Cannot. Stop. Listening.
There are many levels of artistic development, and every level deserves its proper respects for the time and passion that goes into the creative process. The kid in his room belting out music with a bit of talent and tremendous desire all the way to well respected musicians with a tremendous discography, they all in one way or another are putting their heart and soul out there, as vulnerable as a person can be. Then there is the tier above, the savants and geniuses, those very few artists who though they may feel as vulnerable as the others, we fans all have come to know that they will produce nothing short of genius. Subject A- Steven Wilson. Between his work with Porcupine Tree and his solo outputs as well as his remixes and other efforts, he commands respect and awe from fans and fellow musicians across genres. His last album, The Raven that Refused to Sing, was one of the most revered albums in recent memory, and not an easy one to top, but again, we’re talking Steven Wilson. The man is pure genius, and this time, in the form of an emotionally charged and aurally brilliant concept album, he delivers something redesigned yet still pure Wilson. Pure brilliance. Again.
For this venture, he has again surrounded himself with some of the best musicians around, talents that would rival any band out there, period. Marco Minneman on drums, Guthrie Govan on guitar, Nick Beggs on bass, Adam Holzman on keyboards, and Theo Travis on assorted wind instruments. For inspiration, Wilson looked to the story of Joyce Vincent, a woman who became so isolated from life that her passing went unnoticed for three years. With a bevy of genius musicians and a story rife with passion and pain, the gang went to work.
It’s always a delightful challenge to dig into someone whose style and method is as diverse as Wilson’s. If I could give a general feel of this album, it would be a solid prog album, with a certain newness and maturity to it, not quite as rustic sounding as Raven. Emotionally charged lyrically, almost bordering on heart wrenching. The opening tracks of First Regret and 3 Years Older set a perfect tone for the album, with an atmospheric section bringing us into the album proper, where 3 Years Older lays groundwork both lyrically and musically for the venture to come. Some brilliant instrumental teases between lyrical sections set us up for the beatdown at the end of the song. Again, these guys are so damn good, across the board, it would be impossible for them not to amaze. Now here is where Wilson gets tricky. In the next and title track, Hand. Cannot. Erase., he drops something very radio friendly and poppy. A catchy tune for sure, though nothing spectacular. After that comes Perfect Life, another safe and sound track with a touching spoken word section followed by an atmospheric sung section. It’s as if he’s creating a serene and cozy atmosphere that we get stuck in, too comfortable, an environment similar to that of the lead character who exposes her plight in Routine.
From here on out, it’s perfection. Brilliance. Stunning. Routine shows the frustration of the main character, who makes her first appearance as voiced by the stunning Ninet Tayeb , a sultry and husky sound dripping awesomeness. The next tracks are a diatribe of this separation, this detachment from reality and a downward spiral into isolation and loneliness. Whispery lyricism paired with some shockingly mind blowing solo work from Holzman and Govan really portray this perfectly in Home Invasion and Regret #9. Transience is a short quiet track, classic Wilson, that transfers us into the epic piece of the album, Ancestral. This is the heart of it all, a thirteen and a half minute monster that brings everything he has into play. This one delivers, and is sure to be the track that will linger in the minds of most for a long time to come. The closing tracks though, especially Happy Returns, are the ones that really hit home for me. I am always one for lyrical portraits, and the one he paints here is painful in its isolation and sorrow. Just beautiful execution all around.
Musically, this album is sure to please his fans, whether it will surpass other albums depends on the individual, for me it has a place below Raven and Fear of a Blank Planet, but above most of his other works. Honestly though, with a discography so enormous, finding Hand. Cannot. Erase.’s place in it is a task best left to our own devices and taste. The real accomplishment that he has achieved here is taking a story that can’t be anything other than tragic, and adding some humanity and beauty to it, a hallmark achievement for any artist. For me, it’s just another example of why Steven Wilson belongs at that top tier of the musical hierarchy, that genius level, he earns it again and again with every release.