A good deal of ink has already been spilt over Steven Wilson’s new album, To The Bone. In blogs, online magazines and social media forums, a fair amount of alternating hand-wringing and canonization has been going on. Some have voiced despair that Wilson has, in some manner, jumped the shark, and abandoned the trajectory of his previous work, turning to *gasp* ‘pop’ music stylings that are a betrayal to his progressive rock fan base. This assessment is incorrect. Others have lauded his ‘new direction’ with his new album, presenting his best overall song-writing to date. This assessment is also incorrect.
Before explaining why these assessments are wrong, let’s get a few things out of the way. 1) While I understand that some feel a certain amount of Steven Wilson super saturation (he is fairly ubiquitous in progressive rock media) the fact remains that Steven Wilson is the most important voice in progressive rock today, and there isn’t a close second. He’s been nominated for Grammys four times. It’s not just that his albums and concerts do well commercially, they do well artistically. I saw him on the Hand. Cannot. Erase. tour, and it was magnificent. The musicianship, the ability to appeal musically to both heart and mind, the comfort between artist and audience were all at the highest level. He also wore an ABBA shirt, more on that later. 2) Wilson’s previous two albums, Hand. Cannot. Erase. and The Raven That Refused To Sing (“TRTRTS”) were unadulterated prog masterpieces that stand among 70’s greats by King Crimson, Genesis and Yes as peers, not as attendants. Those albums did everything that progressive music does at its best. They combined technical playing with brilliant production, artistic presentation and visceral emotion in a way that is hard to find in any genre of music. 3) Wilson is and has been very busy and has been involved in many musical projects beyond his best known (solo work and Porcupine Tree). He has worked with Tim Bowness in No-Man. He works with Aviv Geffen in Blackfield. He has his krautrock influenced IEM. He has done ambient and electronic music with Bass Communion. He has worked with Opeth. He has guested with Pendulum. He has remastered albums for Jethro Tull, Yes and King Crimson. On one concert tour, Rush chose Porcupine Tree as their prelude music. Knowing this information provides important information for evaluating To The Bone.
To The Bone isn’t a further development along any particular trajectory and it isn’t a departure from prior work. It’s a sampler. Whether it’s “Pariah” evoking Porcupine Tree’s “Half-Light” or “Song of Unborn” bringing mood and melody that could easily come from Blackfield or experimentation with minimalist electronica in “Song of I” that has been sprinkled through much of his work including No-Man and early Porcupine Tree. And before we get all worked up by the ABBA-esque pop of “Permanenting”, let’s not forget his concert t-shirt and his previous album of cover tunes, which included an ABBA song. This is actually stuff we’ve heard before, just not all on one album.
It’s true that To The Bone is a departure from the full-tile prog of Wilson’s previous two albums, but even that is somewhat predictable as his method with Porcupine Tree also included stylistic shifts every couple of albums.
So it’s not really new, but is it good? Mostly, yes. Ninet Tayeb, who broke our hearts with her performance in Hand. Cannot. Erase.’s “Routine” is excellent again in the melancholy “Pariah”. “Refuge” is somewhat reminiscent of some of Peter Gabriel’s solo work and is quite strong. However, there are some uninspiring lyrics throughout the album, and not every melody makes you sad to hear it go, rendering the album indeed good, but not great.
Yet, as I listen again to the album’s closer, “Song of Unborn” I hear classic Wilson: melancholy, lushly arranged, layered vocals… and it reminds me that not only is Wilson the voice of modern progressive music but it reminds me that modern progressive music is doing quite well, thank you.
Steven Wilson’s newest album, To The Bone, will be released on August 18, 2017. Pre-order it here.