Up until now, Steven Wilson has written a single song that can be reasonably called “happy” in his nearly 30 years as a professional musician. Wilson’s lyrics abide his oft-repeated mantra that “the saddest music is the most beautiful”. For him, truly meaningful and uplifting beauty comes in channeling difficult emotion into song. The songs that Wilson often touts as his best, such as Porcupine Tree‘s “Stop Swimming” and the devastating “Routine” from his 2015 solo LP Hand. Cannot. Erase., may deal with punishingly heavy subject matter (depression and isolation, respectively), but in taking them on, Wilson overcomes them.
The lone song of Wilson’s whose lyrics express overt jubilation, Porcupine Tree’s “The Rest Will Flow”, doesn’t get to savor in its contentment for long. “Stay with me my angel / I’ve found you now / I don’t feel low,” Wilson sings on the string-bathed track. Once the brief three minutes of “The Rest Will Flow” run out, the album — 2000’s Lightbulb Sun — segues into the menacing “Hatesong”, which in a live setting culminates with Wilson stabbing at his guitar with his plectrum after shouting, “Yes I’m hearing voices too / And I’m more cut up than you.” Joy, in the music of Steven Wilson, comes in feeling companionship with life’s struggles, not reveling in cheer. Tellingly, Wilson once titled a Porcupine Tree B-side “Cure for Optimism”.
For that reason, the song “Permanating”, while far less sophisticated than Wilson’s longer, more progressive pieces, represents one of his boldest career moves yet. Released as the fourth single from Wilson’s newest solo record, To the Bone, “Permanating” finds Wilson stretching his vocals into the upper reaches of his range — Justin Hawkins, he isn’t — atop bouncy piano chords and an insistent drum beat. But the music isn’t the only thing that’s chipper: in the chorus, Wilson sings, “Permanating / Celebrating now / Levitating high above the clouds.” In the vibrant music video for “Permanating”, directed by Andrew Morgan, Wilson hammers out the song on an upright piano while a troupe of Bollywood dancers twirls around him, smiles permanently plastered onto their faces. At one point, the camera catches Wilson looking at the dancers with an irrepressible grin etched onto his face. “I’ve always loved Bollywood dancing because it’s such a joyous form of expression,” Wilson explained to Anil Prasad. Perhaps that’s why Wilson smiles in the video. Or, maybe, he’s delighted by the experience of singing about something happy for once.
Like “The Rest Will Flow”, “Permanating” doesn’t lift the spirits of the album on which it appears. The song is sandwiched between “Blank Tapes”, a somber and beautiful duet with Ninet Tayeb about a fleeting romance, and “Refuge”, a meditation on the plight of Syrian refugees. But if “Permanating” doesn’t share the more serious subject material of the majority of To the Bone‘s tracks, it does join them in their emphasis on pop songwriting. Wilson is no stranger to pop; his project with Aviv Geffen, Blackfield, which has five studio records to its name, anchors its musical explorations in the three-to-four minute pop song.
Many of Porcupine Tree’s popular tunes — “Lazarus”, “Trains”, “Blackest Eyes” — are would-be radio hits whose only hindrance to mainstream exposure is Wilson’s insistence on doing things in every way but the mainstream musical playbook. Yet Wilson’s identity takes it shape from the world of progressive rock, a genre of which he is now considered the musical figurehead. This means lengthy songs, extended instrumental explorations, and conceptually-oriented albums. Even when Wilson manages to fit in a pop song on one of his many concept records, such as Hand. Cannot. Erase.‘s excellent title cut, it takes up far less space than the ten-plus minute compositions from which he earned his fame. Off the heels of the highly conceptual Hand. Cannot. Erase., To the Bone offers the song-centered side of Wilson’s musical world while maintaining clear connections with all elements of his formidable discography.
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The myriad connotations of the word “pop” resulted in minor controversy amongst Wilson’s fanbase when To the Bone was announced as a “pop album”, which was no doubt compounded by Wilson signing to a major label, Caroline International. Of course, anyone who knows Wilson’s tastes couldn’t have reasonably expected a capitulation to the mainstream charts simply because of the invocation of the word “pop”. The music of To the Bone certainly lends itself to the charts in a way the jazzy improvisation of The Raven that Refused to Sing (and other stories) (2013) and Hand. Cannot. Erase. could never hope to, but Wilson’s songwriting hasn’t strayed too far down the path he’s paved for himself. The soaring chorus of “Nowhere Now” wouldn’t have been out of place on this year’s Blackfield V. “The Same Asylum as Before”, Wilson’s take on FM radio-type classic rock, even cops the bridge riff from Porcupine Tree’s “Prodigal”. To the Bone presents Wilson compressed, rather than trying on a set of new genre tropes. Lengthier numbers like “Detonation” exhibit all the complexity found on Wilson’s concept albums.
In fact, To the Bone often sounds too close to Wilson’s prior albums, particularly in cases like the aforementioned “Nowhere Now” and “The Same Asylum as Before”. A superb chorus rescues the latter, and even as it borrows from “Prodigal” too closely, it successfully keeps the song at a steady, head-bobbing drive. (There is an article to be written on Wilson’s affinity for the Dsus2 chord, which begins the “Asylum” bridge and appears on Wilson-penned tunes like “Prodigal”, “Open Car”, and “Home Invasion”.) The pulsating “Song of I”, which was given a stunning video capture by frequent Wilson collaborator Lasse Hoile, mirrors the tense “Index” from 2011’s Grace for Drowning. Wilson’s songwriting here isn’t a simple act of copying and pasting, but it does sometimes rely on old tricks where other songs on the album showcase new ones.
Wilson’s smartest move in writing To the Bone was giving himself two songs to sing with Tayeb, “Pariah” and “Blank Tapes”. On Hand. Cannot. Erase., Tayeb proves herself to be a perfect collaborator for Wilson; her voice, hushed in one moment and soaring in the next, lends itself to the wide range of emotions that exist on Wilson’s best tracks. “Pariah” finds her vocals in full form, blossoming into a gorgeous crescendo as she counters the defeatist attitude of Wilson: “I’m tired of Facebook / Tired of my failing health / I’m tired of everyone / And that includes myself,” he sings, to which she replies, “So pariah, you’ll begin again / Take comfort from me / It will take time.” Although not the rosy-faced bliss of “Permanating”, this show of solidarity keeps with the surprising elation that runs throughout To the Bone.
In addition to flashing off some much-needed cheer, Wilson also sings about the pressing issues of the day: terrorism (“People Who Eat Darkness”), immigration (“Refuge”), and the “post-truth” era (“To the Bone”) each get a track of their own. Wilson hasn’t shied away from political commentary in the past; Porcupine Tree’s Fear of a Blank Planet tackles technological progress and the socialization of teenagers, and Hand. Cannot. Erase. zooms in on the interpersonal problems caused by modern urbanization. But To the Bone makes more pointed lyrical observations, particularly when it comes to the notion of “flexible” truth – or, as memorably put by one tangerine president’s spokesperson, “alternative facts”. Wilson’s music, whether encouraging a brighter outlook (“Pariah”) or a better understanding of what drives people to violence (“People Who Eat Darkness”), looks for the humanity in inhumane times. Music, like any great art form, should always aspire to that.
For all of the marketing and chatter about To the Bone being Wilson’s “pop turn” in his solo career, the album is continuous with the work he’s been doing since he started putting out solo LPs with 2008’s Insurgentes. The songwriting emphasis has shifted, but not transformed. Wilson remains a progressive artist even when To the Bone evokes the familiar. Really, it’s just nice to hear music that opens up the window shades and throws some sunlight on things. Melancholy defines Wilson’s music, no matter the project, which makes the unapologetic happiness of To the Bone a welcome entry into his catalogue. In post-truth times, joyous music may seem absurd, but Wilson makes it, and the times we live in, feel alright.