I’ve been wanting to write this “mini review” almost since my first play of Steven Wilson’s release Hand. Cannot. Erase. but I haven’t for some reason. I don’t really know why, maybe because I knew I’d be writing a gushing piece and I didn’t want to appear to be fawning towards him after my gushing review of Raven.
In all honesty, the news back in late 2014 that he was releasing this album in many ways troubled me – I didn’t want it to arrive. I loved Raven so much, it didn’t seem possible that it could be improved and I didn’t want to be disappointed. I ordered it, of course, in fact I ordered the deluxe edition as I tend to always do these days.
I chose to give it a first listen on my Astell & Kern player with IEMs to try and focus quietly on its content. As I’ve said before, I absorb music, every nuance. And it takes me quite a long time to feel comfortable with a new piece. It took one listen. It was honestly one listen.
I was familiar with the proposed concept from the pre-release material and website, so it made it easier to absorb the storyline as the tracks went past. I’ve now got to the point where I feel I know every piece of the album in intimate detail and I’ve also had the privilege of hearing it played live in Seattle recently.
It is definitely better than Raven in my opinion, for different reasons. The tracks superbly and emotionally convey the story in a way that challenges the listener to hold back their tears, it is a sad story that many will identify with to some degree or other.
Whether that’s with the themes of isolation on a deeply personal level, or just the “always connected” themes of today in Home Invasion, there’s elements for all.
Given the superstar nature of the ensemble, you almost don’t need to comment on the musicianship but it is surely churlish not to. Each of the core musicians contribute substantially to the whole but for me the absolute highlight is the bookend solos by Adam Holzman on Moog and Guthrie Govan on guitar on Regret #9. The percussion of Marco Minnemann and bass/stick of Nick Beggs equally superb throughout.
The story throughout is, to a degree, ambiguous. It’s a matter of record that the inspiration for the album was the tragic circumstances surrounding the death of Joyce Carol Vincent that was turned into a documentary Dreams of a Life. However Steven Wilson has gone on record as saying that the album is not a direct telling of that story and a few interviews subsequent to the album’s release have revealed tantalizing glimpses of the meanings. The live show takes that further forward with backing videos providing other visual clues, without telling the actual story.
I’m really not sure about the ending, in terms of the story. Again, Steven Wilson has said in interviews that unlike the Vincent story, his protagonist does not die, but I find it hard to listen to the penultimate track Happy Returns and then the final Ascendant Here On… without a vision of a sad death. With previous references to medicine chests, the line “But I’m feeling kind of drowsy now so I’ll finish this tomorrow” seems to me a possible reference to an overdose. But who am I to challenge the word of the writer.
I’m not a great fan of Steven Wilson’s band work (Porcupine Tree et al), it’s really his solo works that have left an impression on me, and this fourth solo release has shown an artist confidently growing with each new release. I no longer fear another release, in fact I’m intrigued as to the direction he takes next. Whatever direction it is though, nothing will take away the immense beauty and power of 2015’s Hand. Cannot. Erase.
Shortly after writing the above, Steven Wilson was interviewed at the Montreal Jazz Festival and if you have time to listen to the full 45 minutes, I think it clearly emphasizes what I’d already written. I can identify so clearly with what he says and it only goes to emphasize what I feel, that he is one of today’s preeminent musicians…