To the Bone by Steven Wilson

by Rick Krueger

“Rain all the truth down, down on me/Rain down so much you make a sea/A sea we can sail then sink like a stone/Down to the truth, down to the bone.”

To the Bone isn’t any sort of “prog turned pop” betrayal.  I don’t think it’s Steven Wilson’s masterwork either; Porcupine Tree’s In Absentia and Deadwing and the stunning Hand. Cannot. Erase. remain my favorites, along with the compelling concert video Get All You Deserve.  I do think that To the Bone is pretty special, though.  An accessible yet ambitious set of songs that compels repeated plays, it ably showcases Wilson’s immersive grounding in rock and pop of all stripes, his ongoing quest to extend that tradition, and his continued lyrical growth.

The last topic first: seeing Wilson live on The Raven That Refused to Sing tour, I realized what had bugged me about his more recent lyrics.  All too often, it felt like the man was taking disdainful potshots at easy targets (“Halo,” parts of The Incident) or peering into the lives of the damaged (“Harmony Korine,” “Luminol”) and disturbed (“Index,” “Raider II”) for voyeuristic giggles and lurid thrills.  The richly humane narrative of Hand. Cannot. Erase., Wilson’s multifaceted portrayal of a young woman disappearing into the maw of a big city, brought his latent empathy forward again, to that album’s benefit.

That empathy is firing on all cylinders throughout To the Bone. In “Pariah,” the exhausted protagonist finds comfort where he expects disdain; “Refuge” laconically captures the suspended lives of the displaced; “Blank Tapes” depicts both sides of a break-up with just a few heart-rending brush strokes.  By the time Wilson veers into more familiar territory, even his portraits of obsessives and mass killers ring truer — unpitying, uncaricatured, complex and compelling.  The Bataclan terrorists of “People Who Eat Darkness” bark out their frustrations and excuses in one breath, then grimly acknowledge the evil of what their plans in the next; “Detonation’s” main character rails against the God he simultaneously disbelieves in and blames for his murderous rampage.  Here the title track’s wittily savage sketch of truth’s dangers for the unwary comes full circle.

As good as these new lyrics are, the music brings To the Bone to life.  His death metal obsession firmly behind him, Wilson bangs out scads of wiry, resonant riffs on guitar and bass, capturing the vibe of vintage Who and Led Zeppelin with just a touch of Ennio Morricone tossed in.  I haven’t played this much air guitar to an album in a long time.  The funky scratch of the title track, the power chords and chiming licks of “Nowhere Now,” the “Kashmir”-style tag of “The Same Asylum As Before’s” chorus — it’s all pretty thrilling, especially with drummers Jeremy Stacey (King Crimson) and Craig Blundell piling on appropriate echoes of Keith Moon, John Bonham and Neil Peart.

To the Bone’s obvious pop turns, especially the pre-release singles “Pariah,” “Song of I” and “Permanating,” have been the special object of possessive fans’ wailing and gnashing of teeth.  But honestly, is Wilson crafting a four-minute track that would sound great on the radio really a bad thing?  Or even a new development?  (“Perfect Life” or “Lightbulb Sun,” anyone?)  Yes, “Pariah” is an obvious tribute to Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush’s “Don’t Give Up” — but when Ninet Tayeb knocks the chorus out of the park (and brings out the song’s latent ancestry in the Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry Baby” in the process), it’s a tribute that works.  Yes, “Permanating” feels like Jeff Lynne and ABBA collaborating while on Red Bull and helium — but writing a song where every single section functions as a killer hook is no mean feat.  And yes, the duet with Sophie Hunger, “Song of I,” retreads the familiar ground of a dysfunctional relationship — but when Dave Stewart’s ominous orchestral break unfolds like a lush carnivorous plant, it packs a bracing wallop.

And Wilson saves the best for last, bringing in his road band for the ballad “Song of Unborn.”  The ruminative lead vocals, combined with a delicate choral interlude and sensitive, restrained interplay from the band, send the final moments of this solid album into the stratosphere.  Heartfelt but unsentimental, hopeful without glib optimism, “Song for Unborn” is an surprising exhortation to live life well in a world of uncertainty, and a rich closing statement of To the Bone’s attractions.

“Well the world is exhausted and wreckage is all around/But the arc of your life could still be profound/Don’t be afraid to die/Don’t be afraid to be alive.”

 

8 thoughts on “To the Bone by Steven Wilson

  1. I don’t rank To the Bone with Hand Cannot Erase or The Raven that Refused to Sing, but an “OK” album by Steven Wilson is still a good album by most standards.

    My biggest quibble with the album is how familiar it is. A lot of it, both musically and lyrically (but especially musically), sounds very much like material from his past. I don’t mind his ambition of creating a complex but accessible “pop” album like Peter Gabriel or Kate Bush, but the fact that everything here is so damn familiar – that is what disappoints.

    However, your review gave me a few insights I hadn’t considered, so thanks for that. As I said, this isn’t a bad album; it’s just kind of there. I guess it’s unrealistic to expect a masterpiece every time.

    Ninet Tayeb is amazing. I really enjoyed Sophie Hunger on “Song of I,” as well. I hope Wilson continues collaborating with vocalists of this caliber in the future. I don’t think I would like “Pariah,” “Blank Tapes,” or “Song of I” nearly as much without them.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Bryan Morey

    As always, great review, Rick.

    I haven’t given this album a lot of time yet, but my early impressions are that if you like 80s pop in the vein of Tears for Fears, Talk Talk, Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, etc, you’ll probably enjoy To the Bone. If that era of music does nothing (or very little) for you, you’ll probably find this album wanting. I think the 80s pop is better than the trash called pop these days, and in a way To the Bone is what an excellent pop album should be, but it really isn’t a brilliant album otherwise. Musically, it doesn’t come close to the last couple of SW solo albums. The drums and guitar especially are weak (much like they were in the 80s). “Pariah” is great with that classic Wilson melancholy, but it is too short. If you’re more into 70s and current era prog than the pop-prog of the 80s, you’ll be disappointed (like me) with To the Bone because it looks back too much instead of moving forward with a pop-prog influence. It is still better than what passes as popular music these days, but it doesn’t come close to recent albums by Big Big Train, Steve Hackett, or Nad Sylvan. If you want to see what pop-prog should look like today, listen to Flying Colors.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. kruekutt

    Thanks to everyone for their thoughts. To tell the truth, I was surprised that a review of To the Bone hadn’t popped up before this; I’d noticed that Hand.Cannot.Erase. got multiple reviews here from a number of differing POVs. Maybe more will follow now that the first salvo is out. Or maybe we’re all just tired of the hype and endless online wrangling about TtB that started way before its release.

    I usually listen to new albums a couple of times before filing them away; in contrast, last night’s listen of To the Bone for this review was my 7th — and I’m sure there will be more in the near future (especially once the deluxe edition hits my front porch) . The only other new album I’ve listened to that much this year is Grimspound. So, at least for me, TtB’s definitely got something; I’m already sure it’ll be on my favorites list (which I compile as I go along, based on how an album hits me) for this year.

    I’d say that the classic rock vibe was the initial way in (I felt like I was listening to an unknown sequel to Who’s Next at times, as I windmilled and drum-filled along), but the deeper lyrical content has kept me coming back. Again, I think Wilson is exploring his previous lyrical themes from a richer, more subtle and humane viewpoint. The fact that I enjoy the “variations on a theme” theory of albums at least as much as the “always break new ground” model probably factors in too. And I’m positive this material will really take off with SW’s live band, especially if Ninet Tayeb comes along.

    As for Flying Colors as an alternate model for modern pop-prog, I’ll agree with that if we’re talking about the debut album; Second Nature didn’t do that much for me. Although I question if Rush (the obvious model for FC) consciously went for pop appeal that much — “New World Man” and “Time Stand Still” are the only obvious “Project 3:50s” I recollect from the 1980s.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Bryan Morey

      Interesting thoughts on Second Nature. That was my intro to Flying Colors (and I saw them live at one of their 3 US shows on that tour), and I think it was a great step forward from their first. I rank it up there with some of the best American AOR prog from bands like Kansas and Styx. But then again, that’s the fun of writing about music – we all have our different tastes and there’s nothing wrong with that.

      I hope Steven Wilson isn’t pulling a Phil Collins or 80s Genesis. The fact that To the Bone is now number 3 in the UK scares me – not so much about what it says about the actual music but what it may encourage Wilson to do in the future. Is To the Bone his “And Then There Were Three,” i.e., a decent/mediocre album to be followed by a string of atrocious pop records all for the sake of fame, glory, and money? I hope not.

      Maybe I’m not grasping the concept in this album yet, and I need to wait for that to happen. I can’t help but point out, though, that this album doesn’t flow at all – at least not like Hand. Cannot. Erase. did. To the Bone isn’t a concept album, but the lack of consistency and flow suggests that this truly is a pop album and not progressive. Furthermore, as David pointed out above, there are a lot of musical themes here that sound too familiar or retreaded.

      I understand and respect Wilson’s desire to make an album that builds upon his love of decent 80s pop music, but straying too far from his roots (like Genesis did) will demean his future artwork, even if it does make him gobs of cash. At the end of the day, he isn’t answerable to me or anybody – it is his art. However, there is a fine line between art and churning out garbage for money. The next album will tell us on which side he decides to play.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. kruekutt

        Humorously, And Then There Were Three was the first Genesis album I bought back in 1978. (Genesis was also my first rock concert & first date that year — trifecta!) From there, I checked out Seconds Out, Wind and Wuthering & A Trick of the Tail, found Nursery Cryme & Foxtrot in the bargain bins, and I was hooked. The thing is, I wasn’t disappointed when Genesis gradually “went pop” after Duke — they did what they wanted to do, they did it pretty well IMHO, they were always excellent live, and there were things I enjoyed about every album, even though they didn’t build on those classic 1971-1977 records or go the direction I would have if I were in their shoes. I also dug most of Collins’ solo material, at least in the 1980s. But then, I’ve been a sucker for pop for a long time, as some of the upcoming “Albums That Changed My Life” will make clear.

        My take: To the Bone is a thematic album rather than a concept album. The focus: how our individual perceptions color our view of the objective truth. (Whether SW would agree, I have no idea.) And in my book, both the music and lyrics flow quite well — it feels like an connected album, not a disjointed collection of disparate tracks. But as you say, it’s more fun to lay out and compare critical tastes than to fight about them, and I appreciate your take.

        Finally, for every Invisible Touch (admittedly overplayed in its heyday) following And Then There Were Three, there’s an Us that follows So, or (even wilder) a Spirit of Eden that follows The Colour of Spring. We’ll see what direction SW goes. Thanks!

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  4. Bryan Morey

    I’m on my fourth listen right now, and I think I’m getting it! It does flow, the drums and guitars aren’t weak, and there is a theme. I recant. Steven Wilson is brilliant, and I am not.

    For some reason, Steven Wilson’s music connects with me in a way that no other artist does. This evening I was truly struck in the head with how difficult grad school is going to be (and how much I really want to be done with this phase in my life that has only just begun), and listening to the more upbeat, yet still melancholic, side of Wilson’s music is just what I needed to hear. He gets to the bottom of what it means to be human.

    Liked by 1 person

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