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Steven Wilson: Hand. Cannot. Erase.

Brice Ezell and Jordan Blum

Hand. Cannot. Erase. is easily the strongest of Wilson's solo output in terms of cohesive narrative and dynamic song structure.

Brice Ezell: Watching Steven Wilson nail the encore of his 2013 "homecoming show" at London's Royal Albert Hall, it was hard to shake the feeling that tour and the album it was promoting, The Raven that Refused to Sing (and other stories), represented a special culmination of all he had worked toward at that point. Despite evading the "prog" label during his many years as the frontman of Porcupine Tree, The Raven remains to this day his proggiest release yet. (During the Royal Albert Hall concert, he refers to prog as "the p-word".) Deeply indebted to the sound of the '70's progressive rock that Wilson has long revered (King Crimson, Genesis, and Yes), the album captures Wilson's most intricate songwriting to date. Although his solo career kicked off with the experimental Insurgentes, he has worked his way back into the prog he's long been associated with, both as a musician and a producer.

Even though I reviewed The Raven favorably for PopMatters upon its release, over time I've found myself less keen on the music. While it's undeniably refreshing to hear Wilson's instrumental chops in such high form, I find that he is at his best when he indulges in his dark, experimental side. Give me the brooding soundscapes of Insurgentes ("Abandoner", "Get All You Deserve") over the extended jams that occupy The Raven anyday.

Moreover, the latter album is also structurally uninteresting. The balance of long song/short song is embedded in classic prog's DNA (see the tracklisting of many Rush albums), and for that reason The Raven plays pretty predictably. The assertive opening track "Luminol" is followed by the reflective ballad "Drive Home". Energetic jam "The Holy Drinker" is capped off by the so-so pop of "The Pin Drop". The Raven is simultaneously the most compositionally sophisticated of Wilson's solo records and the most predictable.

For that reason, I find the cryptically titled Hand. Cannot. Erase. to be a refreshing step up for this already accomplished auteur. The lengthier, proggier tracks haven't been completely done away with – in fact, "Home Invasion/Regret #9" might be one of his best yet – but there's also a greater diversity in song structures. He's even written one of his catchiest pop numbers in years in the form of the title cut.

However, I do know that you, Jordan, are a big fan of The Raven; when we wrote the Best Prog of 2013 for this very site, you voted it as your top pick for the year. So what do you think about Hand. Cannot. Erase as it relates to the overall arc of Wilson's solo career thus far?

Jordan Blum: Well, let me start by saying that although I seem to enjoy The Raven far more than you do, Brice (I even declared it “a work of genius” when I reviewed it for Examiner), I can see exactly where you’re coming from. As much as I adore the colorful and dynamic frenzy of the [largely] instrumental opener, “Luminol” (which, for my money, is superior to many of the ‘70s tracks that inspired it), the melodic transitions and compositional evolution of “The Watchmaker”, and the unequivocally gorgeous yet heartbreaking title track, I can see how you find The Raven to be a bit too much of a transparent homage to certain prog pioneers.

Nevertheless, Wilson pulls it off as no other modern visionary could, infusing his unique aural trademarks and melancholic themes into cherished templates that were laid out decades ago. In other words, it’s perfected emulation mixed with some of his most gripping songwriting, and that’s quite alright with me. In addition, The Raven is far more consistent and confident than its two predecessors (the first of which you still rank as his best solo statement, while I much prefer everything that followed it), and I would argue that it’s even slightly more satisfying overall than Hand. Cannot. Erase. But only just so; despite being a bit inaccessible at first, Wilson’s newest opus ultimately stands as one of his most cohesive, unique, touching, diverse, and fascinating records yet.

Before launching into a discussion of the disc, it’s worth exploring how Hand. Cannot. Erase. is Wilson’s first true narrative album. Sure, he’s explored concepts, themes, and melodic reprisals on past achievements (such as The Raven, Fear of a Blank Planet, In Absentia, and the significantly underappreciated The Incident), but Hand. Cannot. Erase. marks the first time he’s dedicated an entire collection to a single storyline and protagonist. In fact, the Hand. Cannot. Erase. project also includes many photos of, and diary entries from, the main character (so the music itself only makes up part of the fictional world).

Wilson was inspired to write the work after seeing Dreams of a Life, a 2011 drama-documentary about the life and death of Joyce Carol Vincent, a thirty-eight year old Londoner who effectively erased herself from the world at the turn of the century. Having cut ties with her friends, family, and everyone else in the city, she lived isolated and socially invisible until her death (in her flat) in December 2003. However, her body wasn’t discovered until the start of 2006, and it was precisely these tragic yet unfathomable circumstances that intrigued Wilson. How could a person who lives in one of the largest Metropolitan areas in the world effectively disappear from public view? Likewise, how could someone be so inconsequential that no one notices he or she is gone for over two years? Feeling a connection to Vincent’s story, as well as a need to explore the dangers of our obsession with technology and social media, Wilson decided to turn his curiosities and social commentaries into a concept album.

Taking all of that into context and consideration, Brice, I’m interested to know your thoughts on the album. Let’s take it from the beginning.

BE: Well, things kick off quite ostentatiously with the lengthy opening instrumental salvo of “First Regret” and “Three Years Older”. Much like the speedy staccato bass blasts at the beginning of The Raven’s opening number “Luminol” and the dramatic chords that commence Porcupine Tree’s The Incident, Wilson likes to make a vivacious kickoff statement, which the chords of “Three Years Older” certainly do. (On a somewhat more technical note, the song also highlights the Dsus2 to B flat chord transition, which can be heard throughout the entirety of Wilson’s discography.) Between the synths and electric organs, the prog flourishes are definitely in full force, but they’re noticeably less overt with respects to referencing ‘70s prog than The Raven. That’s a trend that carries throughout the whole record, in fact, which I find to be a breath of fresh air given the overwhelming specificity of sound on The Raven.

But while “Three Years Older” is an impressive opener that runs at an appropriately long ten minutes, I’m far more impressed by the third track, “Hand. Cannot. Erase.” In the past I’ve lamented the slow deterioration of the sharp pop/rock music of Blackfield, Wilson’s project with Israeli singer/songwriter Aviv Geffen, but from the sound of this cut Wilson hasn’t lost his ability to craft a stellar pop tune. Admittedly, as far as pop songs go, it’s an atypical one; one would be hard pressed to think of a Billboard top ten song in 9/4. In the context of both Wilson’s music and Hand. Cannot. Erase. as a whole, however, it fits quite brilliantly.

Less succesful, although still interesting within the context of the album overall, is “Perfect Life”, an electronic tune (Wilson cites Boards of Canada as an influence) that opens with a monologue about two friends that have lost touch and closes with a simple, melancholy refrain: “We have got / We have got a perfect life”. Whereas “Hand. Cannot. Erase” stands just fine on its own, “Perfect Life” really only makes sense as a part of the story that the record tells. The case of Joyce Carol Vincent is a fascinating one, and it’s clearly affected Wilson, as he does some of his sharpest lyric here. Whereas The Raven’s Edgar Allen Poe worship was, like its music, a bit unsubtle, his exploration of social isolation in the modern age -- something he did to an amazing effect on Porcupine Tree’s Fear of a Blank Planet (2007) -- is incredibly well done.

Although I am taken by the title track more than any other on Hand. Cannot. Erase., as is the case with Wilson usually it’ll be the longer pieces that garner the most attention. To that end, it’s worth highlighting the stunning centerpiece “Routine”, which captures how the mundane can really start to wear on one’s life in the big city. Joined by a young boy’s choir and Israeli singer Ninet Tayeb, Wilson gives a fine vocal performance that’s made all the more dynamic by the contrast of the aforementioned two singers. “Routine”’s last lines are particularly beautiful in their fatalistic sorrow: “Don’t ever let go / Try to let go”.

JB: I have to agree that the opening duo is reminiscent of "Luminol", both in terms of its dynamic prog ferocity and its vocal intermissions. However, I find the melodies of "Three Years Older" to be vastly superior to those of "Luminol" (although I adore them too), and I really love how the atmospheric, ghostly ambience of “First Regret” bleeds into “3 Years Older”. It hints at the record’s thematic penchant for solitude, loss, and uncertainty very well, suggesting the emotions and sentiments that Wilson will eventually explore.

It's interesting that you bring up the structure of the pieces, Brice, as Wilson has noted that aspects of these songs repeat later in the album. When we last spoke (for an upcoming piece on Popmatters), for example, he told me that bits of “First Regret” can be heard again near the end of the album (in both "Regret #9" and "Happy Returns"). Actually, the only other time he’s done this is with The Incident, but it’s far more effective and clever here. Also, I see what you mean about the vintage embellishments being less explicit and in-your-face than on The Raven; however, I don’t necessarily think this piece is better or worse because of it. It’s just different. Lyrically, the song stands out as a charmingly poetic introduction to the main character, as it suggests her dissociative upbringing and need for isolation.

Moving on, I don’t think there’s a single listener who won’t find the title track to be one of Wilson’s most accessible and hypnotic songs ever, which is truly saying something. It’s true that Blackfield’s music hasn’t fared as well since Wilson became less involved (to be fair, though, Geffen did pen many of their initial classics too), yet “Hand. Cannot. Erase”. would surely fit well on one of the first two Blackfield collections. It’s that infectious.

Thematically, it uses its central character to explore a notion Wilson has long since felt: that “when you’re of a certain age, you’re supposed to couple off. Pair off with someone and be together. There has to be this element of togetherness. It’s what society and her family expects... [but] she really doesn’t feel like she’s enjoying it. She feels like she can’t wait to be back on her own again”. As anyone who’s been in a relationship knows, there’s a certain poignancy in Wilson’s declarations here, such as when he sings, “Trust means that we don’t have to be together every day” and “Feeling guilty if we sometimes want to be alone”. Although it’s relatively simple lyrically and musically, it’s nonetheless one of the finest examples thus far of Wilson’s brilliant pop songwriting sensibilities.

When I hear “Perfect Life”, I immediately think of the industrial experimentation of Insurgentes. I really like the wise/melancholic narration of Katherine Jenkins too, as well as her connection to the beginning of the album (she says, “She was three years older than me...” at one point). I concede that it’s not an especially strong song taken out of context, but it’s still undeniably affective (especially the way it builds, with a specific sequence sounding after she says, “To watch the barges on Grand Union in the twilight” that really hits the heartstrings). Wilson takes over in the second half, and while he only repeats the title continuously, the tenderness and regret in his voice makes it haunting. That, coupled with its In Absentia level of industrial beauty, allows it to stand as one of the record’s most unique and touching pieces.

On a side note, Wilson says that he composed and recorded roughly “95%” of “Perfect Life” on his own. It’s also worth mentioning that the chords of “Perfect Life” are repeated on “Happy Returns”, and that Wilson sees it as one of his most successful “nostalgia” songs, in that it involves “looking back at something very fondly, with happiness and joy, but it’s also looking back and knowing that you could never recapture that moment again”.

As for “Routine”, it begins in a standard way, with Wilson’s lamentations combining with sorrowful piano chords. His melody evolves atypically, though, as does the song itself once it moves from its straightforward opening to the more sparse and ominous production when Tibet comes in. Of course, Wilson’s social commentary is apt here, as we’re all more or less stuck in daily [and mundane] routines. As for the lone choirboy, he’s used sparingly yet effectively, much like what Kate Bush did on her fourth opus, The Dreaming (which directly inspired Wilson to use a choirboy here).

The instrumental breaks, with their lovely acoustic guitar arpeggios seguing into controlled catastrophe evoke bits of his last two solo outings, while Tibet eventually steals the show (albeit with Wilson’s ghostly harmonies) by the end, belting out her proclamations with gorgeous attitude. It actually reminds me of the equally effective use of Ché Aimee Dorval in Devin Townsend’s latest project, Casualties of Cool. And you couldn’t be more correct, Brice, about the chilling serenity of the tracks final words. Combined with another stellar arpeggio (that slows down alongside their voices), it’s a powerful ending.

As elegant, intense, and meaningful as this first half is, Hand. Cannot. Erase. only gets more destructive, tranquil, and sorrowful as it concludes. Wouldn’t you agree, Brice?

Splash image of Steven Wilson by Lasse Hoile.

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