You shouldn’t feel bad if you find it hard to make it all the way to the end of Together We’re Stranger. While the album clocks in at only 47 minutes over seven tracks, it has a way of finding every emotional vulnerability a person could have and prodding at it until it opens up and bleeds until there’s nothing left but the “hollow thump of life that has no taste”. Yet if you’re still reeled in by the time “The Break-Up for Real” comes along, you might just find yourself able to breathe. Tim Bowness’ vocals and lyrics range from complete defeat to piercing pain throughout Together We’re Stranger, but on this track he sounds like he’s arrived at something close to peace. The three “short stories in song” that close off this LP get a reflective, almost optimistic conclusion in “The Break-Up for Real”, which finds Bowness able to articulate past heartbreak in a way unlike the six tracks that precede it. Many of the songs—“Things I Want to Tell You”, especially—are so devastating because they convey how people are often unable to express themselves under the weight of sorrow. Bowness’ lyrics capture this state through use of vague images and elliptic phrases—listen how he drags out the phrase “roll me over slow” on “Things I Want to Tell You”. In contrast, “The Break-Up for Real” finds Bowness expressing his past woes as someone who has let himself fall back into the rhythms of the real world.
“The Break-Up for Real” comes in two versions. On the standard CD it features no percussion, while a version with a simple drum beat appears on the vinyl LP. The latter is the better of the two on its own terms, but the former fits in better with the overall sonic of Together We’re Stranger. Any percussion on this record is quite minimal, even on the intense slow-build of “All the Blue Changes”, and the drum version makes “The Break-Up For Real” sound almost like a pop single, a format completely foreign to a work like this. (On iTunes and some other digital formats, it can be purchased as a single, with “Back When You Were Beautiful” as its b-side.) The drum mix’s inclusion on the vinyl edition is a curiosity, especially considering that it was included along with “(bluecoda)”, one of the sparsest tracks from the Together We’re Stranger sessions. Either way, the core mood of the song doesn’t change; the only thing that’s really enhanced by the drum mix is the amped up Mellotron, which would have been nice to hear in its initial iteration.
“Go back and see the folks / They’re always glad to see you”, Bowness sings. Going back to visit family is the most two-edged of swords; for all of the fondness one might have for his relatives, there are unavoidable formalities that come with these visits:
Trot out the tired old jokes,
avoid the things that seem new.
No talk about the wife,
she lives with someone else now.
Forget your former life
warm love became a cold cow.
Amidst these moments of banal convention, trickles of past heartaches threaten to rise above the surface. “Driving to the coast / It’s hard to know what hurts the most”, Bowness ponders; later, as he delves further back into his former life, these things come back again: “Go out to see some friends / You hope that you won’t lose it”. The balance of the past and the present is a difficult thing, and it’s the very thing at the core of “The Break-Up for Real”. Much of Together We’re Stranger is concerned with prying apart every facet of the post-loss state, but with this cut Bowness and Wilson drag themselves out from the recesses of devastation and into a vaguely familiar world. The ebbs and flows of normalcy elude him for some time, but eventually he’s able to keep his emotions from boiling over.
When the final piano chord is played, it’s plain to see why No-Man chose this song to end the album. It’s not the rom-com “tie a bow on it” ending that cauterizes all loose ends and shrugs off all past goodbyes. No, Tim Bowness and Steven Wilson are far from ever devolving into anything like that. They instead, as Johnny Black in his review of the LP for Mojo put it, “say the things we all think but rarely say.” There are so many breakup/loss-themed concept albums out there that it’s hard to find one to really hold on to; any single LP that truly gets at what a sufferer experiences is one worth holding onto. Together We’re Stranger is not just one of those albums: it might be the one.
And it’s not all sorrow and anguish. Just before the last moments of this wonderful record fade away, Bowness reminds us the power of music, the very power that makes Together We’re Stranger so resonant: “Singing to the sea / You sing the songs that set you free”.