Steven Wilson (with Mick Wall), Limited Edition of One: How to Succeed in the Music Industry Without Being Part of the Mainstream, London: Constable (imprint of Little, Brown Book Group), 2022, 361 pages
Steven Wilson – the most famous contemporary artist that no one has ever heard of. Well, certainly the most talented. After many years of maintaining a veil of mystery between his public persona and his personal life, Wilson recently published a book (in the UK – it comes out in the US in July). I believe the audiobook and digital versions are both available for purchase in the US right now.
The book comes in three versions: regular hardback, special edition in a slipcase with 128 pages of additional material plus a 70-minute CD featuring music pulled from old cassettes made very early in his career, and an artist’s edition that has long since sold out of its limited 125 copies. Wilson also read the audiobook version, for those so inclined. I bought the hardback regular edition from Burning Shed in the UK and had it shipped to the US because I didn’t feel like waiting the extra few months. That was expensive enough. I would’ve liked the special edition with the additional written material and CD, especially now after having read and thoroughly enjoying the book. I’d love more material, but it just isn’t in the budget. Alas, the life of a non-profit employee early in his career, especially during the worst inflation in 40 years.
I hesitate to call Wilson’s book a memoir. While it contains a lot of passages one would include in a memoir, it is so much more than a memoir. It has chapters dedicated to Wilson’s pastime of creating lists of favorite music, books, movies, and even a list where he debunks common myths about himself. Since Wilson was aided by music journalist and author Mick Wall in writing Limited Edition of One, there are some interesting elements where Wilson “breaks the fourth wall” and includes the transcriptions of some of the conversations they had in the development of certain chapters. There are chapters of memories, in no particular order. He talks about his childhood, certain parts of his career, how his musical heroes influenced his musical development, how his dad’s electronic tinkering and making equipment for Steven influenced the development of the experimental side of his music… and so much more.
One of the primary themes of the book is the recurring idea of a struggling artist trying to make it big, but not quite getting to the level of which he initially dreamed. Arriving somewhere, but not here. While he can live comfortably on what he’s done, it hasn’t been easy. While most in the pop world hit it big, with help from the record labels, in their late teens (or even earlier!) or early 20s, but it’s all over by the time they’re 30. Wilson is 54, and he’s more famous now than he’s ever been. As such, this book is the story of an atypical musical career, which I think makes it much more fascinating than a “tell-all” memoir from a music legend from 40-50 years ago who has long since ceased innovating musically. I think Wilson’s struggles as a musician have helped fuel his driving spirit of innovation.
Perhaps had he been born 15 years earlier, Wilson could’ve been as big as his musical heroes. But then again, the Wilson we enjoy (or complain about) wouldn’t have been the same artist if he had been operating in the same musical milieu as his heroes rather than chewing on their sounds years later as he strives to create his own art. Music as a whole did progress, and Wilson saw to it that it did. Porcupine Tree took progressive music into uncharted territory, creating new soundscapes while still incorporating the best elements of the past. Sadly the public, or the media elites, wanted music that was easy, simple, that didn’t make you think too hard.
Anyone who’s heard any of Wilson’s diverse discography knows full well that “dumb” music isn’t part of his repertoire. Even when he “goes pop” as he started to on To the Bone and as he certainly did on The Future Bites, the end result asks much of the listener. I may have roasted The Future Bites, but I did so with upmost respect for Wilson as an artist. My critique came from a position where I don’t particularly like pop music or many of the varied artists that heavily influenced that side of Wilson’s work. I named my review “Steven Wilson Bites the Future… and the Fans?”, partly as a form of clickbait, but also because Wilson made a conscious decision to expand his audience, perhaps at the expense of an existing fan base, much of which would rather see Porcupine Tree be the main focus of Wilson’s career. He talks about this in the book, but he also sees it from the perspective of an artist having to make the music that excites him at that particular point in time. As such Wilson’s advice to other artists is to ultimately be true to yourself, your art, and what you want your art to say, even if people get upset about it.
Another theme that pops up is his frustration at how people see him as “that guy from Porcupine Tree.” Perhaps I have a unique perspective on Steven Wilson. I came to him through his solo music – first through The Raven that Refused to Sing and then more closely with 2015’s Hand. Cannot. Erase. I then began investigating Porcupine Tree. Thus I think of Steven Wilson as Steven Wilson, who happened to be the main force behind Porcupine Tree. I don’t compare his solo work to his Porcupine Tree work. [Perhaps ironically I’m listening to PT as I write this.] But I also don’t know as much about the No-Man, Storm Corrosion, and Blackfield aspects of his career. That music just hasn’t spoken to me as much, and that’s ok. I’m glad he makes that music and scratches that artistic itch.
He mentions multiple times in the book how he makes albums of “noise” music that he releases under a pseudonym so that no one knows he made it. He wants that music to be judged on its own merits, rather than as a noise album made by Steven Wilson. He also doesn’t want to disappoint his regular fans who would listen to it out of a sense of obligation and who would almost certainly be disappointed by it. I find it fascinating to think there’s music out there made by Wilson that we may never know he made. Perhaps in a century’s time there will be a historian who writes a PhD dissertation connecting those albums with Wilson.
Or perhaps Wilson’s entire career will be swallowed up as a footnote in musical history. That idea seems to percolate just below the surface in this book. It’s only normal for someone to want their life to matter and to be remembered, but we don’t control how we are remembered. Wilson laments how even though David Bowie worked endlessly to demonstrate his image was so much more than the lightning bolt across his face, after he died, Lady Gaga came on stage in a tribute wearing the lightning bolt painted across her face. Once you’re gone, you lose what little control you may have had over your image. Perhaps Limited Edition of One is part of Wilson’s effort to keep himself from being remembered as “that Porcupine Tree guy.”
Limited Edition of One is eminently readable. It isn’t a chronological slog from diapers to the present day. Some chapters are historical, some philosophical, and some are windows into Wilson’s personal tastes. Even so, the book has a flow to it created by the recurring themes, some of which I’ve already mentioned. There’s also a fictional short story at the end of the book that is quite good. It appears to be connected to his next solo album, the name of which he drops as a bit of a surprise at the end of one of the chapters. In typical Wilsonian fashion, the story is dripping with melancholy, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
When I first started really listening to Wilson’s music, I actually liked that I was unable to find out much about his personal life or his personal beliefs beyond a few tidbits here and there. There was a sense of mystery about him that you don’t get with artists who are very active on social media and share all the details about their lives. In some ways it felt like his art is more worthy of note because of that aura of mystery. Now that he’s written a book sharing a lot more about his personal life, you’d think that the veil is finally and permanently torn apart, but I don’t think it is. He never really gets intimately personal by oversharing his deepest darkest secrets, which is common in rock star memoirs. My favorite parts of the book are when Wilson gets philosophical, whether it be about music, social media, songwriting, the connection between personal life and a music career, or his musings on the world of top 40 music and what it takes to make it to the top.
Wilson is a very thoughtful man who clearly thinks deeply about whatever interests him. Thus his thoughts on a great many topics are worth considering, even if you disagree. I’m not a vegetarian and I’m never going to be, but reading his reasoning behind his choice to be a vegetarian helps me understand that position with a little less ignorance than I previously had. His position on Christianity was negatively influenced by some extended family members that were a bit too fundamentalist. It sounds like I come from a similar religious background as those family members, so Wilson’s perspective helps me be more sensitive to how I relate to those around me who don’t share my faith.
I’m very much of the persuasion that everything Wilson says or creates should be taken very seriously, because he isn’t someone who does or says anything flippantly. He’s a very misunderstood person, and I think this book will certainly help correct that, for those who take the time to read it. As I said earlier, this book is so much more than a memoir. It’s a work of art in its own way. It’s good enough that I could see myself rereading the book multiple times in the future. The way the book is constructed, the way it flows, the way it’s written – all intensely artistic and worth revisiting. I may not be able to give a book a higher recommendation than that. Read it. You’ll be glad you did.