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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

I ring in 2022 with "Comfortably Numb," of all songs

Why? It just kind of happened once, and I've kept it up since... but I try to read into it anyway.


Happy New Year, everyone! I hope your 2022 is off to a peaceful and healthy start.


Like all celebrations, the New Year is marked by various musical endeavors. From the New Year's Eve concerts, to the playing of "Imagine" before the ball drop in Times Square (ugh), to "Auld Lang Syne" and "New York, New York," to the marching bands at the Rose Bowl, many sonic traditions have emerged and become popular. However, as I stated at the end of yesterday's post, I personally have an out-of-the-box pick for my New Year's music, one which I'm sharing with you all now.


For the past few years, I've started my year by listening to Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb." I did it on a whim once, and I felt its sound fit the occasion, so I did so again the following year, and since then it's been a personal tradition. Before writing this article I never really thought about how or why it's an apt selection in my eyes (or ears), so I figured I'd do a bit of self-examination as I musically kick off 2022.

I've always found "Comfortably Numb" to have an otherworldly aura around it, and I find that to be no shock considering its point in the narrative of The Wall (1979). The nineteenth track overall and the end of the third side, "Comfortably Numb" depicts jaded and reclusive rock star Pink being injected with drugs in order to snap him out of an unresponsive state and be able to perform. The rising guitar sound as the song's outset make me feel like I'm being transported into Pink's mind as he becomes conscious once more, but continues to hallucinate. From there, Roger Waters speak-sings as the doctor attempting to treat Pink and "ease [his] pain" to get him ready to perform. Behind him, Nick Mason continues his steady drumming while various instruments from the New York Philharmonic — particularly French horn and trombone — mingle with and at times asserts themselves over Mason, Waters (who is also playing bass), and guitarist David Gilmour.


At the chorus' arrival, a repeating string pattern propels the song forward as Gilmour takes over on vocals, as a voice in Pink's head amidst his hallucinations and being treated: "There is no pain, you are receding / A distant ship's smoke on the horizon." The switch in key from B minor to the relative major of D and the accompanying, lightening instrumental changes match and augment the shift in lyrical perspective. The feeling of becoming "comfortably numb" at the chorus' conclusion strikes me as both a physical and emotional numbness. Pink is physically numb between his medical state and his new injections once they are administered in the second verse, but he is also emotionally numb based on the arc of the album; his wall is far from being torn down, but he's less in pain than he was before and is now unfeeling, blissfully so in the moment as captured by Gilmour's first "light" guitar solo.


The song's form repeats for a second verse — in which Pink is injected with the drugs and is then told "it's time to go" and perform — and a second chorus with some altered lyrics as he thinks back to a moment from his childhood. Especially in this New Year's listening, I think of the "fleeting glimpse" he caught "out of the corner of [his] eye" as a brief peek into his future, but the fact that "the child is grown, the dream is gone" suggests that this future is now the present, and that he ultimately controls his own fate even as he's hardly aware of his surroundings. This arrival of the future in the final unique lyric is a culmination of a narrative that has meandered its way into looking ahead, despite never really being aware of what's going on.


From my perspective as I confront the New Year from my bedroom, I have a persistent thought that the haze and titular numbness that surrounds "Comfortably Numb" matches the feeling of those reveling in the changing of a calendar at whatever function they may be attending. They enjoy the moment as they see the various fireworks and hear the music, and for that short while, ignorance is bliss; they're carefree and comfortable.


Then, Gilmour's second solo arrives. The "dark" solo of the two, I consider it to be the greatest guitar solo of all time. It has a very forward blues flavor in its note selection and bends, and as Gilmour continues his playing the sound becomes grittier and more intense. This wailing intensity matches its place in the song and the album narrative, as Pink's hallucinations begin to twist his mind in ugly ways that manifest as The Wall's fourth and final side takes shape.


As I listen the solo shortly after the stroke of midnight, though, I don't really think of it in such a narrative manner. I simply enjoy it for all it's musically worth, as I take in the sights and sounds of others' New Year celebrations. That isn't a very academic or sophistic way to think of music, but I can't deny that's how I experience it as I look out my window at the various (unlicensed) firework displays around the area. In its simultaneous beauty and energy, the "dark" solo represents a temporary peak, one which in its duration represents a swelling of emotions and activity. If I do feel anything non-musical as it plays, I feel connected with my friends and family who are beginning their 2022 elsewhere. Once the track is done playing if not during it, I hope for their health, safety, and prosperity even more than I usually do.


In the moment of transition that is the beginning of a new year, I turn to "Comfortably Numb" in part because of the feeling its lyrics describe, but even more so because I love how it sounds and hear it as fitting the occasion. In combining the prescribed lyrical perspective with my own, I appreciate the track for everything it has to offer on multiple levels. I could keep talking about it, but it's probably best after 6000 characters for me to publish this post and let the music really do the talking. Again, Happy New Year.

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