Steven Wilson’s ‘To The Bone’ Is Wholly Ambitious, Yet Widely Accessible
It’s hard to find an album so ambitious in its musicality that also extends an olive branch of accessibility to the more pop-minded. It’s even harder to imagine that kind of album, simultaneously steeped in rich complexity and wrapped in commercial sensitivities, would come from the mind of progressive rock luminary Steven Wilson. After all, much of Wilson’s catalogue involves long, sprawling instrumentals so sophisticated in their sonic construction, they merit a half dozen deep dives before listeners can even begin to wrap their minds around what they’re hearing. Wilson’s fifth studio album, “To the Bone,” does feature much of the sonic poise for which Wilson is praised, but it also placates those thirsty for sweeping melodies and poignant storytelling, making for an expansive and downright gorgeous body of work.
Although “To the Bone” is the fifth album attached to the Steven Wilson name, the producer and multi-instrumentalist has been aggressively carving out a musical identity since the early 90s, spearheading projects that reveled in their experimental freedom. From cerebral psychedelia to trans-tinged exercises in bucking commercial trends, Wilson has had his hands on all kinds of musical quirk. So imagine his longtime supporters’ surprise when he released “Pariah,” the album’s lead single, a duet with Israeli singer Ninet Tayeb swelling with melodies and uplifting choruses — a move from Wilson that caught devotees quite off-guard. But for Wilson, it was just another jumping off point to try something new, an homage to the music that helped shape the groundbreaking artist today. “The main aim or goal on this record was to try and tap into something that I remember very much from when I was growing up as a kid — which is way back in the 80s — there were these albums which seemed to be able to keep accessibility and ambition in balance,” Wilson tells Entertainment Voice, citing prolific works from bands like Depeche Mode and Tears for Fears to artists like Peter Gabriel, Prince and Kate Bush. “They were albums that were incredibly catchy, great songs, very easy to enjoy, very mainstream in that respect. But at the same time, if you chose to engage with those albums on a deeper level, you would find all this ambition going on. You know, dark lyrics, cinematic production, great musicianship. It seemed to me it was like a golden era for artists that were able to make very mainstream records but without any sense of having to dumb down.”
The 11-track album certainly doesn’t insult listeners’ intelligence, but it certainly makes itself a lot easier to digest than some of Wilson’s past, more avant-garde work. From the album’s titular opening cut, a monologue trails off into a cinematic set of booming chords, accented percussion and atmospheric tones before the song takes a decisively pop turn. “Hold on / Down deeper / down we’re going / way down through the floor,” Wilson cries out by way of introduction on a song that questions the importance of truth and its highly subjective nature. The core message behind the album’s title track is applicable to virtually any time period, while other songs take a more “here and now” approach to their themes. “Pariah” touches on social media and the way it seems to monopolize our attention and distract from what’s really important, a belief that has made the song’s narrator a true pariah. “The internet has come along. Cell phones have come along. All these things have come along that have basically distracted the human race from being able to engage with anything for more than 30 seconds at a time,” Wilson laughs. “When you live in a world where 99 percent of people watching Youtube clips never get to the end of that Youtube clip — they’re already on to the next thing — then you understand why it’s very difficult to get people to engage with music at anything than the most superficial level.”
Other potent motifs fill the album, including the looming Spector of terrorism and how it lurks in places one least expects — right next door, for example. That’s the character Wilson channels in the powerful garage rocker “People Who Eat Darkness,” yelling “The only thing we share / is the slightest nod when we’re passing down the stairs / but behind the closing doors / the bees were buzzing / inciting me to war.” The blistering track goes on at this most sinister clip, and it’s as chilling and relevant as it is intense, and it’s something Wilson felt he needed to get across as an artist. “IN some ways I think it’s very odd of anyone that’s writing music right now at this time in history to not at least touch on some of the stuff that’s going on in the world right now,” Wilson says. “And that could be Brexit, it could be Donald Trump, it could be the refugee crisis. Because in a way, at least how I look at it, that’s part of what an artist’s role is: to somehow reflect the age they live in.”
Equally chilling and keeping in the same thematic vein is “Detonation,” a look at fanaticism and how people can sometimes use that zeal to cloak a more ominous intent — much like the gunman who opened fire at a Florida nightclub under the guise of a religious crusade, but in reality wanted to kill homosexuals to nullify some kind of internal trauma. “I talk about the refugee crisis, I talk about terrorists, I talk about religious fundamentalists,” Wilson says. “But I’m not like Roger Waters. I’m not going to wave my finger and say ‘you bad politicians. You need to do something.’ It’s not that kind of preaching thing. It’s more a question for me of telling a story, finding a character and almost telling that story through that character, of finding the great in the small.”
It’s all of these things: the way Wilson’s lyrics land on listeners’ ears, the way no two songs are alike, the way each track so perfectly unfurls into its own kind of musical adventure. Every song concludes with a note of satisfaction, both from the listener’s point of view and from Wilson’s as an artist — never quite satisfied until he can tell his story, and never the same way twice.
“To the Bone” is available on Apple Music Aug. 18.