Steven Wilson is this generation’s equivalent of progressive rock royalty. Whether it is his past work with seminal prog band Porcupine Tree, his frequent collaborations, his excellent remixes of past classics, or his prolific solo works, it is difficult for the man to produce something not worthy of attention. To the Bone is Wilson’s latest, and fifth, solo release.
Wilson’s goal with To the Bone was to produce a modern pop masterpiece infused with his own prog sensibilities and uncanny knack for coming up with the perfect arrangement. Inspiration for this album can be traced to a couple of classics: Peter Gabriel’s So, Tears for Fears’ Seeds of Love, and at times anything from Abba.
The album opens with the title track, a big-sounding guitar-driven number that wouldn’t be out of place on Porcupine Tree’s Lightbulb Sun. This formula repeats itself in “The Same Asylum,” but outside of these two tracks the music has a more decidedly pop feel to it. “Pariah” glistens with soft ’80s-style synth patches, and is an excellent if melancholy duet with Ninet Tayeb, who also joins him on “Blank Tapes” later on.
Despite the wonderful sound quality of the songs on To the Bone, the overall feel is one of melancholy and paranoia, as Wilson laments about the current state of the world, tackling terrorism in “Detonation,” which features a great guitar solo and a funky breakdown (and is my favorite song), immigration in “Refuge,” which features a slow, grand build-up throughout before ending quietly, and living next door to terrorists in “People who Eat Darkness,” a guitar-driven, up-tempo number that might be the weakest song here.
The one song that stands out from others on the album is “Permanating,” which could almost have been lifted from an Abba album. Upbeat, bouncy, with infectious keyboards, the song is made for dancing and its joyousness doesn’t blend at all with the rest of To the Bone. That being said, it’s a guilty pleasure here much like a lot of the songs from the latest Night Flight Orchestra album (or maybe ELO, if you’re old enough to remember them).
“Song of Unborn” closes the album out, a message of hope to future generations, encouraging them not to lose hope in what currently looks like a total mess of a world. Like the rest of the album, it is a beautiful, complex song that’s a joy to listen to over and over, discovering deeper layers each time.
Sonically this is what we’ve come to expect from Wilson, who exemplifies the pinnacle of production and songwriting. Nobody can compete with the man when it comes to impeccable arrangements and sonically perfect recordings. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say Wilson is the best producer/arranger in any genre of music since Quincy Jones. Every instrument sounds perfect, and is placed exactly where it should be in the sound field. Listening to Wilson’s albums have always been an acoustic joy, and To the Bone is no exception.
While the morose lyrical content and lack of any instant classics ultimately detract from To the Bone, there is no mistaking the fact that Wilson has released another top-notch album. It may not be a masterpiece, but it’s close. Lush, expansive, beautifully arranged and produced, Wilson has given us one of the best prog-pop albums we’ll have the pleasure of listening to this year.
(released August 18, 2017 on Caroline)