Music Reviews
To The Bone

Steven Wilson To The Bone

(Caroline International) Rating - 8/10

To The Bone isn’t Steven Wilson’s first attempt at pop. The idea that the prolific musician was only dedicated to progressive rock is a misnomer. Throughout his lengthy career, he’s straddled the line between both sensibilities. Look at the title track of Hand. Cannot. Erase., or go back to Porcupine Tree’s Stupid Dream. The difference this time around? This is his most concentrated effort at writing concise, straightforward songs yet. But there are still plenty of twists and turns.

When he goes for pop though, he really goes for it. Nowhere is that clearer than on the joyful Permanating. Yes, I just used the word “joyful” to characterize a Steven Wilson track. But how else can you describe the bouncy major piano chords and his uplifting falsetto? It is endlessly catchy and appealing, built for sing-alongs and even dancing! Equally memorable is Blank Tapes, spinning a short tale of a breakup over an acoustic pattern. This album isn’t all light touches, though. In The Same Asylum As Before, Wilson’s puncturing falsetto rides a roaring Led Zeppelin riff into another earworm chorus.

Another way that To The Bone distinguishes itself from recent releases is that there’s no overarching story or concept. Instead, Wilson brings a loose theme of truth and our filtered perceptions of it. On the title track, he sings, “Truth is the permanent path we laugh about/But then avoid.” Come for the electrifying riffs, stay for the Pink Floyd squiggles that percolate throughout. In the moving Pariah, singer-songwriter Ninet Tayeb offers redemption and a brighter future to Wilson’s cynical view of society. Her powerhouse vocal melds beautifully with his, especially when the song bursts into a soaring guitar segment.

Writing on different perspectives of the truth allows Wilson to also mine the dark undercurrent of our world today. In some of his most political songs to date, he takes on terrorism and extremism. People Who Eat Darkness is a snarling rocker about not knowing anything about your neighbors. It’s the act of biding your time disguised as normalcy. Or as he shouts, “I take out the trash at night/And on Thursday's I go shopping for supplies.” On Detonation, the threat deepens. As the sprawling track unfolds, he sings, “And the ones who are given it all/The good looks, the wealth/And the charm and the innocence/They are all gonna fall.” The music swirls with down-pitched vocals, synths and a lengthy funky guitar/bass jam to close.

But it’s not all political horror. Wilson also writes some stories of hope. Refuge brings us into the viewpoint of those trapped in the refugee crisis. Wilson sings about both their suffering (“We're writhing rats/We make beds in the straw”) and resilience (“Is this life?/I don't see I have a choice/But I still smile/And bide my time”).  Starting with a piano, the track gorgeously ruptures into pounding drums and a crackling guitar solo. It’s an immense composition that glides in space before hitting with the force of reentry. Song Of Unborn is a lesson to the next generation, about finding opportunity and joy where you can. After the conflict found throughout the record, Wilson ends by stating, “Don't be afraid to die/Don't be afraid to be alive/Don't be afraid.” In such confusing times, it’s a message worth repeating.

Having gotten so used to proggy epics by Wilson, To The Bone serves as an excellent reminder of his gift for songwriting. Out of everything here, only the run-of-the-mill Nowhere Now and Song Of I fail to connect. This record’s strength is its directness. It may lean more towards the mainstream than usual, but that makes it another fresh move in a career full of them. No matter what styles he tries, Wilson excels. In that case, To The Bone is not so different at all.