No-Man entered the 21st century with an album which, like most of their luscious, languid work, sounds like it could be from any time in their three decades of existence. Near the start of that period they were described by one reviewer as “conceivably the most important English band since The Smiths”; near the end of it as “the most underrated band of the last 25 years”. It’s been a rather unconventional, slow-burning journey, with Steven Wilson now a prog pop best seller and Tim Bowness making slyly delicious meta-albums. Returning Jesus was, in 2001, their fourth offering, and itself a product of many years of writing and honing.
At the time they weren’t sure if the growing success of Porcupine Tree would mean it was their swansong, so they sweated the details: as Bowness’ sleeve notes reveal, it swung between 70 and 35 minutes before they decided on the 52-minute version. This epic two-disc reissue – remastered of course by Wilson and, as is their wont, quite lovingly packaged – includes the Carolina Skeletons and All That You Are EPs plus demos and alternate versions. It’s a thing of great beauty and typical melancholy.
Mostly downplaying the beats they’d dabbled with in the late 90s, it accepts that their forte is mildly fretful serenity. Strings and other swoony instruments weave around, and the mood’s as delicate as David Sylvian in a feather factory. The presence of ex-Japan drummer Steve Jansen and guests such as Colin Edwin and Theo Travis keep it from settling on a complacent plateau, but elegant understatement rules. There’s a hint of Rain Tree Crow’s Pocket Full Of Change in the gorgeous Lighthouse, and Only Rain and Close Your Eyes flow like Talk Talk playing Nick Drake. On the flawless Outside The Machine, Bowness gilds his sleepy vocal with a choral effect which pumps up the pining. The angst is so alluring that you hope the answer to whether these men will record together again is a yes.