The opening 28 minutes of Together We’re Stranger (or 30 if you include “(bluecoda)”) form the most exhausting thing No-Man has ever put to tape. In just half an hour, this emotionally turbulent suite covers nearly every aspect of grief and suffering; it manages to say a book’s worth of things about these topics in an economically-minded set of lyrics. On its own, these five tracks could have formed a long EP or short LP in their own right; however, the story of Together We’re Stranger is not yet finished. Whereas the suite comprises a complete, self-contained narrative, “the remaining three pieces [are] more akin to short stories in song”, to use Tim Bowness’ words. The first of these stories, “Photographs in Black and White”, hints at some of the themes explored in the aforementioned suite, but the overall direction has now shifted, resulting in the most epic individual track on Together We’re Stranger; at ten minutes, it’s its longest. In its sharply drawn duality, it highlights the light and dark sides of nostalgia. It’s the story of flipping through the pages of photo albums and realizing all the unresolved ties that build up over the years.
“Photographs in Black and White” opens with one of Together We’re Stranger’s recurring motifs: “the city in a hundred ways”. Bowness sings of this unnamed, unidentified city atop gentle strums of an acoustic guitar. There’s a longing in his voice; with lines like “Your eyes against the midday light / Your eyes when they still have the fight”, he’s clearly observing someone whose better years have since faded. However, the music backing him suggests a pastoral tranquility that’s comforting to the person being observed.
The interplay between the musicians here, which hearkens back to the warmth of the jazz style of Returning Jesus, suggests a world that—while no utopia—is providing a good home to its occupant. Steven Wilson’s guitar work here is nicely understated, though not in the way that his piercing notes on “Things I Want to Tell You” were. Here Wilson sounds relaxed, as were he sitting in a wicker chair on a front porch, flipping through a book of old memories. When joined by Ben Castle’s clarinet, the mood becomes utterly sublime. No-Man has always been powerful because of the magic that comes when Bowness and Wilson work together, but with this LP and Returning Jesus, the duo became just as much about the musicians it collaborated with. These musicians include Roger Eno, who contributes a lovely harmonium soundscape to this track.
Yet even as this person smiles while looking at these aged photographs, there’s a frown trying to force itself. “They loved you / When you thought that no one could / They loved you / When you said that no one should”, Bowness sings, hinting at how far past these feelings now are. This feeling of being undeserving is a hard one to ponder on, and as memories of the past begin to fill this person’s mind, so do the lost regrets and loves that are captured in these pictures. Because for every time these people loved this person, they also undercut him: “They love you / Then they say you’re much too, much too bland”. Friends and family are never perfect, and even when one tries to only focus on the happy parts of the past, bitterness has a way of creeping in.
It’s this transition that “Photographs in Black and White” captures so splendidly—and surprisingly. The opening five minutes of this song are an almost rustic Americana (which interesting, given that Bowness has said this song is about his time in London). The closing half, however, shifts Together We’re Stranger into its darkest moment. At first, this dark half begins with a kicking up of the pace with David Picking’s minimal percussion, consisting of only a lightly tapped cymbal. Wilson’s guitar arpeggios then wind around each other in looped fashion that brings to mind his work on Flowermouth. Bowness lyrics then take a turn for the morose:
Spending days on the phone
While the cold eats your bones
How in the world do you make it right?
How in the world can you make a life?
After these lines finish, a low, powerful strum enters, forming a drone background. It’s one of the few moments on Together We’re Stranger where electronic instrumentation takes over—the broad majority of the instruments here are acoustic—and it’s crushing in its heaviness. Echoes of Wilson’s work with Dirk Serries under the name Continuum, a microambient project with elements of drone doom, are present here, which forms a compelling and unexpected moment of devastation. Even as Castle tries to introduce the clarinet into this half of the song, Wilson’s guitar will come in and suffocate it. It’s as perfect a representation as there could be of the feeling of emptiness that this part of “Photographs in Black and White” aims to capture. At this point in the song, Bowness is painting a picture of a person who realizes that life leaves more questions than answers, more festered wounds than scars. The final seconds of the track, where the guitar abruptly stops, is also indicative of this theme; to borrow the words of the much less articulate Chris Martin, memory often switches between “commas and full stops” without our wanting it to.
The sharp contrast between the two halves of “Photographs and Black and White” makes it one of No-Man’s career masterpieces. It’s not, however, a case of simplistic black and white storytelling: this is a song that realistically shows how quickly the remnants of our past can move our minds from nostalgia to heartache. The lines we draw between fond memories and better forgotten nightmares can easily dissolve over time.
If there’s one thing that’s to be taken away from this piece, however, it’s the two questions asked in its later half. How in the world do you make it right? How in the world do you make a life? These are questions a single person could probably never answer—Bowness likely knows this. The importance of these queries, then, is not that we solve the answers to these questions, but rather that we never forget the questions in the first place. Unexamined lives are not worth living, so antiquity tells us, and living life only to be haunted by its lingering doubts and insecurities by its end is hardly a life at all. This is all a part of what makes Together We’re Stranger; even as it reminds the listener the reality of how so many people handle loss, it manages to offer something like a suggestion. These lessons are not didactic; the beauty of Bowness and Wilson’s skill is they let the music speak for itself. In the case of “Photographs in Black and White”, much like the aphorism about pictures in general, these words number over a thousand.
// Notes from the Road
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