Times of crisis always call into question the role of art in society, and its efficacy in representing in a meaningful way the struggles of bodies of people in different places and times. America in 2012 faces a crisis; material resources are scarce, and the younger generation faces a certain kind of extinction if it cannot attach itself to older, materially established generations. In the corpus of rock music which has been produced, what speaks to this kind of crisis? Pink Floyd's 1973 album The Dark Side of the Moon is interesting not only because it does speak to this crisis, but because it speaks back, in a nuanced way, to every form of human crisis. Roger Waters' lyrical approach is unique- never before or since has a rock lyricist so directly engaged the big themes which preoccupy humanity. Songs like "Time," "Money," and "Us and Them" do not, as Ray Davies or Bruce Springsteen would, use characters we are meant to identify with to make their points; rather, they assume our complicity in a kind of discussion, speaking to us by identifying with our concerns- an implied first person ("I") speaking to a second or third-person plural. Waters appears to wish to speak more broadly than Davies or Springsteen do. Of the three songs mentioned, "Us and Them" is the sharpest in taking a human essence and transmitting it. More than most great rock songs, it's the story of all of our lives, specifically because no one rises above being grouped (one way or another) against other people, unfairly and arbitrarily.
"Us and Them" is a series of vignettes illustrating this principle- a front-rank of soldiers die, while generals sit comfortably plotting their armies' next moves (and for whom the dying soldiers are just lines on a map); governments configure themselves while populations die hopelessly beneath them; suffering people ignore each other on the street and expire alone. "Us and Them" begins with the premise of war and moves out in these directions- soldiers are "ordinary men" who would not choose (necessarily) to fight. Ray Davies' "Some Mother's Son," from Arthur, begins from a similar premise but doesn't broaden out. What's most relevant about "Us and Them" in 2012 is that it does broaden out, because "Us and Them" situations in America are so relevant, as the gulf widens past the point of no return between rich and poor, the haves and have-nots, the young and the aged. In debilitating times, it stands to reason that rock fans would want to hear serious rock music which expresses material realities spiritually and directly. Musically, Dark Side of the Moon forms a hinge between the lyrical gravitas of Roger Waters and the agile, graceful musicality of Rick Wright, with David Gilmour "playing both sides," providing a voice. Later albums, like Waters' magnum opus The Wall, degenerated into musical vulgarity without Wright's influence; likewise, the period in Pink Floyd's development dominated by Wright (Ummagumma, Meddle, etc) suffered from a lack of lyrical gravitas. Unlike the albums which preceded it, Dark Side is a collection of concise pop songs, and Pink Floyd went out of their way to make the album cohesive.
The basic gist is this- here, arrayed, are the forces which could drive a human being to the brink of madness- Time, Money, etc. The snatches of conversation woven into the album feature people discussing their bouts with madness (or, in what could be taken as a colloquialism, the dark side of the moon)- sound collages like "On the Run" take this a step further, exteriorizing the sound of dementia. Briefly, Pink Floyd found a way to mix musical and lyrical avant-gardism- the result was a phenomenal commercial success. If Dark Side is more relevant than the Wall in 2012, it's because the musical dimension of Dark Side is palliative. It also needs to be said that what "Us and Them" accomplishes lyrically is the same thing The Wall accomplishes in its entirety, and with Wright and Gilmour's musicality working for it. Dark Side even goes so far (uniquely, in the Floyd canon) as to employ saxophones, which add an edge of the urban, and widened the appeal of the album. It's a complete package. It also, to discerning minds, made punk bands like the Clash (who had similar lyrical intentions) look instantly immature. If the punks liked to claim that Pink Floyd were boring, the Floyd could rightfully answer back that the punks were spiritual and musical children. Pink Floyd were never rabble-rousers- their music was (and is) for adults. Because few "haute" artists in the late twentieth century were addressing the big themes, once again rock music produced something which trumped haute culture. Pink Floyd were ambitious and serious enough to blur the lines between high and low culture- Dark Side is a site where this "blur" is successfully negotiated. What people want from artists in times of crisis is a gloss on the big themes- in the rock canon, no album accomplishes this with more authority than Dark Side of the Moon.