First he was alone. Then he was crowded out by the ant-marching of city life. Now, our narrator is somewhere else, a place that’s near-indescribable. From the sound of “The City in a Hundred Ways”, the only instrumental track on Together We’re Stranger, he is in a sort of fugue or comatose state. Viewed in context—specifically as the precursor to “Things I Want to Tell You”—this seems like the intention of Tim Bowness and Steven Wilson in crafting this piece. The latter song is about awakening to a world of pain; correspondingly, the former is a hazy depiction of a mind clouded by unprocessed thoughts, rising emotions, and better-forgotten memories. The narrator’s plight is now similar to that of Leonard Shelby’s in Christopher Nolan’s reverse-narrative masterpiece Memento: “I can’t remember to forget you”. It’s a fitting parallel for more reasons than one: this little song is cinematic in how it mentally evokes a dreamlike montage of blurry remembrances of a love not so long lost.
In the grand scheme of Together We’re Stranger, “The City in a Hundred Ways” seems like a throwaway initially. At 2:23, it’s the shortest thing here (barely beating the vinyl-exclusive “Bluecoda” by 13 seconds), and its instrumentation is comprised of nothing more than slowly played horns and electronics—the latter provided by guest contributor David Picking. Compositionally it bears a noticeable likeness to the act of an orchestra tuning up, trying to find that perfect pitch. But in the case of this piece, it doesn’t quite get to that perfection. As a piece it sounds almost floating; whereas cuts like “All the Blue Changes”—while undoubtedly interpretive—make a fairly clear point, “The City in a Hundred Ways” is the most ethereal part of this LP, no small feat considering the myriad meanings one can draw from Bowness’ lyrics. Considering the plight of the narrator, this foggy quality is best described as the result of the transition shock from being left all alone to being thrust back into the ever-shuffling world of the city. As the listener follows along in this man’s plunge into the world of heartbreak, they becomes just as disoriented as he is.
But beyond the aforementioned images this track evokes, perhaps the best way of imagining it is like slowly ascending from deep into the ocean to the real world above. The way the horns lowly fade in and out of the electronics in the background is like a slow dissolve suddenly reversing itself; at times, these long notes tease, as if a melody were just about to present itself. The world overhead is materializing ever slowly, for what dreamer would not want to prolong being away from loneliness? With “Together We’re Stranger” and “All the Blue Changes”, where isolation and big city claustrophobia are sharply juxtaposed, the stage for “Things I Want to Tell You”, the album’s centerpiece, is set. Anything that can be done to prepare the narrator for that ultimate moment of complete breakdown has already been done. At some point, staving off grief eventually gives way to reality. The city, in its mysterious, ineffable hundred ways, has sunk its teeth in. This is when the wounds begin to open; soon, they’ll start to bleed out.
No better word describes “The City in a Hundred Ways” better than “deceiving”. It may not seem like nothing at all, but the role it plays in Together We’re Stranger‘s opening five-song suite is everything. Eventually the solipsistic shells mourners build around themselves must crack and fall apart, even if the sunlight is scorching.