Released August 18, 2017
- Steven Wilson: vocals, guitar, bass, keyboards
- Adam Holzman: keyboards
- Ninet Tayeb: vocals
- Sophie Hunger: vocals
- Dave Kollar: guitar
- Nick Beggs: bass
- Robin Mularkey: bass
- Craig Blundell: drums
- Jeremy Stacey: drums
- Mark Feltham: harmonica
- Necro Deathmort: sequencing
- To the Bone
- Nowhere Now
- The Same Asylum as Before
- Blank Tapes
- People Who Eat Darkness
- Song of I
- Song of Unborn
(This review is for the standard release)
While I was jotting down notes and observations for my To the Bone review, I decided to revisit what I wrote about Steven Wilson’s previous album, Hand. Cannot. Erase. I was struck by how similar my thoughts about that album are to the new one. I could probably just copy/paste chunks of that review here and change the song titles. I won’t do that, of course, because they really are not the same, but clearly it shows that the albums are consistent in their effect, if nothing else. (See the review for Hand. Cannot. Erase. here)
It is needless to point out that when Steven Wilson announces a new album, the fanbase excitement level heads into overdrive. This time Wilson released four tracks before the album itself hit, and the overall reaction to them was mixed, to say the least – enthusiasm, puzzlement, and dismay all rolled up into one roiling ball of internet pandemonium, especially around the unapologetically pop “Permanating”. This was a direction that seemed new, or at least a substantial swerve away from what many people expected him to do. Steven Wilson apparently was releasing an album of pop songs.
This is not the only change: Wilson had switched labels after Hand.Cannot. Erase, leaving the KScope stable and signing on with Caroline International, home of such acts as Prophets of Rage, Eagles of Death Metal, and Van Morrison. Steven Wilson also returned to the approach he took on his first two solo albums: instead of the “back up band” of Minneman, Beggs, Holzman, and Guthrie from the last two albums, he took over playing most of the instruments himself, and employed a scattering of musicians where needed. Andy Partridge (XTC) wrote the lyrics for the title track, and Paul Stacy is co-producer.
Here’s the thing, though. Pop-inspired songs have always been a part of the SW oeuvre, especially back in the Porcupine Tree days: Stupid Dream and Lightbulb Sun were pop albums, run through the PT/SW prog filter. Occasionally this tendency has snuck through in the solo career, especially on Hand. Cannot. Erase. It really shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that he would choose to explore this direction more fully at some point in his career. Apparently, working on the XTC and Tears For Fears remixes brought this tendency to full bore: an admirer of Abba, and the 1980s when chart-dominating pop songs were also just plain great songs, he chose this album to indulge this love.
So much for all that. What do we have here, music-wise?
One thing is plain: there are more Porcupine Tree vibes throughout To the Bone than on the last four albums combined—and this is not a bad thing. The album starts out well: the first couple of songs are engaging when they get going, but they leave nothing behind in the memory when they are done. “Pariah” is notable mostly for Ninet Tayeb’s crystalline voice, and “The Same Asylum as Before” is a very PT-ish track, but with a hooky poppy chorus.
After that, the album disappears into a void of pleasant tedium (i.e. I do not find “Refuge” very interesting) punctuated by sheer silliness (“Permanating”…seriously?), and relieved by the two best songs on the album: “People Who Eat Darkness”, and “Detonation”. These are tracks that have powerful, lush sections that hint at what the album could have been; and the latter song has a great, mesmerizing guitar solo by Dave Kollar.
To the Bone is rather different in style from the previous album, but it really does not differ substantially in effect – and that effect is one of pleasant noises, proficient if unadventurous song writing (“People Who Eat Darkness” and “Detonation” notwithstanding), strong melodies and some powerful passages here and there — but at the end of the day, there is very little to chew on. The few shreds of meat tossed in here and there are hardly satisfying. If you are looking for nice insubstantial melodies delivered with skill, something to sing along with and then forget – well, this album will serve very well.
And that is the thing – it is not a bad album by any means. It is better than I initially feared, going by the tracks released individually. However, it is not a particularly interesting album. It does not venture far from the safe zone, and I find this disappointing. Mr. Wilson’s reputation was not built on safe conventionality – this is a man who has explored ambient, drone metal, art rock, full-on prog, and whose deeply intuitive grasp of rock and prog is so extraordinary he is unmatched in the remix arena. But for whatever reason he has scoured away almost all that adventurousness, painted it over and polished it up to the point that there is almost nothing left to really listen to, with a few exceptions; and frankly, they are not worth waiting for in the context of the whole album. To the Bone is pretty, very very pleasant, and about as substantial as dandelion fluff.
However, for all that, it is obvious that this album is going to be a big commercial success, which is what Steven Wilson has wanted for a long time. He has made that much very clear over the years in various interviews, lamenting his inability to break through as far back as Deadwing at least. It seems that finally he may become that International Pop Star, and if so, more power to him. There is no doubt that he has worked hard for it, if anyone has.