There’s no dark shrinkwrap on the new Immersion Box Set of Pink Floyd’s 1975 Wish You Were Here, the album that followed the landmark Dark Side of the Moon. The original LP pressing of the album, of course, was wrapped and adorned with a “four elements” sticker, obscuring the photograph that gives the album its cover. The 3-CD/1-DVD/1-BD Immersion edition (EMI 50999 029435 2, 2011) is not only “naked,” but offers a different, equally striking cover photograph (with the faceless salesman of the original back cover), and even more surprisingly, proffers a sense of humor on first glance. Above the album’s title is the simple banner “Ceci n’est pas une boite.” For those not versed in French, the translation is “This is not a box.” It’s a play on the works of painter Rene Magritte, who dabbled in impressionism and frequently blurred the lines between reality and illusion. Magritte’s works pointed out that no matter how closely we may come to depicting an object accurately, we never do capture the item itself. So it’s appropriate that Wish You Were Here is unwrapped in more detail than ever before across the riches in this box set, but still as opaque and mysterious as ever.
Like Dark Side of the Moon, the album which preceded Wish You Were Here both in Pink Floyd’s catalogue and this series of remasters, the weighty Immersion box set is certainly not a triumph of restraint, but perhaps is one of excess. (You'll find our Dark Side review here!) The set of nine Pink Floyd coasters is back – is anyone actually going to unwrap these and set a beer down on one? There’s another scarf for the fashion-inclined. And there are those damn glass marbles and accompanying pouch! More interesting are the three booklets (one the main attraction, plus one of photographs and one of credits), two envelopes filled with “collectors’ cards” and memorabilia replicas, and an art print. Everything’s been designed by the band’s longtime associate Storm Thorgerson and his StormStudios, so it looks expectedly good. There are small but crucial improvements on the design of the DSOTM box set (more on those later). But ultimately all of these components take a back seat to the music, or the Wish You Were Here album.
Like DSOTM, Wish You Were Here has a strong thematic spine that might account for its longevity after all of these years. It’s, perhaps by design, a less distant, more emotional album than that landmark song cycle. Hovering over the entirety of Wish You Were Here is the specter of founding Pink Floyd member Syd Barrett, whose personal demons forced him to depart the band in 1968. Though now sadly departed, Barrett was very much alive in 1975 and his return to the studio during the album’s making has become the unfortunate stuff of legend. The sole credited lyricist of the album’s songs, Roger Waters, has been ambivalent about Barrett’s influence on the album. Of the album’s nine-part epic “Shine On, You Crazy Diamond,” Waters once said, “It was very strange. The lyrics were written, and the lyrics are the bit of the song about Syd, the rest of it could be about anything, I don't why I started writing those lyrics about Syd... but it was a long time before the 'Wish You Were Here' recording sessions when Syd's state could be seen as being symbolic of the general state of the group: very fragmented.” Yet, consciously or otherwise, Barrett’s spirit and story are palpable as Wish You Were Here addresses the theme of absence from various angles.
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“Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” the most overt tribute to Barrett, encapsulates Pink Floyd’s musical ethos over its roughly twenty-six minutes (Parts I-V form the album’s first track, while Parts VI-IX compose its closing statement): the languid soundscapes, the searing guitars, the anthemic choruses. The song, with music by Richard Wright, David Gilmour and Roger Waters and lyrics by Water, is tinged with regret, yes, but also with an admiring, encouraging quality: “Remember when you were young, you shone like the sun/Shine on you crazy diamond…Now there’s a look in your eyes like black holes in the sky/Shine on, you crazy diamond…Come on, you stranger, you legend, you martyr/And shine.” That contrast, and the blunt, powerful language, remain as visceral today as in 1975. The Barrett connection is made explicit when the primary architect of Pink Floyd’s debut, 1967’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, is referenced: “you piper, you prisoner.” Dick Parry supplies a wistful, elegiac saxophone, which trails off in an ominous rumble against the rippling lead guitar of Gilmour. However lengthy and sprawling the composition, the arrangement is tight and the message is succinct.
The music business is targeted in “Welcome to the Machine” and “Have a Cigar.” In the former song, the showbiz machine seems to eat the protagonist alive, quashing a once-indomitable spirit in a harsh musical drone: “You bought a guitar to punish your ma/And you didn’t like school/And you know you’re nobody’s fool/So welcome to the machine.” The thread continues to “Have a Cigar.” The unfamiliar voice of Roy Harper, singing the lead vocal, adds to the drama of the very theatrical song, which offers a brief glimpse of Waters’ sly humor when the record executive in the song asks, “By the way, which one’s Pink?” Gilmour’s guitar is bluesy, funky and blistering.
The title song is one of the loveliest melodies ever written by Gilmour or Waters, individually or collectively, with Gilmour’s lead vocal conveying the angst of Waters’ lyric, cryptic yet direct in its emotion: “Did you exchange a walk-on part in the war/For a lead role in a cage?” Richard Wright’s piano adds subtle accents and Nick Mason’s drums hold everything together. Gilmour shows off yet another side of his guitar, with the warm, folk-styled accompaniment. Waters' lyrics, again, drive home the theme of absence that runs through the album.
Arguably the single most significant pleasure of the Immersion Box Set is hearing Wish You Were Here in surround sound. There are two surround options, a 2009 mix in 5.1, and the original 4.0 channel quadraphonic mix. The box set includes a DVD with the 5.1 and 4.0 versions in both 448 kbps and 640 kbps quality; the original 2.0 stereo mix in LPCM stereo. The Blu-Ray includes all three mixes in full, superior 96 kHz/24-bit sound. (Alas, the audio DVD’s mixes are not in true advanced resolution but rather inferior Dolby Digital.) Although the Blu-Ray is the ideal way to hear these tracks, the DVD still sounds thrilling.
The quadraphonic mix is a very welcome inclusion, though it’s staid compared to the revelation of James Guthrie’s 5.1 mix (and it also sounds as if it was mastered more quietly). Those who enjoy surround sound most when it emphasizes discretely-placed effects won’t be disappointed in this spectacular 5.1 version, with many nuances gaining detail, and coming to vivid life.
The dramatic panning of the “Welcome to the Machine” effects will excite those looking for intense surround movement. Gilmour’s guitar arpeggios “travel,” first to the left and then to the right. Waters’ bass also flies from channel to channel, lending the kind of true immersion that the box set promises and only surround sound can offer. The crowd sounds at the end of “Machine” are similarly intensified. And you’ll savor the dialogue and radio sampling as the title song begins, and when the central guitar enters up front in the soundscape, it’s an amazingly powerful, crisp effect. The wind of “Shine On, You Crazy Diamond (Parts VI-IX)” completely envelops the listener in 5.1. Yet none of these effects are gimmicky but rather feel quite natural.
Unlike in many 5.1 remixes, it’s easy to appreciate the artful integration of the center channel in the 5.1 mix after comparing it to the quadraphonic treatment. More surprising, though, is how well-crafted the original stereo mix is. It also has prominent separation of instruments, sometimes only utilizing a single channel at a time for a definite spatial sense. The original album mix, of course, has been remastered as the box set’s first disc (and is also available separately as part of the Discovery campaign) but sounds even better on the DVD in LPCM Stereo and the Blu-Ray in 96/24 resolution. (Finally, the 5.1 and stereo mixes are available in high resolution on a stand-alone SACD, as well.)
A six-track CD of unreleased audio tracks appears both on the Immersion box and the 2-CD Experience edition. Both here and on DSOTM, there’s a palpable sense of relief that the quality of the unreleased tracks has been uniformly high; after all, the band long resisted opportunities to open its vaults. It’s hard not to be spellbound by the alternate version of “Wish You Were Here” featuring the legendary jazz artist Stephane Grappelli on violin. Though the great Grappelli’s tone is recognizable, it doesn’t detract from the song; far from it. Grappelli subtly integrates his instrument for a texture that’s as otherworldly and ethereal as the song itself. This is the track, folks, that’s worth the price of admission!
Three tracks originate from the band’s stand at Wembley in 1974. During their 1974 tour, Pink Floyd played three new songs in the first half of the shows, as an appetizer for the full-length performance of Dark Side of the Moon. Those three new songs were "Shine On, You Crazy Diamond,” and two that were discarded for WYWH but resurfaced in different form, on 1977’s Animals: "You Gotta Be Crazy" (which would later become "Dogs") and "Raving and Drooling" (which would later become "Sheep"). All three songs appear here. (The DSOTM component of the Wembley gigs was included on that album’s Immersion and Experience editions.) DSOTM offered a track from the band’s unreleased Household Objects project, “The Hard Way.” The songs on the album were actually played with household objects, but despite the novelty (or maybe because of it?) the concept was dropped. It’s joined here by Household Objects' brief, funereal “Wine Glasses.” The sixth song on the disc is an alternate version of “Have a Cigar” with Waters’ own lead vocal instead of Harper’s.
In addition to the audio DVD, there’s a DVD of film content, too. (Like the content of the audio DVD, the video DVD’s contents are also repeated on the Blu-Ray in upgraded quality.) Storm Thorgerson contributes a 6-minute short film (originally from 2000) with images and music related to Wish You Were Here. Thorgerson even incorporates the famous DSOTM art elements in his trippy film. In the same vein are three “Concert Screen Films” circa 1975 set to “Welcome to the Machine” and two versions of “Shine On, You Crazy Diamond.” All of these are playable on the DVD in LPCM Stereo or Dolby Digital 5.1 surround. Even the video menus are well-designed, utilizing the WYWH elements artwork. Still, this disc is frustratingly brief.
Whether in video form or in the enclosed booklets, it’s possible that you’ll be swept away by Thorgerson’s artwork designed for the album and this reissue campaign. In the main book, in addition to lyrics, you’ll find numerous full-page reproductions of the artwork conceived for the album, including the “burning man,” the “veil” and the “desert man” plus a discarded “mirror image” playing on the theme of absence that is so central to the album. It’s a strong case for just how integral Thorgerson’s contributions are to the Pink Floyd legacy; his photographs are striking and still provocative. The artist/designer recounts his process of translating Waters’ lyrical themes to visual form in a one-page essay, a highlight of the book. The decision to include a historical essay in the Wish You Were Here Immersion box is also to be applauded. Though short, Mark Blake’s two-page piece offers the kinds of recollections and insights that add to the overall listening experience.
In addition to the inclusion of an essay, another major improvement over the DSOTM box is that all five discs have individual sleeves to protect the CDs. Never mind that the box itself is the same style as DSOTM, so there are still slots and spindles for the discs at its bottom, and no storage tabs or slots for the loose sleeves; but at least the discs themselves are protected this time around. But for a box as artfully designed at this one, the fact that there is no dedicated space for the actual music is a bit mind-boggling; they fly around the box as freely as the marbles! (And speaking of artful design: the marbles, this time around, are clear, or absent of any artwork. Hmmm...)
Each listener approaches a reissue with a different prerogative. One may wish to revisit an old friend, one may be discovering an album for the first time. Some might be most interested in upgraded sound, others in bonus material, still others in the bells and whistles. However you approach Wish You Were Here, you should be rewarded: by Richard Wright’s shimmering, textured keyboard parts, by Gilmour’s stunning guitar solos, more prominent here than on DSOTM, by Roger Waters’ lyrics and thunderous bass, by Nick Mason’s flawless drums. Pink Floyd’s ode to a lost soul, in absentia – a farewell to someone who was gone, but wasn’t – still resonates.