The best guitarists can always be recognized by their sound, even if they spend their careers swapping amps, effects, or instruments. There’s a way in which their fingers, fretboards, and other factors mesh that makes them identifiable. That’s why we can distinguish the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Sonny Sharrock, Joe Pass, Tom Verlaine, Wes Montgomery, Eric Clapton, and Jeff Beck with just a few notes. Also David Gilmour, who’s often left off lists of the greatest six-string rockers but deserves a place in the pantheon.
Gilmour, who recently released his third solo album, On an Island (Sony), has been the voice of Pink Floyd since the departure of Roger Waters in 1985. He joined the band in 1968, when his friend Syd Barrett, Floyd’s original leader, was unraveling. It was Gilmour’s job to step in when Barrett chose to sit on the floor of the stage or wander off rather than play. After Barrett meandered altogether from sanity, the gig became Gilmour’s alone, and along with Waters he was an architect of the group’s triple apex of creativity: the 1970s albums DarkSide of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, and Animals (all on Columbia). Some may prefer Floyd’s epic The Wall (Columbia), where Gilmour’s emotional solos on “Comfortably Numb” and “Run like Hell” provide powerful crescendi, but in hindsight the Waters-led conception of that recording doesn’t sustain the double album.
Which isn’t to say the Gilmour-driven Pink Floyd albums A Momentary Lapse of Reason (1987) and The DivisionBell (1994; both on Sony) are better. After the break-up, all the band’s members lost some mojo. But Gilmour’s guitar skills, as Pink Floyd’s 2005 Live 8 concert reunion proved, remain undiminished.
Like Pink Floyd’s ’70s trifecta, Onan Island’s 10 tracks explore themes of need, dependence, satisfaction, and romance. And with Floyd keyboardist Richard Wright contributing organ and Gilmour sculpting subtle layers of guitar, an atmospheric tune like “Red Sky at Night” could fold comfortably into Wish You Were Here. Other guests include David Crosby and Graham Nash singing harmonies, Robert Wyatt on cornet, pianist Jools Holland, Willie Nelson, and Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera, who produced with Gilmour and Chris Thomas.
The disc flows gently, often capturing the idyllic sensibility its title implies. Nonetheless, the island Gilmour is referring to is the self, the lone individual experiencing the world. Thanks to the gentle beauty of a number like the instrumental “Then I Close My Eyes,” with its acoustic, steel, and conventional electric guitars chiming in inviting harmony, that perspective is never forced. Gilmour sings in a warm, unhurried tenor, but his true voice is still his distinctive playing. Like Clapton and Page, he continues to stretch blues influences in all directions, making bent notes, always sweetened by his delicate vibrato, complain with rock attitude or soar like pelicans in a morning sun. Through dynamics, subtle shifts in tone, and careful selection of guitars, he’s able to color in delicate shades, using the thick, stinging midrange caw of his customary Stratocasters as the base for his palette. Sure, On an Island is only an approximation of Floyd’s best creations, but it’s still the sound of a master at work.