Twisted in tangled sheets our narrator awakes. The calm before the storm of “The City in a Hundred Ways” was able to prolong this inevitable moment for awhile, but now that it has finally comes it seems eons ago that he was able to live without this level of suffering. “The City in a Hundred Ways” was the dream; this is the daymare. Losing a lover is an experience that many people face, but while the ubiquity of the break-up albums in popular culture prove that it’s easy to speak about this in the abstract, few, if any, ever get at the fact that the pain is rarely just cerebral. The word “goodbye” can cut with the sharpness of a swordsman’s blade and punch with the thrust of the calloused fists of a boxer. With “Things I Want to Tell You”, the core of Together We’re Stranger, Tim Bowness and Steven Wilson depict losing love as chronic pain. There are no spiteful jabs at ex-flames, sad-sack pleas for attention, or cries of anger at God, wondering why it is life must invariably come to times like this.
No, “Things I Want to Tell You” is all about realization. At first, it seems that the narrator still feels the ghost of his beloved:
Roll me over on my right side,
Roll me over slow.
Roll me over on my right side,
My left side hurts me so.
As Brand New put it in its song “Jesus Christ”, “But with nobody in your bed /The night’s hard to get through”. To use Bowness’ words, “Things I Want to Tell You” is a portrait of “death-bed isolation”. These lines are not, however, indicative of a failure to let go, which is made evident by Bowness’ wonderful vocal delivery. For the majority of the track, he sings as if he is only able to barely get out the words between swells of full-body aches; his words come slowly and drawn out. Every syllable rings loudly with his hurt. This is a picture of someone well aware of his utter isolation; he’s not calling out for his former lover, he’s calling out for anyone. This becomes especially clear when he repeats: “I’m what you left behind / I’m fading from your mind.” These are the words of a man struggling, but they also are statements of fact, which by their nature are hard to embrace, especially in a situation where every fiber of a person wants to hold on. Repeating these facts over and over again, for our narrator, is just one step in being able to hopefully move away. It’s a delicate balancing act, for these lyrics are themselves means by which he is made further solitary: “I’m fading from your mind” is a sentence that draws out the distance between the two people even further. Yet its repetition is necessary; no noble lie could ever mask this.
Bowness is at the peak of his career in these agonizing nine minutes. In recalling this album years later, he writes, “Like the emotional states it chronicles, it was an album that took time to get over.” Unlike other songs about the wreckages of love, Bowness doesn’t sound as if he is merely recalling a past event; it sounds like he’s actively re-experiencing the pain each time this song is played. For all nine minutes this track is brutal to listen to; if one is as invested as Bowness is at this point in the record, he’ll likely break down and cry. It’s hard to hear a line with the bone-chilling synesthesia of “the hollow thump of life that has no taste” and shrug it off.
What’s incredible is how the duo achieves this emotional potency with a meager smattering of sonic ingredients. Wilson’s acoustic guitar here is especially effective; in between sleepy strums he sharply picks single, ear-piercing notes, mirroring the twinges of pain the narrator is feeling. Mellotron forms the foundational canvas atop the washes of music that fade in and out like waves, much in the way the music of “The City in a Hundred Ways” did. The parallel is indicative of how, much in the way that the ex-lover has forgotten the narrator, he is forcing himself to forget her: “There are things I want to tell you / I no longer tell you / Ways I want to hold you gone to waste,” he says.
He has finally begun to recognize the finality of the failed relationship; as omnipresent as the afflictions are now, scars are beginning to close the gaps wounds once presented, and the wanting comes less in waves and more in drops. In the song’s final movements, a noise oscillates in and out until the silent conclusion; its quality ranges from heavy breathing to the sound of passing traffic outside a window. Either one fits in well with the narrative established by Together We’re Stranger‘s opening mini-suite. If the latter, the narrator is letting the din of the outside world back into his life; if the former, he is letting the memory of her escape from him—however much that can be done.
For while “Things I Want to Tell You” is both a depiction of a bed-ridden sufferer and the final minutes of a relationship’s grasp on a person, the threads of the story are by no means tied off. Bowness—who dubbed this track “perhaps his favorite No-Man song of them all”—gets right at its open-endedness when, after describing how much of Together We’re Stranger is informed through his encounters with mentally and physically ill people, he writes, “It seemed tragic to me that all this individual emotional history was fading or lost, trapped inside a malfunctioning brain, forever incapable of being properly expressed.” Grief always leaves ghosts within people in its wake. There are things the dejected wish to tell those who dejected them that will never form sounds to be heard. The tension between allowing things to linger and forever letting them go: this is the world of “Things I Want to Tell You”. As the official end to the 28-minute suite that begins Together We’re Stranger, it encapsulates everything this collection of songs speaks to. It reminds us that however many nights sleepless grief consumes, morning eventually comes. And while getting back into rhythm with the pace of life will take some time, unwinding oneself from the comfort of bedsheets and pillows is the necessary first step. The world outside will continue to move on in your absence.
* * *
He doesn’t miss her anymore, but every now and then he does think of her. As he crowds his way through throngs of people crammed together on city sidewalks, he sometimes hopes he will catch a glance of her. His life has picked back up wherever it was it left off, and while he is content with the way things are going now, there’s a sentiment that he can’t quite grasp—a sentiment somewhere between revenge and closure.
“(bluecoda)”, written during the Together We’re Stranger sessions, was initially conceived as a potential epilogue to the opening four-track suite, though it was abandoned by the time the final pressing of the album was made. The track was later included on the career retrospective All the Blue Changes—An Anthology 1988-2003, where its presence was something of a curiosity. Its sonic quality immediately stands out as belonging to Together We’re Stranger; included in this voluminous best-of collection, it feels like an orphan. On the vinyl edition of the album, it is included immediately following “Things I Want to Tell You”, though curiously it is put on the b-side of the LP, after one is forced to turn the record over.
The instrumentation is singular: a lone pump organ lays out a melancholic, warm textural background, a lovely complement to Bowness’ words. The quality of the organ captures the mixed mood of “(bluecoda)”; though at times looking backward, the song is really about the fast-forward to the life long after the breakup, though this time the person being examined is not our narrator but rather the person who burned him. His view of her falls somewhere in between sympathy and apathy. The lyrics here are few:
You stay inside avoiding dreams and danger.
You lie to hide the fact that something’s changed you.
You’re screening all your calls,
You’re staring at the walls.
The photographs in black and white still haunt you.
It’s not hard to see a kind of turned-tables satisfaction in our narrator. In his mind, he imagines his former lover as missing him; she too senses the phantoms of the things left behind, the things she maybe wanted to tell him. It may seem he has moved on from her—and in many ways he has—but she is a person outside of his life, not completely gone from it.
It’s a feeling our narrator is not sure how to process yet. But to get close to this feeling, one only needs to look to the title of this LP: Together We’re Stranger. If strangeness was the experience of our narrator and his lover, then being apart might—just might—provide some sense of normalcy. The worlds we construct for ourselves in relationships do leave remnants behind once they are shattered, but the world(s) we are forced back into can take us in… if we let them.
This is the world of “(bluecoda)”. It’s about life after the end of a world and the pieces we’re left to pick up as we move on.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.