Steven Wilson – Hand. Cannot. Erase.

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Regardless of what you want, or even expect, Steven Wilson delivers “product.”   Maybe it’s a Porcupine Tree release.  Maybe it’s guesting on one of his many side projects.  Maybe it’s remastering a classic progressive rock album.  Or maybe it’s a solo album, which means… what exactly?

Perhaps it’s an experimental Porcupine Tree album but with different band mates, like Insurgentes.  It’s really the same thing, because he essentially was the band.   Or perhaps it’s a moody and, at times, indulgent exploration of loss like Grace for Drowning?  Or, perhaps it’s a progressive masterpiece like 2013’s The Raven that Refused to Sing?  Can he repeat?  Hand_Cannot_Erase

This work doesn’t speak to Poe as The Raven did, but it remains poetic and, as always with Wilson, moves the art forward.  Wilson became enamored with Dreams of a Life, a movie about a 38 year old London woman who left her job and possibly an abusive relationship, disconnected her ties with everyone, and passed away without anyone noticing.  Her remains were found in her apartment over two years later.  Sounds like the stuff of Poe, doesn’t it?  It was enough to shape this album.

Like Raven, the CD starts with an instrumental, shaping some of the tone of an album despite Wilson’s trademark (and inexplicable as they defy any context) insertions of staccato guitar/drum blasts away any subtleties.  After the intro, “3 Years Older” sets a stage lyrically, as well as introducing musical refrains that return later.  It’s a good enough song that fits the album, but one that doesn’t beg for replays outside of the whole.  Notably, the return of Porcupine Tree era dotty keyboards here and elsewhere perhaps speak to the technological world from which our victim removed herself. 

Far more successful is the title track, which could be played on a rock station and likely draw significant interest.  The guy can write a catchy song when he wants, and overall, he shows improvement throughout this CD as a lead vocalist. The song speaks to commitment, but like Lucinda Williams excellent “Side of the Road,” the need for solitude coexists even in a loving relationship. 

The song that follows, ironically entitled “Perfect Life,” is interesting, an electronic piece that I would tend to avoid stylistically, with a female narrating a story of losing touch with a friend.  Still, this song sticks with me, primarily for both the musical mood and arrangement that follows the story.

Following is one of the album’s highlights, “Routine.”   Some may point to the inclusion of a boys choir as overreaching, but they’re far less intrusive than your average Mellotron.  More significant is the contribution of another female singer, Ninet Tayab, who brings great range and diversity to the song, adding a female presence somewhere between “Great Gig in the Sky” and “Gimme Shelter,” less an octave .  The song speaks to the maintenance of a routine as a maddening factor in the service of family, void of external interests.

And how to be of use?
Make the tea and the soup
All of their favourites, throw them away
And all their school books and their running shoes
Washing them clean in the dirty steel sink.

And so on.  A humdrum lyrically, but with great music.  I’m hopeful he’ll find a way to weave female voices into his works as he goes forward.  It’s a welcome dimension to the sound here.

“Home Invasion” strikes a familiar theme in Wilson’s catalog, but it fits perfectly here speaking to personal isolation and the technology that allows it.

Download love and download war
Download the shit you didn’t want
Download the things that make you mad
Download the life you wish you had.

The instrumental “Regret #9” features Guthrie Govan’s guitar perfectly… he somehow keeps up with himself to pull things off.

“Transience” revisits familiar Wilson/Porcupine Tree territory, but comfortably so.  It takes a break to contrast isolation with childhood when the fullness of life was yet to be lived.

The final major piece is “Ancestral,” a pronouncement of sorts on the result of detachment:

When the world doesn’t want you
It will never tell you why
You can shut the door but you can’t ignore
The crawl of your decline

What follows is more great music, but the stanza above points out perfectly why I keep an interest in Wilson. His topics are not always comforting, and sometimes his intent isn’t even clear.  But music should challenge the listener, exploring other places than where one otherwise “lives.”  For people like me, there’s a difference between hearing music and listening to it.   I prefer the latter, absorbing and dissecting the richness of it.  Otherwise, I’m just pressing a button for the company that mindless music can keep.

The closer, “Happy Returns,” brings a hushed conclusion to the story, such as it is.  Rather than retell the grisly discovery, Wilson approaches it from the standpoint of a person who fell away and tries to reconnect in a letter, but leaving the ending unsettled.

But I’m feeling kind of drowsy now
So I’ll finish this tomorrow

Album essentially over.

Recommended: “Hand Cannot Erase” and “Routine”

4 of 5 STARS_thumb

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