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 4½. 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.