[18 March 2013]
A moment of hurt. A squall of noise. Then, suddenly, everything dissipates, leaving only a wide, desolate, far-reaching valley with nothing on the horizon. You are all alone.
In only 23 seconds, Together We’re Stranger—No-Man’s 2003 masterpiece—places the listener in pure sonic solitude. Opening with a burst of droning, grating noise that then abruptly gives way to tranquil, ethereal textures, the album is set in a contextually specific time and place; however, that context is not made clear for some time. It takes another two minutes and twenty seconds of ambience, oscillating guitar, and low bass notes for lead singer Tim Bowness’ voice to finally kick in: “We step outside / And face the poisoned weather”.
It took quite a lot for No-Man to arrive at this moment. Beginning in the late ‘80s as a mix of romantic pop and the then-popular beats of trip-hop and hip-hop, the duo of Bowness and famed prog polymath Steven Wilson—who initially began with the tongue-in-cheek moniker “No-Man is an Island Except for the Isle of Man”—is one that from the beginning has outright rejected complacency. After releasing a now out-of-print debut, Loveblows and Lovecries: A Confession, No-Man broke through with an incredible sophomore LP, Flowermouth. That album stands alone sonically in their discography, but it retains what remain some of the integral No-Man traits: Bowness’ economical, poetic lyrics, Wilson’s love for space and texture, and an emotional depth in all aspects of the music. Sadly, One Little Indian—who declined to appear in Returning, the documentary on the duo’s career—dropped Bowness and Wilson after Flowermouth, finding them not to be in with the trends of the time. However, not but two years later, the duo would shake up their entire sound yet again, this time with the dark, sinister underworld of Wild Opera, released in 1996 on 3rd Stone Ltd.
The music world had left a bitter taste in No-Man’s mouth. Where once Bowness sang of angels and beauty over gorgeous string arpeggios, he now prophesies of urban decline, broken homes, and backstabbing friends atop dirty, chunky guitar riffs and pulsating beats. The essence of the project hadn’t changed; the sublime ballad “My Revenge on Seattle” closed off Wild Opera, giving a clear indication that for whatever cynicism the duo had adopted between their second and third records, they still hadn’t given up hope on being who they were at the core.
And then something wonderful happened. In 2001, No-Man released Returning Jesus, an album that took a step back from the anger that formed the bedrock of Wild Opera. Bowness and Wilson found themselves in the world of singer/songwriter jazz, where the bleak topics they had explored in the past disappeared, leaving room for the optimism that made Flowermouth so lovely an LP. “Come to me / And make it special”, Bowness sings to his lover on “Lighthouse”, one of the defining No-Man tracks, “Come to me / And make it real”. A grace that had never been present in No-Man flourished in full form; this was the sound of a band at its peak.
Or so it seemed.
One song on Returning Jesus—the title track—hinted at something much more brilliant to come. With a dreamy and simple percussion melody playing behind him, Bowness intones: “Slow it all down / It always moves so fast”. Much like he has done in the past, Bowness here speaks in vague yet resounding lines. “I don’t want to stay / A million miles away”, he cries, bringing forth a pain in the music of No-Man that past songs had only hinted at. Even a track like “Things Change” from Flowermouth, which remains a No-Man essential, didn’t possess the quality of hurt that now tinged Bowness’ vocals. As much as Returning Jesus signaled what has become the most creative period of No-Man’s career, it also hinted at something amazing just ahead—something few then could have anticipated.
Which brings us back to solitude. “Together We’re Stranger,” the richly sparse opener to the album that bears its name, is the introduction to what is to this day the greatest No-Man album. (It’s also, as I argued some weeks ago, the best thing Wilson has ever done.) Few recordings ever come close to attaining the title of “a perfect album”, but in every aspect of its construction—from Bowness’ literary narrative to Wilson’s tastefully minimal arrangements—Together We’re Stranger is sonic perfection. There are no wasted words here, no notes that would have been better left off the page. Like the contemporary poetry that Bowness draws his lyrical influence from, Together We’re Stranger is the archetypal example of a little saying a lot; at seven tracks spanning forty-seven minutes, the duo doesn’t ramble. In moving somewhat away from the jazz of Returning Jesus and into the realm of the ambient, Bowness and Wilson strip all of what No-Man had tacked on over the years, leaving behind a raw, unexposed, and tortured soul. At times, the music is too spare, to the point of inducing pain in the listener. But this, of course, is intentional.
“Together We’re Stranger” is the portrait of a mourner alone. The mechanical noise that begins the track is itself a cover-up; clearly, something awful has just happened, but what? Bowness’ lyrics here—some of the strongest on the album—are specific enough to give a generic context: the dissolution of a relationship. “Drifting off, despite the cost / Afraid to ask for better”, Bowness sings, his voice ringing in the valley he now finds himself alone in. Nearly every note in this song echoes for miles and miles, a wonderful representation of the feeling of isolation that’s necessary to immerse oneself in the exploration of loss that forms Together We’re Stranger’s fundamental core. Over the track’s eight minutes, there are only seven lines of lyrics, one of which is a repeated line: “You and I are something else together”.
As a commentary on the duo of Bowness and Wilson, few lines could be truer. For all of the acclaim and popularity Wilson has attained being the frontman of the progressive metal band Porcupine Tree, No-Man is still the one outlet where he puts out his most inventive music. Every release of his with Bowness has felt authentic in a way no other albums of his do; even when No-Man falters, it’s still putting out peerless material. Best of all, there’s no real, comprehensive way to explain the duo’s magic. The ingredients appear simple enough: the credits for the LP read: “Tim Bowness—Vocals, Steven Wilson—Instruments”. Their union is simultaneously simple and endlessly complex. The roles of each musician may be easy to delineate, but when put together they are truly something else, something that words will always struggle to capture. Though verse/chorus structure and catchy pop hooks have been a part of No-Man’s sound over the years, when moving into more free-form sonic exploration beginning with Returning Jesus, instrumental sections in the duo’s music noticeably expanded, reflecting the fact that for every time Wilson can’t express what Bowness is singing, there’s a corresponding moment where Bowness needs to set the mic down and let the music speak for itself.
In the context of Together We’re Stranger, this lyric is the crux of the album’s story. Though the stories told in this record have no names or specific places, there is an undeniably strong narrative arc that lasts all the way through these seven songs. The man in isolation, the one whose head is still reeling from the moment he can’t quite put words to yet, is still not grasping the inevitability of his loss. “You and I are something else together” is one of those poetic lines that out of context may seem banal or rote; in this case, however, it’s absolutely devastating. It’s at the same time an expression of letting go and a refusal to acknowledge what’s already happened. It’s a line you could imagine a male protagonist in an old-timey film saying to the love of his life and a subtly vicious insult said by someone who’s too afraid to say what she truly feels.
As for Bowness, while it’s obvious that pain has yet to fully sink its claws in, it’s not clear where he thinks he’s going. Once the final line of the song is sung, a piercing, agonizing guitar solo by frequent collaborator Michael Bearpark enters the picture. The effect of the guitar here is akin to seeing Bowness standing in the valley, looking around for someone to hold, while lines of hurt begin to etch into his face. It’s not enough to bring tears to his eyes; no, those haven’t come just yet. But by the time “Together We’re Stranger” reaches its final seconds, where a processed, submerged vocal moans lowly, hints of the vision of a man curled up on the floor unable to move for the aches paralyzing emotion begin to materialize. That vision—while certainly on the horizon, has still a few songs to come.
For now, there is but a man in an empty valley with no reference points, no place to call home. Like the expansive synthesizer textures that fill the canvas of the song, this open air does not signal freedom from being bound to someone; it instead stands for the suffering that loss imprisons us all. It’s a feeling that, while terrible in many ways, is essential to the human experience.
It is something else, indeed.