Steven Wilson Plays It (Mostly) Safe On "To The Bone"

Steven Wilson - To The Bone (Caroline International)

Somewhere in a parallel universe, Steven Wilson's seminal band Porcupine Tree would occupy the same stratosphere of exalted recognition as Radiohead: indeed, Wilson was delivering his brand of sonic wizardry as Thom Yorke and Co. were just embarking on their journey toward becoming so fucking special. As a prog rock/art rock savant, Wilson's penchant for embracing elements of folk, progressive rock and ambient/cinematic textures made such albums as Signify, In Absentia, and Fear of a Blank Planet light years ahead of their time.

Considering Wilson's resumé includes internships with the likes of King Crimson, Opeth, Yoko Ono and others, it's surprising he would feel the need to dissolve Porcupine Tree to focus on a solo career - though Wilson has never publicly stated Porcupine Tree was a closed chapter. Nonetheless, Wilson's stepping into the spotlight by name has caused more folks to sit up and take notice. Taking his cues from Kate Bush, 2011's Grace For Drowning was an ambitious, 2-CD affair that embraced a thematic title for each disc - much like Bush's "Ninth Wave" song cycle on Hounds of Love. It comes as no surprise then to find Wilson would later pay homage to Bush on 2015's Hand. Cannot. Erase.

Which is why Wilson's fifth solo proper, To The Bone has been met with such anticipation and great expectations: the press kit denotes Wilson's influences of Bush, Tears For Fears, Peter Gabriel, Talk Talk, et al informed his creative muse. You can hear Gabriel's influence on the title track, a tune co-written with XTC's Andy Partridge. But the spoken word intro by Jasmine Walkes ("Once we've made sense of our world, we wanna go fuck up everybody else's, because his or her truth doesn't match mine....") feels both preachy and awkward, and portends an ideological dilemma that pops up more than once here. Though Wilson's heart is clearly in the right place, it sometimes finds itself at odds with the elaborate musical constructs, rather than being in simpatico.

Frankly, Wilson should have opened this disc with the trenchant, politically-imbued "Nowhere Now" instead. "Six feet underground, we move backwards now/At the speed of sound, we are nowhere now" Wilson sings, accompanied by a jazz-inflected piano, before launching into a slowly unfolding prog crescendo that hearkens to Rush ("I feel the rush of love" could be a lyrical inference in and of itself); the jangly guitars and luminous harmonies work well against the blistering electric solos and various sonic anomalies darting in and out of "Nowhere Now" - I was reminded of Rush bassist/frontman Geddy Lee's grossly overlooked My Favorite Headache, which I've no doubt Wilson is familiar with.

"Pariah" on the other hand, despite the introspection of Wilson's observations ("I'm tired of Facebook, tired of my failing health, I'm tired of everyone.....") and the impassioned vocals of Ninet Tayeb (whose harmonic contribution on To The Bone is as welcome as it is revelatory on occasion) is a pale substitute for the Bush/Gabriel duet, "Don't Give Up" it seeks to reprise, if not outright emulate. Maybe Wilson should have considered My Favorite Headache his aural signpost for To The Bone - as tracks like "Nowhere Now" and "Same Asylum As Before" not only work better stylistically, they match lyrical depth with musical heft: "You believe you have dominion, so you force your lame opinions/You represent the people, yet you don't believe in free will..."

Alas, there is a fine line between soul-searching and navel-gazing, and Wilson delicately balances that tightrope on the majestic ballad, "Refuge": again, a lilting piano intro sets a somber mood, which accelerates with Wilson's soaring tenor and a almost tribal-sounding percussive backdrop - then Wilson's guitar solo cuts through the haze in the second half of the track, only to dissolve into a Pink-Floyd sounding middle-eight (ala: "Great Gig In The Sky"). But if one track from To The Bone might guarantee a breakout radio hit, it's the inscrutably titled "Permanating". A rollicking piano and sweet falsetto harmonies rivaling Coldplay adorn this slice of pop perfection, whose chorus nods briefly to another Canadian band - Klaatu. Only Wilson could amalgamate such seemingly disparate musical references and create something this effortlessly stunning.

It's the second half of To The Bone where Wilson hits his stride: the pretty, post-breakup duet "Blank Tapes" segues into the punk energy of "People Who Eat Darkness": "I live in the flat next door/And I can hear you fuck your girlfriend through the wall/Behind the closed doors, the bees will buzz, inciting me to war..." It's the kind of glam rock epistle that would have been a perfect number in the hands of the late Scott Weiland and Stone Temple Pilots, particularly when the bombast dies out, and Wilson croons beneath an acoustic ceiling, "You lost control, and your kids became confused/Among the powder kegs with nothing left to lose/So now your chickens are coming home to roost..." To The Bone is a mixed bag to be sure, and tries harder than it really needs to at times, but despite the errant misstep here and there,  Wilson still challenges us to not only look inside his world, but reminds us both the observer and the observed are often a matter of perspective.  GRADE: A-

Permanating (Official Video) by Steven Wilson on VEVO.


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