The Strength of Balance: Steven Wilson’s Hand. Cannot. Erase.
How long does it take a musician to find their sound? For some, this process lasts years and spans countless albums, while for others the entirety of their creative force is spent on their first release, leaving them to struggle for the rest of their careers attempting to recapture the magic that they once had.
I have long felt that Steven Wilson‘s creativity peaked with his work in Porcupine Tree. Being forced into a situation where for the sake of a band was self-limitation imposed — where he was unable to indulge every whim of creativity that flitted fickly through his mind — suited Wilson’s work. Porcupine Tree’s weakest moments came from Wilson’s narcissism (“Collapse the Light Into Earth” being a prime example). Thankfully these moments were few and far between, especially in the post Stupid Dream era.
This narcissism, this indulgence, so long restrained in the confines of the aforementioned Porcupine Tree, has typically been given free rein in Wilson’s solo work. Where Porcupine Tree produced quality progressive music with tendency toward the egotistical, Wilson’s solo music became an outlet for his pent-up self-absorption with a slight tendency toward quality. While Wilson did manage to produce fleeting moments of enjoyable music, after a time I grew weary of sifting through hours of halfheartedly avant-garde masturbation to find those moments. Over the course of Wilson’s solo output, from Insurgentes to The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories) there was a progression away from artistic self-gratification towards musical maturity, and yet this movement always felt the strongest when Wilson would revert to the premise he had established with Porcupine Tree, begging the question – “Why bother?”
With Hand. Cannot. Erase. Wilson destroyed my expectations. This is not the album of an artist struggling to recapture the magic of his musical peak; rather, this is a new side of Wilson, a mature, a balanced side. The album is thoroughly Wilson and yet is unlike anything he has produced before. Eschewing almost the entirety of the pseudo avant-garde mentality so long prominent in his work for a clean, polished pop sound, Wilson ups the ante for progressive music by releasing an album that actually has progressed.
The triumph of this album lands squarely on the shoulders of its ability to balance. Walking the finest line between pop and prog, Hand. Cannot. Erase. blends perfectly seemingly contrasting genres, at one moment trip-hop, at another old-school prog, at another 90s pop. The maturity displayed in the sheer quality of writing on this album shows a new side of Wilson, one that has not disowned the myriad influences of his past, but rather embraces, then transcends them. There is Porcupine Tree to be found here. There is Yes, and King Crimson, and Rush. There is even a touch of his trademark self-indulgence. But while all these have been so prominent before, almost as though Wilson’s solo work has been but a drawn-out musical experiment with no end goal, here they are subdued — they have been balanced.
And yet, while this album is so phenomenally constructed, Wilson is still unable to completely let go of his own ego. The one real disadvantage of what would otherwise have been the strongest album of Wilson’s career is his vocals. The change in musical style necessitates a stronger voice than what Wilson’s thin vocal abilities can characterize. On tracks like “Routine” where female vocals step forward to take the soaring lead, the listener finds a breath of fresh air, like the first rays of light on a crisp spring morning. This is not to say that Wilson’s vocal performance does not have moments of true beauty, for there are times on this album where his work brings me nigh to tears. But the strength of his voice comes in contrast with other vocalist — the one point of balance that Wilson could not loose from his grasp. The scales still tip strongly in favour of Wilson’s voice. However, given the massive deviance shown in this album from the trajectory set by his last three, I would be unsurprised to see Wilson, in future endeavours, step back further yet, into the role of composer and director, as opposed to frontman and performer.
Hand. Cannot. Erase. is compiled perfectly, the songs being arranged in such a way that the listener is never bored, being confronted with new sounds and moods at every turn. And yet above this is the clear hand of balance, a mature hand not heard in Wilson’s work since Porcupine Tree, but distinct and new in its own right. Long-time Steven Wilson fans will undoubtedly feel his departure from the experimentation of his earlier work as a regressive choice, but for those of us who view his back catalogue with a more critical eye, this album is truly a welcome arrival.
Buy Hand. Cannot. Erase. on iTunes right now or at http://stevenwilsonhq.com/