“Expectation is the prison in which we dwell.” — Pat Mastelotto, by way of Robert Fripp (I think)
When am I going to learn?
When it comes to listening to a brand new album by a favorite artist, I need to adhere to two simple rules before passing any kind of judgement: ALWAYS LISTEN TWICE, AND LEAVE YOUR EXPECTATIONS AT THE DOOR.
I sincerely hope established Steven Wilson fans and newcomers alike adhere to this rule. If not, they might miss out on a work of genius.
As I write these words, Wilson’s new album, To The Bone, is being released. The record had been causing a buzz in progressive rock circles, but not for the reasons one might expect.
Fairly or not, Wilson has more or less been anointed the standard bearer of modern progressive rock, thanks to his efforts with his previous band, Porcupine Tree, and his four previous solo albums. Each is full of set-length compositions, tricky time signatures, and virtuoso musicianship. Fans — myself included — ate it up, and eagerly anticipated his next project. Except this time, something is different.
In promotional interviews for To The Bone, Wilson was heard using a new word to describe his album. That word was “pop.” As in, To The Bone is a pop album, and deliberately so. I could hear the sound of the needle sliding across a record, causing everything to grind to a halt, in my mind.
Your new record is WHAT, now?
Pop is a dirty word to many Prog rock fans. It conjures up images of bouncy beats, silly lyrics, and catchy hooks many hardcore proggers deem beneath them. Pop is unworthy of our time, because the music is gone almost as quickly as it arrived, and that’s just as well. Why on earth would Steven Wilson want to walk THAT path?
When I first heard To The Bone, I reacted the way I suspect many hardcore Steven Wilson fans will react in the coming days and weeks. I shook my head in disbelief, muttering, “Oh Steven, what have you done?” Then I went and played his two most recent albums, The Raven That Refused to Sing (and Other Stories) and Hand. Cannot. Erase. I played those records as though I was trying to purge To The Bone from my system.
That was a mistake. A great big, gigantic, colossal, ignorant mistake.
I committed the Cardinal sin of music fandom: I thrust my personal expectations into someone else’s work. I couldn’t hear the new album, because I was too busy listening for the old ones. I couldn’t hear what was there, and how incredibly good it was.
Yes, To The Bone can be called a pop album. But this is hardly cause for concern. Steven Wilson has always been about musical excellence, and he has been influenced by a huge number of musicians from a wide variety of genres. Those influences manifest themselves in this album. When Wilson says he’s drawing from 80s pop, he means he’s drawing from the best aspects of the era. He’s talking about Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, Prince, Talk Talk, and Tears for Fears. He’s talking about pop music with progressive tendencies. He’s talking about pop music for musicians, as opposed to disposable pop stars.
Once I realized this, I could hear the new album. Now that I can do that, I can’t stop playing it.
We want to believe Steven Wilson is somehow burdened by his musical past when he makes a new record. Well, That’s just not true. It is we, the fans, who are burdened by the past. We lock in to what we love about those old records, and lose our minds when the artist doesn’t find a way to retread those ideas, making them sound new. We should know better. Wilson is an artist, and a multi-faceted one at that. He can’t be weighed down by expectations. He must be allowed to grow, and flourish.
I’ve grumbled for years that it can be difficult to get new fans into Steven Wilson’s music because of its inherent complexity. Well, To The Bone is the perfect introductory album. It has all the technical proficiency, wrapped around 11 highly accessible songs. This album is the doorway into a larger musical world, should one be willing to give the man’s music a fair shake. This is NOT a Top 40 record, but it’s not difficult to comprehend, either. Wilson has managed to strike a very nice balance.
For prog rock purists, rest assured that there are plenty of musical layers in these songs. There is plenty to unpack and reassemble. And when all is said and done, To The Bone still sounds like Steven Wilson, regardless of the musical label used to promote it.
In interviews, Wilson has expressed a desire to have his music heard by a wider audience. This should do it. He has widened his musical net, and created an epic pop record easily digestible by commercial radio. Will that actually happen? Well, that’s an entirely different matter.
In a just world, To The Bone is the album that brings Steven Wilson to the mainstream, and earns him the kind of awards I tend to disdain, unless someone I admire wins one. This is the album that all but ensures I will never get to see my modern-day musical hero in a club setting. The secret — if all goes according to plan — will officially be out.
To my prog purists, I offer this bit of advice: let go of what you know, and — more importantly — what you think you know about Steven Wilson. Play To The Bone, take a breather, and then play it again. It won’t take long before you start to see what I’m talking about. This album will resonate for a long time to come.