Album Review: STEVEN WILSON To The Bone
The bleak progressive prince has gone pop. In some ways, yes he has, yet he’s still prog as fuck. I appreciate that with every solo album Steven Wilson has evolved as a musician. His debut solo effort, Insurgentes, essentially sounded like another Porcupine Tree album. Grace For Drowning was an evil lurching jazz exploration. The Raven That Refused To Sing (and Other Stories) took the jazz elements from Grace, made them less bleak (while making the lyrics a thousand times bleaker), and added in all sorts of musical twists unlike anything he had produced before. I then feel like Hand. Cannot. Erase. is where his pop rock dabbling began. Sure, you have the epic “Ancestral” or “Routine,” but you also have the title track and "Perfect Life." Then there is the micro album, 4 ½, which felt like more of Hand.
There is this strange sub-sect of his fans already whining about him going pop on To The Bone. Wilson said he was largely inspired by Kate Bush and Tears for Fears on this record, and I hear it. In fact, you can dance to “Permenating,” arguably unprecedented in Wilson’s catalog. Similarly, the tambourine-driven groove is strong on “Nowhere Now”, which is in the same vein as “Permenating” until the soaring progressive finale. Then there is in the lead single ballad (of sorts) “Pariah,” which a pop-structured verse/chorus/verse/chorus/ending track. "Pariah" proves to be one of the best in his catalog, as this track is a beautiful sweeping song with fantastic vocals from repeat contributor Ninet Tayeb. It is essentially this album's “The Raven That Refused To Sing.”
Despite my appreciation of Wilson’s tendency to morph with each album, there are also a few safe Steven Wilson jams on here that I really enjoy. “Refuge,” in a good way, sounds like a leftover track from Hand until the harmonica hits. “Blank Tapes” is a brief bleak intermission that could have fit on Grace. “The Same Asylum as Before” could have snuck onto any solo album so far with its “doo doo doo” vocal fills, guitar wanking, and overall tone.
This is the album I would have expected to follow Porcupine Tree’s The Incident. Songs like “Time Flies” and "I Drive The Hearse" are poppier songs than stuff from Fear of a Blank Planet or Deadwing, and those would pair well with "The Same Asylum As Before". I would even say that “Song of I” could fit in on any album in the latter half of Porcupine Tree’s catalog. While not the same in tone as the latter, those pining for your more progressive tracks will love “Detonation” (which is this album's “Ancestral”) and “People Who Eat Darkness.” Both tracks are lengthy, intricate, and dark.
Fans will likely argue forever about the progressive merits of this album, but we’ll all be able to agree that lyrically Wilson is just as one would hope, with songs about living next door to a terrorist (“People Who Eat Darkness”) and using religion to justify being a dick to people ("Detonation"). While the musical scale is not as grand as “The Watchmaker” from Raven or “Raider II” from Grace, his story telling abilities are just as strong. However, there is one moment when Wilson name-drops Facebook on "Pariah" and I found it so distracting. I haven’t had that happen with his lyrics since he said “X-Box is a god to me” in "Fear of a Blank Planet."
This record reminds me a lot of another prog giant that also dabbled in pop. Fight me if you want, but that dude’s name is Peter Gabriel. Like Wilson, Gabriel started out in a progressive band before going solo. Each of his solo albums expanded his sonic pallet with a variety of instrumentation, influences, and effects. Peter Gabriel tapped Tony Levin and Robert Fripp (King Crimson) and Kate Bush to play on various releases. Over the years, Wilson recruited Marco Minneman, Guthrie Goven, Nick Beggs (Kajagoogoo), Adam Holzman and recently Craig Blundell and David Killar. In 1986, Peter Gabriel dropped the goliath album So which featured tracks like “Red Rain,” “Sledgehammer,” “In Your Eyes,” and many more great proggy and poppy tracks. It took a while to get here, but the point is that To The Bone is Steven Wilson’s So. Albeit, the state of music as a whole is in an entirely different place than it was when So dropped. To The Bone doesn’t have the chance to be the international best seller So is, but it is on the same creative level.
To The Bone is not Raven nor Grace, but it should be celebrated similarly. Steven Wilson is a progressive musician advancing his craft, and “progressive” has become yet another genre (or sub-genre, whatever) that refuses to let artists branch out when evolving is the spirit of the whole thing. Yes this it is more poppy than some past releases, but there is no other pop music that sounds like it does when Wilson decides to play it.