When it comes to post-OK Computer English rock music, the Pineapple Thief haven’t garnered the mainstream success of groups like Muse, Elbow, and Coldplay. Yet the Pineapple Thief, led by frontman and principal songwriter Bruce Soord, have quietly and at a steady clip compiled one of the most impressive discographies out of all their contemporaries. Beginning with 2008’s Tightly Unwound, the pace has been a new album every two years. The latest, Versions of the Truth, marks the 13th studio outing for this perennially underrated English outfit.
If one were to hear segments of the Pineapple Thief’s strongest LPs – 2010’s Someone Here Is Missing and 2014’s Magnolia, by this critic’s lights – they might understandably wonder why Soord and his bandmates aren’t used to selling out arenas by this point. Those most likely to know the group are those in the progressive rock community, as all of the Pineapple Thief’s records since Tightly Unwound have been recorded for the Kscope label, home to other prog luminaries like Porcupine Tree and Anathema. Compositionally, Soord strikes a more mainstream-friendly version of the balance that defines progressive-tilting British rock: technically intricate instrumentation and melancholic emotion, cerebral yet immediate rock ‘n’ roll. Tunes like “Show a Little Love” (from Someone Here is Missing) and “Alone at Sea” (from Magnolia) would have been believable chart hits had the chips fallen a certain way.
Soord’s skill as a songwriter is building elaborate songs from within the verse/chorus structure; even when the instrumentals reach their most complex moments, they rarely get lost in the noodling that plagues prog rock at its worst. A ten-minute epic like “White Mist” on Dissolution (2018) feels expansive in the way that the best progressive music can be, while at the same time always staying close to the core hook that runs throughout the song. More than any act in the prog world, Pineapple Thief are best poised for crossover success, even if the days where sad rock music played by white British men dominated the charts is ever receding.
That opportunity grew even stronger in 2016 when the band brought Gavin Harrison aboard to man the drum kit. Harrison rose to prominence as the drummer for Porcupine Tree beginning with that group’s landmark disc In Absentia (2002). As a drummer, his trademark is a kind of surgical precision in his playing that can switch on a dime from headbanging riff sections to gentle, jazz-inflected moments of respite. Your Wilderness, Harrison’s first album with the Pineapple Thief, showed real promise for his role in the band. Songs like “In Exile” and “Tear You Up” benefit from his unique rhythmic designs, notably the tom work on the bridge to the former. Yet on that LP and its follow-up, Dissolution, Harrison’s presence doesn’t quite settle into the existing Pineapple Thief sound. Particularly on Your Wilderness, his distinctive drumming style feels like an enhancement of the music, rather than an integral ground-up component. But on Dissolution, Harrison starts to acclimate, especially on “White Mist”, to date one of the band’s finest pieces.
Now, on Versions of the Truth, the Pineapple Thief emerge as a fully cohesive unit with Harrison, his approach to percussion now naturally aligned with Soord’s songwriting. The title track, an instant classic for the band, anchors itself on a repeating lyric that connects with the theme of “post-truth” that runs throughout the record: “It’s not how I remember it.” Over five serpentine minutes, “Versions of the Truth” seems like it will arrive at a chorus, but it never quite does. Like a puzzle, the song defines itself through its contrasting sections rather than a standard verse/chorus configuration. A hypnotic marimba figure leads at one point, accented by Harrison’s gentle yet tension-building cymbal work, while late in the piece, heavy riffs clash against a descending and discordant piano line. The juxtaposition of the mercurial song structure and the repeated “not how I remember it” refrain literalizes the notion of conflicting truths.
Here, and on songs like “Break It All” and the contemplative “Driving Like Maniacs”, the lyrics explore the ramifications of divergent truths colliding in people’s lives, with Soord treating “post-truth” as a metaphor for interpersonal dynamics rather than a vehicle for political commentary. The conceptual focus of Versions of the Truth and the tight interplay between Soord, Harrison, Jon Sykes (bass), and Steve Kitch (keyboards), mark a new creative high for the band, easily their best since Magnolia.
Although the Pineapple Thief has undeniable “prog” chops, Soord, as a songwriter, prefers concision and focus. Even the most indulgent guitar solo or instrumental break on a Pineapple Thief record will typically amount to a quarter of what the Dream Theater-aping guitarists of the world would allow themselves to do. This songwriting approach holds on Versions of the Truth. With it clocking in at around 45 minutes and an average song length of four and a half minutes, the record offers a lot to those who seek more adventurous rock music without committing themselves to odysseys of time signature changes.
The seven-minute “Our Mire” cribs from the ambitious structure of “White Mist” a little less successfully, but it features some of Harrison’s sharpest drumming. The way the clean, echoey guitar lead on “Out of Line” halts before a section of quiet keyboard plinking is just one case in point for the Pineapple Thief’s skill in establishing dynamic distinctions. Alongside these unshowy-yet-virtuosic moments sit some of the most accessible tunes of this group’s career, like lead single “Demons” and “Leave Me Be”.
Frontloading proves to be the only notable folly of Versions of the Truth. The strongest cuts all appear in the first five tracks. The back half features some experiments that don’t quite pan out, like the Elbow-esque mid-tempo of “Too Many Voices” and the contemplative “Stop Making Sense”, which, instead of paying tribute to the Talking Heads, brings back the marimba from the title track to an atmospheric yet fleeting effect. Those moments, however, do not detract from the overall success of the album. It’s a musical portrait of a band that continue to deepen their sound after decades of making music.