(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Recording review - Steven Wilson, Hand. Cannot. Erase. (2015)

Music vs. narrative: take your pick


Context is often the key to appreciation. I prefer to approach new music with as little baggage as possible, so I came to Steven Wilson's Hand. Cannot. Erase. as a blank slate, ready to see where it led me. His music usually has an ambiance that is best experienced without any preconceived notions. This time, though, I had a hard time getting a grasp on the album; I couldn't find the context. The bigger, more progressive moments were beautiful and moving, but the first two tracks seemed emblematic of the project as a whole. There was a discontinuity between the slow fade-in amorphousness of the first piece and the dynamic expansion of the song that followed.

Normally, Wilson helps his listeners keep that tabula rasa mindset by offering little commentary about his music. Even though he isn't too fond of putting his work under a microscope, this time he’s had several interviews where he’s discussed the story of Joyce Carol Vincent that inspired Hand. Cannot. Erase. She was a young woman who dropped away from her friends and family sometime around 2000. What made this newsworthy is that she died in her London apartment in 2003, but her body wasn't discovered until 2006. Wilson came across the documentary/drama, Dreams of a Life and found both the movie and the real story compelling.

It's a good starting point for a concept album: aside from the poignant ending, there's a fundamental mystery that gives an artist room to speculate and expand upon. Fittingly, the songs on Hand. Cannot. Erase. are fairly indirect, offering their own oblique signals as they outline the woman's gradual abdication from her community, punctuated by kernels of loss and pain. Wilson doesn’t tie himself to the details, but steps into his own parallel narrative. For example, his ending expands on a minor factual detail to suggest a final hope for reconnection that comes too late. With a freer hand, he positions his character at the center of a self-imposed conflict. The songs are full of ambivalence, sometimes repurposing or reframing the same words to offer cross meanings. The music is similarly hard to pin down. Sparse simplicity lurches into stormy surges of emotion, and electronic elements are juxtaposed against warm analog instruments.

Knowing the inspiration clarifies things a bit, but ultimately, it’s not quite enough.The larger musical gestures like “Ancestral” fall outside the project's conceptual arc because their scale dwarfs the delicacy of the story. It’s a tough trap for Wilson to avoid. The indirect approach lets him leave room for interpretation, but that subtlety can't compete with the scope of his musical expressiveness. If that’s the downside, the upside is that he is continuing his creative growth and expanding his palette by integrating more sampling and electronic sounds as well as bringing in a female singer, Ninet Tayeb, to represent his lead character.

The album starts slow and thoughtful, but the second, longer track, “Three Years Older”, picks up the pace with the energy of The Who spliced with flashes of Rush. The instrumental section spins out for a solid three minutes before the first words come in. The song is effectively an overture prologue that sets the stage for the album’s story. Wilson sings with a gentle sympathy, sketching out a chain of disengagement that, by the end, suggests a suicidal solution. Once the vocals are out of the way, the remaining three minutes launch into a series of diverse themes that range from pensive introspection to a frantic King Crimson style break. These sections try to bridge the polar ends of his character’s solitude and her seething social anxiety.

The music is a good reflection of Wilson’s usual style, and the.loneliness is clear, but the roiling emotion feels out of proportion. Later, “Home Invasion” and “Ancestral” will evoke a similar reaction: the music is among his strongest writing, but they seem tied to his own perspective rather than relating to the tale he’s trying to tell. Despite the tenuous connection to the album’s narrative arc, “Ancestral” turned out to be my favorite track on Hand. Cannot. Erase. The rich textures swing through extremes, from the sparse beat and brooding guitar at the start, accented by a jazzy flute, to the fluid, expressive post-rock shred on the solo. A mix of old and contemporary influences adds to the melange, creating a blend of Radiohead with Gentle Giant.

Even if the album has trouble balancing its song arrangements with the narrative, Wilson has done a good job of echoing the unknowns of Vincent’s life with lyrics that hinge on ambiguity. On the title track, “Hand cannot erase this love,” is an assertion of connectedness, but there’s also an undertone of co-dependence and a hint of domestic violence. On “Transience”, the line, “It’s only the start” initially seems optimistic, but then it turns around to represent the dark fate that’s coming. If there’s a moral here at all, it’s tied to how we should understand Vincent’s life choices. There’s a fundamental paradox: it seems she chose this path as a coping mechanism in reaction to social pressure and disappointment, but ultimately it led to her destruction as she faded from life and memory.

Wilson succeeds at using the bare bones of Vincent’s story to explore the nuances of this conflict. At the same time, his music writing and performance are as strong as ever. I just wish I didn’t have to pick between the two when I listen to Hand. Cannot. Erase.

No comments:

Post a Comment