"The Wall" usually gets more credit for its thematic approach (as do "Dark Side of the Moon," "Wish You Were Here" and "Animals"), but "The Final Cut" is almost a suite: each song being a facet of the same story (a la "The Wall"), with many of the songs seguing into each other.
From the get-go, the album addresses the futility and costs of war, one of the themes of "The Wall" (and one of Roger Waters' biggest themes in many of his works). It also addresses jingoism, and how people can be rallied to support extreme foreign policy decisions to the detriment of humanity (and common sense). It also brings up the breaking down of relationships with people, and the isolation people can feel even in crowded situations. That need to belong and to feel needed/wanted is a powerful motivator, and can obviously be manipulated toward destructive ends. And the material was based on recent events, most especially the Falklands War and the government of Margaret Thatcher.
The album starts off quietly, with the sounds of a television or radio in the background. The song, "The Post War Dream," sets the theme of the album off with a bang. "Tell me true, tell me why / was Jesus crucified / was it for this that daddy died?" Roger's father (Eric Fletcher Waters, whose middle name would pop up in a song title on the album) was killed during World War II, which became a thematic and lyrical obsession of his throughout his works with Pink Floyd (but get the biggest highlights with "The Wall" and "The Final Cut"). The song goes on to note the economic issues facing people at the time (the rise of the Japanese industrial complex at the cost of jobs and money elsewhere, especially in Great Britain in this song), though the song is a bit tongue-in-cheek as it notes that the blame of the Japanese is being made by a person who perhaps watched "too much TV" (lack of education, not staying competitive perhaps?).
The issues continue to build, as does the narrator's frustration, up to the song's climax: "Should we shout / should we scream / what happened to the Post War Dream?" Thoughts turn toward the perfect societies of peace and prosperity that were supposed to happen and that so many had seemingly died for in our World Wars. And that's the point of the whole album. What happened? Why are these problems still around? Haven't enough people suffered and died? Have no lessons been learned at all?
The songs afterward wind through those themes of warmongers, settling differences through military might and the eventual consequences of fighting fire with fire as through the eyes of a man who fought in World War II and has returned a paranoid and disconnected person who views the Falklands War as a betrayal of what he sacrificed (and what others sacrificed) to end such activity.
While it's tempting to go song by song and note the significance of each (and of all the oddities throughout the album), to me it's one of those albums that is really greater than the sum of its parts. While I do have favorites, each track contributes to the concept and character of the disc. To remove, say, "Paranoid Eyes" would be to ignore that it is the most human and character-driven song on the album, a track that gives you insight to the WWII veteran and his detachment.
There are times throughout the album when the music incorporates a drum crack to indicate a gun shot, or when a musical melody will be repeated in different songs to maintain the thematic thread throughout the album. So reflecting on individual songs removes them from the narrative whole (though people less enamored of the album can certainly pick a couple of songs and enjoy them without needing the rest, they'll stand alone).
I know that sounds like a cop-out, though, so here are my picks as genuine standouts: "When The Tigers Broke Free" (2004 release), "The Gunner's Dream," "The Fletcher Memorial Home," "Southampton Dock," "The Final Cut" and "Two Suns in the Sunset."
If I can levy any real criticism to the album as a whole, it is the constant negativity. But when addressing the world created by war, the lives affected by war and the future determined by war, it's easy to see that Roger saw nothing funny or lighthearted. In fact, it's hard to find much of a sense of humor or happiness in any of Roger's Pink Floyd works (you have to hit the pastoral stuff of the late 60s and very early 70s for the lightest stuff). Waters, in retrospect, may be the grandfather of the emo/screamo front ... as he certainly laments much and his vocals tend to veer towards the screeches and screams. But that's a topic for another time ...
The album draws a lot of its strength from the use of dynamics throughout. Slow, soft starts that build up to frantic paces and loud outbursts, then back again. And when you feel another lull coming on ... bam! The tempos, instrumental colors, the whispers/shouts and the vocal lilts carry as much emotion and imagery as Roger's lyrics do (and I mean that in a good way). And it was engineered to use sonics in a very intimate and senses-related way (Google the term Holophonic sometime, if you want more information on that). This album was meant to catch your attention and hold it. And through the great music, personal lyrics and production, it does just that.
But not everyone thought the album was all that great.
Pink Floyd's guitarist David Gilmour hasn't spared much praise for the material, but even he has grudgingly given props to a few of the songs. He felt the album was too political, and that the material was subpar (some of the songs had originally been part of "The Wall," but had been discarded ... he wondered why if the material wasn't good enough for release THEN, why was it good enough NOW?). He felt little connection to the songs and concept, and his relationship with Roger (which had been pretty rocky during "The Wall") really collapsed here.
When you combine Gilmour's attitude with his participation (he has said he was basically a hired guitarist / vocalist), along with the firing of Richard Wright (the keyboards player and sometimes vocalist for the group) around the time of "The Wall," and then add the marginalization of drummer Nick Mason (he was replaced on drums on at least one track, "Two Suns in the Sunset"), one can see how this was basically a Roger Waters solo album.
After the album was released, Waters called the other Pink Floyd members a spent force and announced he was leaving the group to start a solo career. Not completely unjustly, he saw himself as the architect of their biggest successes (the concept and lyrics to "Dark Side of the Moon" were his, a trend that continued through "Wish You Were Here," "Animals," "The Wall" and "The Final Cut"). There was much animosity between Waters and the other members (who carried on the Pink Floyd name and released two studio albums and two live albums after Waters departed).
But that situation really has no bearing on me as a listener (and to be honest, it only has mild bearing on me as a fan of the group ... while I think Gilmour/Wright/Mason are great musicians and did some good work without Waters, I maintain that they were their strongest and best when he was a member of the group). When I listen to music, I look for something that engages me on several levels: I look for lyrical content, I look for musical ability (be it great singing or great instrumental ability), I look for energy, I look for purpose, I look for a good SOUND. Sometimes I just look for entertainment. With Pink Floyd, I can often find at least a couple of those elements. And with "The Final Cut," I found most of those qualities.
When I was in my late teens, Pink Floyd was a pretty big deal for me. After my first blushes with the Beatles and the Beach Boys, I hit my second tier of classic rock groups (Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, the Doors). As I've gotten older (certainly not wiser), I've found that my intense love of the Beatles and Beach Boys remains, but my love for Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and the Doors have settled down some. I still enjoy a lot of their materials, but the albums as wholes rarely hold my interest as often.
With Pink Floyd, "Dark Side of the Moon" is one of those albums where I remember why I loved it and I definitely give it the respect it deserves for being the album that it was/is, but it doesn't engage me as much as it once did. I still love "Piper at the Gates of Dawn," but more for its perfect psychedelia and whimsy than for its relevance to my life. I can still rock out to "The Wall," but I no longer have the amount of angst necessary to identify with it at the level I once could (and did). None of those albums are less important or less interesting now, it's just that my personal engagement with them has waned somewhat.
But I can still find strong attachment to "The Final Cut." The economy is poor, the United States is mired in wars, military actions, complex policing situations, etc. Political and religious and business leaders manipulate people to do what they want and get what they want. In short, the world hasn't changed much and the album's focus remains as pertinent now as it was then. And being an adult who is struggling in an industry that is constantly marginalizing its workforce, I share a lot of the anger that many others do. I also want leadership that will make things BETTER, or at least make some of this mess sensible. The outrage and fear and concern of this disc resonates with my own.
And when you can find art of any kind that can hold that kind of attachment with you, it's art worth recognizing and appreciating. That's why I strongly recommend that folks give this album a listen. Don't worry, you don't have to be political. You don't have to be anti-war. You don't have to challenge authority. You don't even have to like Pink Floyd. You may not even like the album or its songs. But you'll have to admit that it is still relevant to our times. Heck, you'd be hard pressed to deny that the musicianship and production are of the highest caliber.
(And heck, you MIGHT even enjoy some of it, too.)