As one of the biggest and most prolific artists in the progressive rock genre today, Steven Wilson seems like a musician whose work I should love. He’s very, very, good at what he does. And yet, after trying to dip my toes into a variety of albums (both from him as a solo artist, and from his various projects and bands like Porcupine Tree), I’m still not sure I get him. That said, his last solo release, 2015’s Hand. Cannot. Erase. was the closest he’s gotten to producing an album that really clicked with me. So when I heard that his newest release, To the Bone, took heavy influence from Peter Gabriel, a musician whose work definitely does click with me, I decided to give Wilson one more try.
If nothing else, To the Bone absolutely delivers in that one regard. Wilson doesn’t just draw on Gabriel’s poppier hits — while one song, “Pariah,” feels like a cousin to Gabriel’s 1986 collaboration with Kate Bush, “Don’t Give Up,” more songs feel like Gabriel’s most recent original-content album, 2002’s Up. They’re moody, atmospheric, and plodding, at least in parts. And those parts are great — anytime Wilson is singing gently, with a piano backing him up, he produces great music. “Song of I,” in particular, would easily fit into Up’s dark, synthy environment.
To the Bone is a bit of a departure from most of Wilson’s work, a step towards a more pop sound from his usual prog, and in no song is that more evident than “Permanating.” It’s less Peter Gabriel, and more some strange fusion of modern pop, The Beatles, and Electric Light Orchestra. It’s catchy, upbeat, and (while it doesn’t feel out of place right in the middle of To the Bone, full of different sounds and styles) if you played it for me on its own, I’d never guess it was Steven Wilson, but I’d definitely enjoy it.
The parts of the album that don’t grab me are when Wilson moves towards a heavier direction, showing off his guitar skills with long solos and thudding bass. The problem isn’t that the music is heavy, either — it’s just that it stops being interesting. Wilson is clearly an incredible talent, and the album is tightly produced and perfected, but songs like “People Who Eat Darkness” don’t evoke any emotion in me, besides curiosity about how far into their six-minute runtime I am. I might not notice these tracks if I heard them in the background, but when I actively listen, I don’t find a lot to engage with.
By all accounts, To the Bone is a good album. Even if there are a couple songs I don’t care for, it is immaculately made, and boasts more songs I enjoy than I don’t. But I don’t feel anything in particular when listening to it, and that’s the same result I had with Hand. Cannot. Erase. I’ve listened to the latter a good number of times, but I couldn’t tell you much about any single song. At best I could muster up a few lyrics from I’m-not-sure-which-one. But where Hand. Cannot. Erase was at least held together by a cohesive and interesting theme, To the Bone just kind of… exists.
I’ll listen to it again, probably a dozen times, but it will be as background music while I’m playing video games, not as something I ever crave or seek out.
Maybe I just don’t get Steven Wilson.