My first exposure to Steven Wilson’s latest solo album, The Raven that Refused to Sing and other stories, was when I saw the stunning video for the title track. I knew that I was in for something special beforehand just because of the caliber of genius that Wilson is, but that pre-released video let me know that it was going to go beyond special, that this could very well be a monumental album. I purchased it at my local record store, and went to work to struggle through a shifts worth of giddy anticipation. Upon getting home, I fired it up, but was distracted; reading the liner notes and going through all those wonderful rituals we have when consuming a new album for the first time. They showed me that along with Wilson on this venture were Guthrie Govan(lead guitar), Nick Beggs(bass), Marco Minnemmann(drums), Adam Holzman(organ, piano, etc.), and Theo Travis(wind instruments), a brilliant group of musicians to say the least. Going through this first turn, I was blown away, completely. But being in the distracted and unfocused state I was, I wasn’t able to give it my full attention, so I decided to go another round. This time it would be done the right way though, lying down, with my best headphones on, with the lights out. Being fully ready, or so I thought, I dove in head first…
The first song, Luminol, opens with some ripper bass riffs, and hits the ground running with a frantic instrumental part that last a good four minutes. Instantly we know that all the players are in this one for the long haul. All the elements are precisely placed, there are no extraneous notes here, nor anywhere on this album. I am shocked and humbled by the structure and form of the music, how the heavy and light blend in together, how Steven’s sad lamenting of the overly dedicated yet forlorn street musician paint the portrait he intends, and via the total package of the music and lyric. He lets us know right away that he is taking us for a ride: six songs, six stories, six ventures into the realms of dedication, of hypocrisy, of resentment, of despair, of tragedy, and of loss.
Steven takes us through a myriad scenes and events, juxtaposing the accepted norms of the world just enough to shake the way we think on a day to day basis. Drive Home takes on a desperately sad tone, with a tremendous amount of forlorn loss, and the struggle to forgive so we can grieve the loss, so we can continue our journey without resentment and restraints. This is one of the songs on the album that is of exquisite beauty, and the guitar solo near the end simply bypasses the heart and rips right into the soul. In The Holy Drinker, we see a pious man of religion who also happens to be an alcoholic. I love how he takes the irony of this one and somehow translates it musically, the tone of his vocals, the sharp, stabbing guitars, the heavy yet lazy bass, it somehow conveys the image of a man in a drunken stupor, shaking his already quivering hand in admonishment. The Pin Drop is a story of regret, sung from the view of a dead lady floating down a river, singing about how she got into that place, and regretting all the life she could have had. This is an extremely intricate piece; the subtle notes bring up the image of the swirling currents taking the body where it may go, the heavier notes bringing out the inexpressible anger and sorrow. The musicians use every tool at hand to bring us into the story, in every song on this album. In my isolated state of listening, I was free to enter the stories completely…
The Watchmaker, by the title alone, and the introductory guitar plucks, the tick-tock notes, the precise delivery of the lyrics, the small over cluttered room of the watchmaker comes into view. A bevy of clocks hang on the walls, all in sync. Watches, clocks, and machinery lie scattered about in a haphazard manner, waiting their turn to be made into precision instruments again. He is all about patience, he has time to wait to make things right, even in love, but all things have to come to an end, even the relentless patience of the watchmaker, “This thing is broken now and cannot be repaired, fifty years of compromise and aging bodies shared.” The music steps in; the discordant musical breakdown shows the frustration of the watchmaker coming to an end, and the rage coming out. We can see him thrashing about in the room, the cogs and gears flying out of their disorganized stasis. The music, the lyrics, the piece as a whole puts the listener right in the scene, a helpless spectator to his descent into madness as he finally succumbs and kills his wife. But in the fifty years beforehand, the bond was built too strong, and she doesn’t leave him, even in death, “Cogs and levers mesh, we are bound in death. Melt the silver down, I’m still inside you.”
And then there was the final track, the final story, one of such sorrow and despair that I still feel it upon every listen at the very core of my being. The title track, The Raven that Refused to Sing, is the story of an old man trying to find his own peace and solace in his final days. As a young boy, he lost a sister, and with that went his ability to dream, to connect, to love, “And I need our former life, I’m afraid to wake, I’m afraid to love…” In his waiting despair, a raven appears in a dream, and sings to him, and the raven comes to represent the sister. He wants to hear the raven sing again, to hear his sister to sing to him once again, to let his sister take him home and heal the wounds he has felt since she first left him on a journey he wasn’t able to follow on, “Sing to me raven, I miss her so much, sing to me Lily, I miss you so much.” To be able to convey the emotion of the deepest, most ancient of wounds, such as the ones that go along with such a loss, is a true challenge for any medium of artistic expression. Wilson and crew do it with perfection here. We feel the seasons changing from the autumn of life to the winter with the soft wispy notes that fall on our ears like the first snow. How unlike the sheer breakdown expressed in the manic tones of The Watchmaker, the brooding despondency of the old man is much deeper, there is no breakdown for his condition, it is who he is. Beginning to end, the same pattern of notes are repeated in various volumes and shades, but they still are the canvas upon which the song is played, and they are the ties of life that hold the old man from being with his sister again. It is the saddest of tragedies, and one we all share in one way or another. It is life in its purest form.
Beginning to end, the brilliant musicians involved in this project work their craft as only they can, and deliver an album is nothing short of a masterpiece of storytelling. They use all the tools at hand, and intricately carve out a small notch in our hearts to build the stage. They set up the scenery with the subtleties and explosions in the skillfully created music. Then they speak the lines, and tell us the stories from within ourselves, starting at the center of our being, and escaping from us in the form of a faint smile, a resolute sigh, or a single tear of regret that courses it way down our faces.