Evolution, Not Revolution: Inside “To The Bone”

Much has been written already about Steven Wilson’s supposed change of direction, with the great man himself talking up this new release as his “pop album”. Others have likened Wilson’s recent trajectory to that which took Peter Gabriel from the innovative, Fairlight-driven experiments of ‘4’ (or Security, if you prefer) to the more finely-honed commercialism of So.

Yet as I press Play for the umpteenth time, I’m not struck by any real sense of sonic revolution. To these ears, at least, To The Bone sounds like an entirely natural progression: a logical step further down a path he had oriented himself towards with 2015’s Hand. Cannot. Erase. The clues to how this new album sounds are there in HCE’s title track and in ‘Perfect Life’, and they are there in ‘Vermillioncore’ from the 2016 follow-up mini-album . There are pointers from further back in his career, too, should you care to look for them: ‘No Part Of Me’ on Grace For Drowning, ‘Abandoner’ on Insurgentes (echoed here in more up-beat fashion by ‘Song Of I’), even some of his work with Porcupine Tree and No-Man.

If anything, Wilson seems to be not so much moving in a new direction as he is circling back to revisit and revive influences that have been present only intermittently in recent years, bringing them to the forefront and giving them more room to breathe. But even that may be overstating the case.

All of which makes the whines of complaint from certain unenlightened denizens of Internet forums simply mystifying. How well do these people understand Wilson’s artistic credentials? Have they never listened to No-Man, or Blackfield, or his covers of Abba and Prince? Whilst not liking what he’s done here is fine, to suggest he’s ‘sold out’ or is somehow ‘betraying prog roots’ is frankly absurd.

I suppose this album could be described as more pop than prog in the sense that Wilson has taken the opportunity to rein in what some see as the bombast of earlier solo work. This is no Raven, which unashamedly flaunted the virtuosity of its stellar contributors. The closest it comes to excess is in the extended guitar wig-out of the nine-minute epic ‘Detonation’; barring that, this is an altogether more restrained and refined affair.

Which is not to say that To The Bone lacks drama or intensity. There is plenty of that on display – the thrilling sudden crescendo in ‘Pariah’ as Ninet Tayeb’s voice gloriously spans octaves stands out, as do the angry wails and unexpected profanity that open ‘People Who Eat Darkness’. But generally this album dials back the melancholy and strips away some of the concept album earnestness that permeates (permanates?) earlier work.

Be in no doubt that this is recognisably a Steven Wilson album, beautifully crafted and balanced, but with few real surprises. The biggest eyebrow-raiser by far – and the only genuine indulgence in pure straightforward pop to be found in the solid hour of music on offer here – is the pulsing three-and-a-half minute ‘Permanating’, an infectiously joyful earworm quite different from anything appearing on his earlier albums. Whisper it, but Steven could actually be having fun here… Yes, shocking, isn’t it?

If To The Bone isn’t quite as dense and audibly complex as earlier work, there are still many layers to explore. The production is impeccable, of course – we’ve come to expect nothing less – but it is the songcraft that shines through, more than Wilson’s customary nerdish attention to the minutiae of the recording process. This may not be the absolute pinnacle of his achievements, but it is surely his most accessible work to date: a hugely enjoyable album whose subtle charms deserve to be relished rather than dismissed.

8 thoughts on “Evolution, Not Revolution: Inside “To The Bone”

  1. Fine writing here Dr. Nick. And Yes……………WHAT is MUSIC without “exploration”??? If you continue to drive down the VERY SAME ROAD as you’ve ALWAYS traveled,well then………..what’s the point of the TRIP after all???

    Using this same metaphor……….if You CHOOSE to take a “side-road”,only to end up finding out that You arrived QUICKER (or longer,depending on your hopes),is indeed,an exercise of “discovery”,BUT………..overall………..it’s NOT really about ARRIVING to Your destination,but more about how it makes You FEEL,having the joys of getting there,from a NEW Direction!!!

    ~Peace~

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  2. Once again, Progarchy is a beacon of sanity and sound judgment!

    Kudos to Dr. Nick for this eloquent and insightful essay.

    So much better than all the mindless hot takes that being thoughtlessly disseminated elsewhere about this album!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I agree it’ silly to claim Wilson “betrayed prog” with this release. He’s an artist, and he is free to do what he wants.

    While I appreciate what he is trying to do here, it does feel like a regression to me. While some compare “Pariah” to “Don’t Give Up,” Peter Gabriel’s duet with Kate Bush, Wilson touched on the same theme in “Postcard.” “The Same Asylum as Before” shares the same chord progression as “Prodigal.” Even “Song of I” sounds a lot like “Index.”

    Fans (myself included) judge an artists work by the rest of their output, and sometimes the results can be unfair. To me, To the Bone falls short compared to albums like Hand Cannot Erase, Raven, or Fear of a Blank Planet, but I can see how someone less familiar with Wilson’s catalog might find a lot to love here. To that person, this could be a good (maybe even a great) album…but to me, it’s a disappointment.

    On the positive side of the ledger: as I said in another thread, I really enjoy Ninet Tayeb’s contributions to Wilson’s work, and Sophie Hunger makes “Song of I” one of my favorites here (even though, as I said, it reminds me of “Index.” I also like the extended instrumental section of “Detonate.” “People Who Eat Darkness” is another of my favorites (but, lyrically, it would have fit right into In Absentia). “Refuge” is nice, too.

    While this album falls short of what I had hoped for, I still plan to buy whatever Wilson does next, and I’m still a huge fan.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dr Nick

      I suspect the opinion of many will be “this is good, but not up there with his best”. I don’t think its surprising to see connections with earlier work, either. You can’t be as prolific as SW without revisiting motifs from those earlier songs, even if only by accident. ‘Song Of I’ reminds me primarily of ‘Abandoner’ (albeit less lo-fi), but now that you’ve mentioned it, I see the link with ‘Index’ too.

      You’re quite right to highlight the contribution made by Ninet Tayeb – it’s their best collaboration yet, and definitely one of the highlights.

      Whilst it doesn’t have the depth of his other work, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find myself reaching for this just as often as Raven (my personal favourite of his). In some ways, its an ‘easier’ listen and doesn’t require the same level of attention.

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  4. Indeed; very good, but not up there with his best. To paraphrase your review: “This may not be the absolute pinnacle of his achievements, but ( … ) a hugely enjoyable album whose subtle charms deserve to be relished rather than dismissed”

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  5. Jeff

    I was highly disappointed in the album and have no desire to listen to it again with so much better progressive rock out this year. Maybe I have turned into a prog snob now, but I was a huge fan of alt rock in the ’80s. To The Bone does not match any of my favorite alternative rock albums, and clearly does not match any of his previous proggy albums. I am more shocked at the level of defense that album is getting. If you enjoy it, then that is fine. My time is better spent on better albums.

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  6. carleolson

    An excellent and thoughtful review. I’m not as much of a hardcore Wilson and PT fan as some (although I’ve heard nearly everything), but I have indeed listened to No-Man, Blackfield, and his covers of Abba and Prince, and Wilson has always impressed, even when a particular project or cut isn’t my cup of tea. Personally, I far prefer restless artists who occasionally throw me for a loop or even annoy me, as it indicates they aren’t settling.

    Liked by 2 people

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