Back at the beginning of this exercise, I promised one album per artist, but I always knew that there would be both a Porcupine Tree and a Steven Wilson album in this, and while I could have picked one of the later solo albums which are much less Porcupine-like, I wanted to explore this album because I think it says something about how listening to albums has both changed out of all recognition since those early days in Aberdeen, and is yet surprisingly similar now.
I’m coming to the end of this journey, and I’m feeling that some of the conclusions I thought I was coming to may not be as clear-cut as I imagined. For example, here is an album which I have regularly listened to in exactly the same way I used to listen to those ELP and Wings albums back in the early seventies.
Which is to say, alone, in my room, watching the album rotate on the turntable while I pore over the cover and do nothing else that just listen. I think that from the point when I was first able to listen to my music in a car (in the van, in my case), I slowly lost the ability to just stop and listen; there always seemed to be something else to be getting on with, but there’s a song on this album which I credit with bringing me back to the original way of doing things; a song which only emerged into the light when I stopped doing anything else and just listened.
There’s also a song on here which only truly reveals itself when you see the video accompanying it, so that’s another area to explore.
Following the demise of Porcupine Tree, which happened more or less at the point when I started to become a proper fan, I naturally developed an interest in the works of Steven Wilson; a lifetime of music-making which I think would take a lifetime to explore and appreciate, given all the projects and remixes he’s been involved in. Around that time, I first got myself a smartphone, and discovered that there was a Steven Wilson app.
At which point, I think it’s worth pausing to consider just how all this music was now reaching me.
It’s not a direct analogy, but bear with me – in 1975, Genesis, a band I was just discovering, broke up. For some definition of ‘broke up’, of course – this is what I mean by it not being a direct analogy.
The lead singer, Peter Gabriel, started releasing solo albums, but the only way to hear one of them was to go out and buy it (it didn’t appear in the library, and the only other option I had was to borrow it from one of my more Genesis-obsessed friends, which – I think – is what I eventually did.)
By 2010, armed with my early smartphone, I could hear all or any of the tracks on Steven Wilson’s first couple of solo albums any time I liked, as I had access to iTunes, and shortly thereafter, to streaming services like Spotify. The teenaged me would have passed out, I think, at the idea of just being able to pull this music from the ether using a device which fit in my pocket.
I mean, the teenaged me was also heavily into science fiction, so might have coped better than most, I don’t know….
There was, however, a downside to being able to hear all this music whenever I wanted. Firstly, it took me a long time to get round to the Steven Wilson solo albums, because I was busy streaming endless albums I had discarded over the years, copies of things I still had, but which were in poor condition (something weird happened to my CD of Hejira, for example, so it skipped like an old-fashioned, poorly treated LP), or went looking for back catalogues I knew I should have heard, but had never quite got round to.
Eventually, however, I started to work my way through the solo Wilson albums, and liked what I heard. It wasn’t until much later, however, that it occurred to me that ‘heard’ was the operative word – I wasn’t so much listening to these albums as hearing them, and perhaps I just accepted that this was the way things worked now – who had time to properly listen to things any more?
Well, that was, of course, nonsense.
Back in the early 2000s, I would often listen carefully to music through headphones, not only as I travelled, but as I walked around the village in a vain attempt to hold back the effect of time and a sedentary lifestyle on my waistline. All that had happened in the meantime was that my life became busier, with much less time available for listening – I think you can see that in the spread of albums in the list as a whole.
Suddenly, with children old enough to fend for themselves (and being invested in their own musical tastes), I found myself wondering if I had missed a thing or two, and resolved to do better, starting – I think – with this album, which was the first Steven Wilson solo album I actually bought, as opposed to just streaming it.
Back in 2011, I heard a review of a documentary film called Dreams of a Life, a film I – strangely – have never seen. The review made a strong impression on me, however, because of the subject matter – the idea that a person seemingly involved in a normal, socially involved, life could die and lie undiscovered for three years was – and is – profoundly shocking. The idea that Joyce Vincent could be overlooked and not particularly missed is extraordinary, but possibly not as uncommon as you might think.
Hearing, therefore, that this album was partly inspired by those events, and by an artist I had come to admire, meant that I was going to actually own a copy of it, rather than just tune in to it whenever I felt like it. For what felt like the first time in years, I listened to a new album almost the way I used to absorb the ones I borrowed from the library all those years ago.
But the modern world has its distractions, and it wasn’t until I actually went into a record shop and bought a vinyl copy that I really listened to it, and it was only then that I discovered just how much was going on; only then that I listened to it the way I used to listen to music back when there were no smartphones, no internet, not much television, and nothing on the radio which reflected my musical tastes.
Hand. Cannot. Erase. is a concept album, then, but it’s one of loosely connected themes, not a linear story. It does eventually touch on Joyce Vincent’s story, but only after a journey around several other female voices, articulating feelings of isolation and loneliness.
Opening track First Regret is a gentle instrumental, setting out part of the musical palette – ringing, open acoustic guitar chords compete with a fluid and flexible bass to keep at bay the power chords which threaten to break in from time to time. The track blends seamlessly into 3 Years Older via the first of a series of jaw-dropping Guthrie Govan guitar solos. The first lyric of the album demonstrates Wilson’s increasingly confident voice – it’s up close and personal here in its fragility; the Steven Wilson of In Absentia treated his voice as one element in the mix; here, it’s leading the song and while the instrumental break gets quite excitable in places, there’s a calmness which comes from the vocal and which asserts itself in a tale of single motherhood and ostracism before breaking out into a full-on 1970s Prog Rock wig-out, but shot through with modern percussion sounds which keep it from sounding like a pastiche or parody before coming to an emormously satisfying ending with one extra beat in the final line to round everything off.
The title track is all sparse guitars and treated drums at first, and there’s a lyric which refers to emails where its predecessors would have talked of letters. As it expands into the fullness of its central arrangement, I’m struck by how – after more than half a century of this kind of popular music – it’s still possible for the truly great songwriters to come up with instantly memorable, catchy melodies. I know something of the mathematics behind the fact that we’ll likely never run out of new melodic structures, but this album is full of tunes you feel sure someone must surely have thought of before. Parts of this rock like a Porcupine Tree song might, but much of it sounds new and different, and will have you singing along like the best pop songs do.
Flipping over my vinyl copy, we come to the most interesting of the songs in the collection. Perfect Life is a meditation from the perspective of a 13-year old girl, narrated by Katherine Begley over the kind of beat which Nitin Sawnhey was turning my head with a few weeks back. It’s completely unlike anything else on here, except it isn’t really – it’s all of a piece; this is just another aspect of where Wilson’s music was at this point. When it breaks into song at the end, it is – of course – another sumptuous melody which perfectly balances the loss and longing of the spoken first half.
Incidentally, this is one of those rare songs which has had a few key lines stripped from it after the lyric sheet went to print – the elision makes the song much more enigmatic and strange than the printed version, but both versions live in my head.
It’s impossible, I think, to explain what exactly Routine does to my emotions. Its jagged and tense opening hints at things unspoken and puts you on edge, a tension which feels like it will never resolve as the song grows subtly and pushes in on you from all directions.
I’m going to recommend listening to this while watching the astonishing hand-animated video, as it not only explains more of the background to the grief-laden story, but provides a visualisation of the shattering catharsis performed by Ninet Tayeb as she finally allows her character to give voice – an inchoate scream, to be sure, but voice none the less – to pretty much every human emotion. It’s one of the very few moments in music which can cause me to spontaneously burst into tears; it’s that powerful.
But it doesn’t end there – after the storm has passed, there’s a daybreak of hope and regret, perfectly expressed in a repeated unresolvable couplet in which we, the grieving, have our conflict eloquently expressed.
For a long time, I thought Routine was the best track on this album. It isn’t, but it’s close.
Another side, another shift in mood. From melancholy and grief, we are treated to the appropriately scary sounds of Home Invasion. Not a song to be listened to alone in the dark, it isn’t satisfied with throwing as many distorted instruments as it can find at you in an insistent, so fast it’s slightly out of control, rhythm; it also eventually breaks out a menacing distorted vocal which points the way forward to Wilson’s later album The Future Bites. This vocal section is much more melodic, and even manages to be soothing in parts before dumping you back into the madness of the modern world with no apology.
Before it goes, Home Invasion elides into Regret #9 which teases you with what sound like voices from a Cold War numbers station and a keyboard solo played in the manner of a guitar solo, which eventually merges into a guitar solo played much more like a keyboard solo. It’s properly discombobulating, this song, especially as it fades out to the sound of a few sparse notes picked out on a banjo.
Transience is much closer in tone and theme to Porcupine Tree. It features a train – a favourite Wilson motif – and deliciously layered voices; all as far as I can tell Wilson himself. Unlike the other tracks on here, this one is short and simple. Like most of them, however, it’s melodic and compelling.
The final side begins with what I eventually understood to be the best track on here, and possibly Wilson’s solo masterpiece, Ancestral. A great, intricate edifice of a song, it begins in the sparse reverberating architecture of a song finding its way, accompanied by a delicate but confident flute line. It gradually adds layers of drumbeat and meaning to the lyric, which is about the lonely in the big city, and how the network of ancestry can so easily be left behind without necessarily meaning to. As it reaches this conclusion, the full breadth of the arrangement is heard, then we are swept up into another Guthrie Govan guitar solo.
I’ve tried not to be carried away in my descriptions of individual instrumental parts in any of these albums, but, honestly, if you have any sense of the power of a great guitar solo, you really need to hear this one – it’s expressive, dynamic and somehow develops the themes of the lyric in one take. It was only when I sat down and seriously listened to the guitar solo on Ancestral that I began to understand what a great song it is.
Then, just as you think you’ve heard it all, there’s a section of what I can only describe as broken time, as the song threatens to run away with itself, then all sorts of rhythms and time signatures compete for our attention, gradually evening out into a full-throated rock riff, albeit in a time signature I still can’t quite pin down, another break down into a two-chord pattern, before just letting loose with all guns blazing and then dissolving into a spaced-out burst of psychedelia with flutes and hi-hats.
All of which is just setting up the return of the main (is it though?) riff, this time pulling in all the prior themes, carrying the flute line with it to what sounds like one of those conclusions compsers of great symphonies used to indulge in when they wanted to be sure that every theme and passing motif was properly tied up and concluded.
It must have taken a great deal of self-control not to end the album there, as it’s one of the most conclusive pieces of music I’ve ever heard.
But, of course, we have to return to the main theme of the album. If Joyce Vincent is anywhere in all of this, it’s in the words of Happy Returns, which – without making anything specific – reflect on that bafflingly sad story while effortlessly rolling out yet another memorable melody and lyric.
We hear Joyce’s imagined voice for a couple of verses, sparsely accompanied as if to highlight her solitude, before the essential humanity of this album kicks in and without changing the story in any way, makes it seem more hopeful. I don’t think it’s trying to let the world off the hook for its neglect and indifference, but is perhaps suggesting that we’re not all like that.
And then, as if we were watching her spirit leaving her body, a choir sings Joyce Carol Vincent to her rest in Ascendent Here On… and a pretty much perfect album comes to a pretty much perfect end.
It’s easy to dismiss a lot of the music I listen to as ephemeral or uninvolving (beyond the visceral thrill of a well-executed riff or a moment of perfection in a solo), but that isn’t a label you can pin on this album. It’s involving, emotional, thrilling, sad, comforting and joyful, often all at the same time. Some time in the late 1990s I wondered if this kind of music had run its course.
No, it hadn’t. Not even close.
Any other albums by this artist to consider?
Oh, yes. There are a great many Steven Wilson and Wilson-adjacent things to try, but sticking strictly to his solo work, the run of albums from The Raven That Refused To Sing to To The Bone showcase an artist developing his voice and crafting everything from thoughtful ballads to perfect pop songs along the way. The most recent solo album, The Future Bites isn’t at all like anything we’ve just been listening to, and because of that seems to have a poor reputation. Don’t listen to the naysayers – it’s a terrific thing.
Compilations to consider?
If you’re completely new to Wilson, once you’ve listened to this album, try Transience. It gives a fair idea of what he’s about.
In keeping with the whole ‘biggest artist you’ve never heard of’ vibe around SW, the Home Invasion concert, which is available as a DVD as well as an album is a breathtaking overview of his three Royal Albert Hall performances in 2018, and is as good a live album as this century has produced.
So much. Porcupine Tree, obviously, but also No-Man and Blackfield. Oh, and Storm Corrosion, which many people will tell you (not me, but it’s close) is his best work. The man’s an insane workaholic, and pretty much everything he touches has a guarantee of quality. If you get through all the stuff he’s performed on, try seeking out some of his remixes, especially the Yes, ELP, Jethro Tull, Gentle Giant and King Crimson ones. Or the Tears For Fears or Simple Minds ones – there’s something for everyone. Oh, and he’s written a book, because of course he has. Haven’t read it yet, but I have a birthday coming up…