Finally having the physical copy in my hand, however, I began to gain a new appreciation for the record. The artwork, while every bit as iconic as any other Pink Floyd album, is also entirely different. While other Floyd covers are psychedelic and thematic, Wish You Were Here is, first of all, encased in a large, whit box, which means that the cover photo doesn’t even take up the full space of the record. It’s also a real photo, not a drawing or other design, which also leaves the album feeling distinctly less magical than other releases. On each surface is a simple image, encased in a white box, and depicting only one point of focus.
This grounded simplicity is apparent in the music as well. Where the majority of the group’s catalog utilizes massive instrument pallets and explosive swells of sound, Wish You Were Here’s instrumentation is far more simple. Most tracks, especially the bookending epic, “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” feature a looping melody with a single featuring instrument or vocal on lead.
It was this change that first lead to my distaste for the project. I’d fallen in love with the warmth and lusciousness of the band’s sound. Albums like Dark Side and even later releases like The Division Bell felt like I was swimming in a gorgeous, psychedelic soundscape, each wave of sound more powerful than the last and each low point only a pitstop before another build. Wish You Were Here simply doesn’t give you that. Instead, the album is cold. It’s distant. It has a much stronger jazz influence and it’s smoothness often feels alienating. But it’s this simplicity and focus that makes it such an important album.
Wish You Were Here is a contemplation, as with any Floyd album. But where Dark Side contemplates life and The Wall contemplates relationships, topics at least some room for warmth, Wish You Were Here sets its sights on fame, particularly through the lens of of their previous front man, Syd Barrett, a man who’d been all but destroyed by fame.
It’s within this context that we understand the choice of cold focus over indulgent fullness, of abrasive synths over expansive organs, and of clean acoustic guitars over Gilmour’s iconic, sprawling electric. The album is distant and uncaring because fame is too. Of course, it remains enjoyable, as is fame, but Floyd has perfectly captured the sense of biting callousness that so often accompanies success.
In the end, the album should be viewed not as the second release during Floyd’s 1970’s run at the very top, nor as a follow up to one of the greatest albums of all time in The Dark Side of the Moon, but as both a representation of the bleak realities of success and a skewering of the very idea of fame. Wish You Were Here is a bitter and abrasive piece that may not fit squarely into Pink Floyd’s discography, but must still be recognized as an incredible project from one of the greatest rock bands of all time.