Pain in a Hundred Ways: No-Man – “Back When You Were Beautiful”

Together We’re Stranger

If one were to reductively categorize each No-Man LP, Together We’re Stranger would be the duo’s “ambient” moment. Of course, past works by the duo certainly had their bouts of ambience; even the edgy industrial trip-hop of Wild Opera let in a few breathers (the spare piano ballad “Taste My Dream”). On Together We’re Stranger, however, Tim Bowness and Steven Wilson really let their compositions expand and flow. Part of this has to do with the origins of this music: as Bowness notes, the album initially began when Wilson sent him snippets of his work under the Bass Communion name (in particular the track “Drugged” from the self-titled debut). From there, Bowness sang atop Wilson’s ambient soundscapes; this is what led to the creation of the title cut of this LP. In the 28 minute opening suite, ambience is very much the name of the game; though the crescendo of “All the Blue Changes” incorporates many different musicians, its emphasis is still texture and space, two of the key themes present in Wilson’s experiments as Bass Communion.

With the last three and especially the last two tracks on Together We’re Stranger, No-Man returns to verse/chorus structure. The bipartite epic “Photographs in Black and White” is least conventional of these three; “Back When You Were Beautiful” and “The Break-Up for Real”, in contrast, find this English twosome going back to conventional formats. This isn’t to say that Wilson and Bowness phone it in for the latter half of this record, far from it. “Back When You Were Beautiful”—one of the finest things to emerge from Bowness’ pen—is just as heart-rending as anything in the opening suite, and instrumentation-wise it marks some of the most creative arrangements ever heard from this duo.

The lyrics to “Back When You Were Beautiful”, while formulaic in its alternate rhyme layout, find Bowness at his literary peak. In them he describes someone—let’s say a man, given the song’s music video—who time has gotten the best of. Fame, love, and adoration used to be the markers of his life, but now—for whatever reason, he is alone, letting age creep across old clothes. He speaks into a solipstic nothingness, forever unheard: “Singing songs / They’ll never understand / Tempo drifts / In half-cut wonderlands”. This isolation is akin to the valley of “Together We’re Stranger”; here, however, the ghosts of this person’s past still linger around. One of Bowness’ best stanzas depicts these ephemeral spirits:

Friendship comes,

But it mostly goes.

You mark your time

With your fading clothes.

The image of people walking past this person, almost gliding through him as were he a ghost himself, is evoked from these lines. These words are also indicative of the emphasis on temporality present in both “Photographs in Black and White” and this track; whereas the opening suite zeroes in on the moment of heartbreak itself and its aftermath, these songs fast-forward to decades later, where the wounds of these moments still linger. Much in the way Bowness attributed the subject of “Photographs in Black and White” to the story of an infirm person whose “individual emotional history [is] fading or lost, trapped inside a malfunctioning brain, forever incapable of being properly expressed”, the sufferer of “Back When You Were Beautiful”, as depicted in the animated music video for the track, has let the years accumulate without ever sorting through them. Photos of family gatherings, corporate retreats (“Back when you were beautiful / They’d smile and shake your hand”), and friends now long gone line the walls and empty drawers, projecting something of a life’s memory onto a receding mental state. No longer can this person “pass it off as pose”; there’s nothing left to pose, and no one left to pose for.

The last verse captures the ouroboros that will define the rest of this person’s life. “You walk for hours / With your feet like lead”, Bowness notes; “You keep your secrets / Locked inside of your head”. As the vestiges of his life bleed away, footsteps slow and memories fade. Even as he tries to go back out into the outside world to maybe garner a modicum of a meaningful interaction, he will invariably return to his home, where his only respites are evanescent pictures in cracked frames. The entropy of forgetfulness will eventually be his undoing.

Curiously enough, while Bowness’ words evoke the melancholy of growing older and the fleetingness of love and relationships that becomes evident with age, Wilson’s instrumentation reflects not bleakness but instead the tragicomic. For the majority of the song, Wilson slowly strums an acoustic guitar atop languorous bass notes and synthesizers; as things begin to come to a conclusion, he interrupts this reverie. Right after the final chorus, where Bowness leaves off with the dark lines “Back when you were beautiful / The needle pushed the red”, a banjo enters the picture. It’s not the instrument one would think of when trying to capture sadness, and it definitely throws one for a loop in this context. The best interpretation of the banjo’s presence here comes from Johnny Black of Mojo, whose excellent review of this album is included in the sleeve notes of its CD version: “[H]ow can a banjo sound so sad? Wilson’s decision to introduce a banjo, usually such a vibrantly cheerful instrument, at that point in the song might seem insane to most songwriters, but it’s absolutely the right instrument — maybe it’s the same effect as seeing a clown cry.” The way the banjo brings a hint of happiness to the song’s overall sadness serves to precisely emphasize the mournfulness of a life fading away. Along with seeing a clown cry, the effect is similar to the split-second of warmth one gets from looking at an old picture: remembering the good times lasts for a few seconds, after which you remember these times have already happened and indeed have since passed. The beauty—and sorrow—of a person’s past lives comes in their impermanence.

Previous Entries

*Introduction / “Together We’re Stranger”

*“All the Blue Changes”

*“The City in a Hundred Ways”

*“Things I Want to Tell You” / “(bluecoda)”

*”Photographs in Black and White”