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It's Complicated

A curmudgeon’s guide to Hand. Cannot. Erase. by Steven Wilson

An interesting thing happened when I added Steven Wilson’s forthcoming album Hand. Cannot. Erase. to my Amazon wishlist. Suddenly, my Amazon recommendations filled up with the most appalling shite, presumably on the basis that “other people who want Hand. Cannot. Erase. also have absolutely no taste in music”. A solo album from a member of a decidedly middle-ranking, way past best-before neo-prog act - srsly? What bothered me more was the worry that all the other fans of Wilson’ oeuvre were actually displaying consistent taste, whereas this was an outlier for me.

Hand. Cannot. Erase. … this could be a fun game.

Sheep. Cannot. Rewind.

Fish. Never. Phone.

Telegrams. Always. Stop.

…Sorry, got distracted. HCE is based on the (true) story of someone who gradually withdraws and isolates themselves from the real world until they slowly decay alone and unmissed in their locked bedsit, doubtless a tale to which those who eternally believe that Wilson is about to go mainstream can relate. It has begun picking up plaudits from further afield immediately on release, with most significantly The Guardian calling it “smart, soulful and immersive”. This is manna to a longstandingly niche artist like Wilson, whose management and record company have since been throwing that quote around with gleeful abandon. But note that it isn’t really The Guardian as such that is a fresh convert to the Wilson muse, but rather their rock reviewer Dom Lawson - rendering the verdict much less surprising. (When Alexis Petridis gives a Steven Wilson album even four stars while Lawson raves about Taylor Swift’s LP, then my curiosity will be piqued and I’ll believe that boundaries are being crossed.) Until then, I pity the poor hipster who unthinkingly buys the Graun’s five albums to try this week on the hitherto safe assumption that their sensitive allergy to hoary old prog rock would not possibly be triggered.

For HCE is ye olde prog from two minutes in, the ambient opener abruptly falling away to reveal some brutally technical unison riffing in traditional style. Mellotron and mini-Moog? Present and correct. Yes there are moments of pop and electronica and things-more-recent-than-1990 but don’t believe the hype that this isn’t a full blown progressive rock album. It may not be as overtly, retrospectively indulgent as Wilson’s previous two releases but it’s definitely more Prog than Not.

Worse, it (again, still) sails perilously close to the kind of grandstanding instrumental virtuosity that elevates technique above intuition and gave prog such a bad name in the first place. Task a bunch of the finest session musicians with bringing your musical vision to life and, well, “what style do you want it in?” So we get Guthrie Govan and Adam Holzman giving us their space-rock, a couple of minutes of their jazz-fusion and then - ask not why but rather why not? - a rejoinder of their best math-rock shredding. (The likes of Dave Gilmour are probably quite limited players in terms of musical ability but every note they play is clearly intuited. Whereas a versatile session muso can play everything - and will if you leave them to it.) This kind of eclectic but irrelevant showboating ultimately grew tiring on The Raven That Refused To Sing and it isn’t greatly welcome here on the follow-up that we were promised was going to be different. Yes, it sounds amazing but why are they doing that in the present context of the song, other than because they can? But then, Wilson’s fondness for directionless mood explorations has been a weakness ever since the last couple of Porcupine Tree albums. Even now, when any of the first five tracks from Raven pop up during my phone’s shuffle play, I feel a vague disappointment that it isn’t the title track instead - a song that sticks to a plain, direct narrative both lyrically and musically from start to finish, in marked contrast to its frenetic bedfellows.

It is Wilson’s saving grace that such schizophrenic noodling is usually bolted on to an at least slender framework of quality songwriting, the marked absence of which by contrast is what dooms the efforts of his contemporaries on the Amazon Recommendations page, none of which I would give houseroom. Unfortunately, on the longer pieces these accretions often overwhelm and eventually take the place of the underlying song. Take, for example, HCE’s set-piece, the climactic “Ancestral”, which early on builds into an immense maelstrom around Wilson’s aching refrain “Come back if you want to”, one of the few moments when the album is as genuinely moving as the underlying story. Yet it carelessly discards this achievement some minutes later in a closing welter of relentless, generic metal riffing, thus managing to encompass both the best and the worst moments of the entire record. The tiresome familiarity of this trope suggests it may be Wilson’s default mode of musical expression, which might be forgivable if he had any great gift for it but his riffs sound like they were sketched out in advance on graph paper.

Blimey, more carping here than the local pond. Is there nothing to admire? Well, the title track is a solid, upbeat example of a fine modern rock song; it would never make my list of Wilson favourites but it’s got a decent hook and the sentiment is touching. “Perfect Life” is an odd choice of lead track by comparison - the narration and effects are intriguing and the closing refrain provides some welcome uplift even if the piece ultimately fails to amount to much - yet only a grinch would object to its presence here. And whatever the weaknesses of the varigated approach to extended pieces such as “Regret #9” (you just know the #9 conveys no great meaning beyond the existence of eight other less successful versions of the same track), “Home Invasion” and “Happy Returns”, they’re consistently interesting and demand attention.

Here’s my problem with HCE: it’s a coherent, complete, closed musical statement. Few of the individual tracks make much sense or are greatly compelling outside of the context of the entire album. Exactly as Steven Wilson intended, if you’re going to listen to this, you’re in it for the long haul from the first track right through until the last, otherwise there’s little benefit in embarking upon the journey. And unfortunately for me, that’s just not how I listen to music anymore. I have limited opportunities to indulge, and regrettably they’re rarely dedicated solely to that end nor are they ever quite as long as a concept album (OK, sometimes there’s a lot of washing-up but even then I’ve never taken 66 minutes over it). Nobody ever said they were making music to suit me, thankfully - but even on previous Wilson outings, I’ve always been able to pick out a few highlights to provide a momentary frisson of joy as they pass through the transitory blur of shuffle mode. With HCE, I struggle to think which cuts could ever stand alone well enough to provide such visceral pleasure - “oh good, it’s that one with the clever yet strangely forgettable solo-ing and multiple random mood changes. Again.” If this is Wilson’s ‘pop’ album then where, in short, are the hits? If Abba are really a big influence on him then how come nothing here is as memorable or arresting as even one of Abba’s lesser singles? Judged by such criteria, HCE fails and by some way. In no sense is it a poor album; but contrary to the hyperventilated acclaim elsewhere, it’s not a great (or Great) one either.

I always remember, on an Internet forum in response to the usual kvetching about Steven Wilson’s lack of due recognition and acclaim, one of the other posters who was not so dazzled by his genius as the rest of us responding that he thought Wilson had achieved exactly the level of fame that his music deserved. It was competent and not without its qualities, but in the larger scheme was insufficiently remarkable ever to appeal much beyond his existing audience. I think there’s a greater truth there than many of us would care to admit and HCE, perhaps more so than previous releases in being targeted so precisely at reaching this notional breakthrough point to wider familiarity, points up exactly why he is unlikely ever to make it. It fits the bill perfectly for Wilson diehards but, as happy as it makes them, as his best shot yet it still falls short of anything that would identifiably lend it mass appeal.