Beginning Again – Steven Wilson’s “Pariah”

One of the things I appreciate about progressive rock is how brutally honest many of the musicians can be in their art. Steven Wilson and Devin Townsend immediately come to mind in this regard. Townsend has always shown his emotions in his lyrics and music, whether it be in face-melting heaviness of Strapping Young Lad or in his varied solo work. Wilson’s lyrics and the musical soundscapes he creates also reflect deep wells of emotion and even a somewhat philosophical approach to those emotions.

“Pariah” off 2017’s To The Bone is in a long tradition of similar contemplative melancholic and emotional songs by Wilson. Porcupine Tree’s “Lazarus,” Wilson’s “Drive Home” and “Routine,” as well as the more recent “12 Things I Forgot,” come to mind. I think “Pariah” may rise above the aforementioned tracks because of the exquisite duet with Ninet Tayeb.

The term “pariah” has a negative connotation in modern English, but I believe the term is usually used incorrectly to refer to a person who dramatizes their situation and makes a show of being an outcast when they aren’t actually outcast from their community or society. The definition is simply someone who is an outcast. The word comes from India, where it is used to refer to members of the lower order of the caste system.

I’m not quite sure which version of the word (the vernacular use or the correct use) Wilson is using here. Wilson’s character in the song is clearly someone dealing with depression, but we aren’t sure why. I don’t think “pariah” is being used in a derogatory fashion in the song, though.

Steven Wilson – Pariah (Music Video) – YouTube

For some reason I never realized this until yesterday, but Ninet’s inclusion on the song acts as a foil to Wilson’s melancholy. Wilson sings,

I’m tired of weakness, tired of my feet of clay
I’m tired of days to come, I’m tired of yesterday
And all the worn out things that I ever said
Now it’s much too late, the words stay in my head

Ninet responds,

So the day will begin again
Take comfort from me, it’s up to you now
You’re still here, and you’ll dig in again
That’s comfort to you, it’s up to you now

So Pariah, you’ll begin again
Take comfort from me
And I will take comfort from you

Ninet is playing a role often personified by females across thousands of years of philosophy. In the Biblical book of Proverbs, wisdom is personified as a female, and in Boethius’ “Consolation of Philosophy,” philosophy is personified as a woman. Maybe it’s a stretch to compare Wilson to Solomon or Boethius, two of the wisest men who ever lived, but what I’m getting at is “Pariah” is set up in a similar way. Specifically in Boethius we see the author having a conversation with philosophy. In this track we see Wilson (or Wilson’s character) in a depressed state. He’s worn out, tired of his failings, and tired of everyone else, and it’s a woman who sits down to talk with him.

Ninet’s angelic yet slightly gritty voice reminds him that tomorrow is a new day. She reminds him that he’s still alive, still breathing, and that’s something from which to draw comfort. She even offers to give him comfort, and perplexingly she says she will also take comfort from him. Perhaps she finds relief in aiding someone else in their darkness. As I mentioned above, I don’t think pariah is meant to be derogatory here. The lyrics are too gentle and Ninet’s delivery too sincere for that.

Not entirely convinced, Wilson responds,

I’m tired of Facebook, tired of my failing health
I’m tired of everyone and that includes myself
Well, being alone now it doesn’t bother me
But not knowing if you are, well that’s been hell you see

Exhaustion. At some point depression and anxiety take you beyond Devin Townsend’s rage and chaotic screams in Strapping Young Lad’s “Shitstorm”, leaving you with a feeling of numbness. The anger disappears, but you’re left exhausted and not knowing where to turn or what to do. The simplest tasks become a burden, and important tasks seem like impassable mountains. Isolation becomes a dark friend.

But then Ninet gently shakes Wilson by the shoulder and sings,

So the day will begin again
Take comfort from me, it’s up to you now
You’re still here, and you’ll dig in again
That’s comfort to you, it’s up to you now

So Pariah, you’ll begin again
Take comfort from me
It will take time

At around the 2:50 mark in the music video for the song, right when Ninet sings “You’re still here, and you’ll dig in again,” the video switches from Ninet back to Wilson, and the look on his face… wow. I know that look all too well. I’ve felt it many times. That camera jump to Wilson is incredibly powerful in the context of the words she’s singing. Pure art.

Ninet’s vocal delivery right before the instrumental part is chilling. She really digs into the heart and soul of these lyrics, both on the album and in the live version. The instrumental passage, with the guitars layering over each other and the song gradually swelling… Your head begins to spin, and in the video the camera turns back to Wilson’s numb look. It all settles back down before Wilson sings the closing consoling words:

Don’t you worry, don’t worry about a thing
‘Cause nothing really dies, nothing really ends

Instead of Ninet, our guide along this journey, comforting us, Wilson quietly closes the song. Has he (or his character) progressed? It seems he’s taken the words of philosophy, or wisdom, or whatever the female vocals are meant to personify, to heart and learned from them. The ending is rather stoic: everything may be hell, but life carries on all the same.

It’s interesting to look at the demo for “Pariah,” which features Wilson only on vocals with longer and different lyrics. There is some lyrical overlap, but in many ways it’s a very different song. I’ve emboldened a few words to emphasize subtle changes from the finished song. There are also additional verses that didn’t make the final cut.

I’m tired of weakness, Tired of my feet of clay
I’m tired of days to come, I’m tired of yesterday
And all the worn out words that I ever said
Now it’s much too late, The truth stays in my head

Life in general goes on indifferently
Another glass of dust in front of my TV
Put on a clean shirt and an old pair of shoes
Face the shrinking day with nothing left to lose

So Pariah you’ll dig in again
That’s comfort to you, It’s up to you now
So the day will begin again
That’s comfort to me
It’s up to me now
I’m still here and I will live again
That’s comfort to me
And I’m empty of history and soul

Love can save me from almost anything
Except my stupid self and the state I’m in
Well being alone, it doesn’t bother me
But not knowing if you are, well that’s been hell you see

So Pariah you’ll dig in again
That’s comfort to you, It’s up to you now
So the day will begin again
That’s comfort to me, It’s up to me now
I’m still here and I will live again
That’s comfort to me
Look to the skies

Don’t you worry
Don’t worry ’bout a thing
‘Cause nothing really dies
Nothing really ends

“Love can save me from almost anything / except my stupid self and the state I’m in.” These lines really stand out, confirming the idea that Wilson’s character is fighting an internal battle. In this version of the song, the singer finds consolation from himself, whereas in the final track it is an external voice raising him up. She gives him what he needs: “Take comfort from me.” In the demo, he takes comfort from the fact that he’s still alive. It’s far more powerful in the final version, for self-consolation is rarely an effective means of moving forward. Sometimes we need someone to stoop down and point out the truth that we can’t see in that moment.

I’ve spent most of this piece talking about the lyrics, but the music also plays a profound role in setting the mood. Wilson is well known for his melancholic soundscapes. I recall an interview (I can’t remember which one) where he said he is at his happiest when he’s making music that sounds miserable. When I heard him say that, it clicked for me why I enjoy so much of his work. Yes I’m weird, but I find something comforting in the melancholy soundscapes. On “Pariah,” the synths and guitars soothe, but they still create a serene environment. Craig Blundell is a brilliant drummer. He’s very gentle on this track. He doesn’t overplay. He gives the song just the flair it needs. The music and lyrics work in concert (ha!) to create just the right mood.

“Pariah” may be under five minutes, but it’s a powerful song. It’s not particularly complicated in its musicality, but that’s the beauty of it. Wilson uses a relatively simple combination of musical elements to contrast with some rather deep philosophical and emotional subjects. The result is quite stunning, and it’s one of the best songs in his repertoire.

Perhaps it is best to close off this article with Wilson’s own words:

Don’t you worry, don’t worry about a thing
‘Cause nothing really dies, nothing really ends


Steven Wilson – Pariah (Live) – YouTube

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