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.”