It doesn’t take a genius to work out that the one complaint most likely to be levelled at To The Bone is that, horror of horrors, it’s not as, you know, proggy as it might be. Ignoring the fact that Steven Wilson has covered more than enough musical ground to facilitate a move into pretty much any genre you may care to mention, his ongoing status as modern progressive rock’s godfather and engine driver means that his most myopic admirers will shit a polished brick when they realise that his fifth solo album is, above all, a pop record. Admittedly, it’s an extremely progressive pop record and one that boasts plenty of stylistic and textural links to previous albums, but with only four of its 11 tracks exceeding five minutes in length and a prevailing inclination toward traditional song structures, it’s a long way from the conceptual opulence of The Raven That Refused To Sing and Hand.Cannot.Erase. Wilson himself has cited the influence of the great, prog-tinged pop albums of the 80s, and the aesthetic connection to the likes of Tears For Fears, Talk Talk and So-era Peter Gabriel is certainly apparent here, but these songs are all noisily underpinned by their author’s formidable musical personality. As a result, what could have been a self-conscious paean to the wide-eyed 80s sounds more like a fervent and meticulous tribute to the very notion of the song itself.
The opening title track certainly dares to tease prog diehards, with a somewhat bleak snatch of spoken word leading into some decidedly Floydian atmospherics, but when the melody kicks in and the arrangement reveals itself, it’s very plain that the vivid indulgences of years past have been quietly, if temporarily, shoved in a cupboard. Both Nowhere Now and Pariah exhibit a passing resemblance to some of Porcupine Tree’s more succinct moments, but where Wilson’s former band would have filled the sonic foreground with densely layered ideas, To The Bone is more concerned with space, elegance and the delicate power of simple things executed with finesse. Pariah, in particular, is stunning: it drifts with glacial, Blue Nile-esque grace, bolstered by Wilson and Ninet Tayeb’s understated but passionate duet and the spectral rush of hazy synths. Up next, The Same Asylum As Before is no all-out riff-fest, but its clangourous mid-section and mellifluous breakdown again tap into the spirit of Floyd, while its jagged, lurching chorus rocks is Led Zep’s Kashmir mid-caffeine overdose: welcome reassurance for those worried that a more straightforward and genteel approach may have eliminated the 70s vibes and rock’n’roll swagger from Wilson’s musical vocabulary. Even more exhilarating is People Who Eat Darkness: fiery, fast-paced and snotty of lyric, it is surely destined to be a live favourite and while it’s slightly disconcerting to hear Wilson drop an f-bomb (‘I can hear you fuck your girlfriend through the wall…’), he delivers it with uncontained relish over some joyously scabrous agit rock riffs. Quite what prog purists will make of Permanating, a song so bright-eyed and poppy that Jeff Lynne might have turned it down for being a bit too bloody cheerful, is anyone’s guess, but the hooks are irresistible, the jabbing piano pulse infectious and the key changes and melodic twists as innocently thrilling as anything ABBA did in the 70s. It’s hard not to imagine Wilson having a little chuckle to himself, knowing that a few feathers are about to be ruffled, but that slight whiff of wilful subversion is more than balanced out by how beautifully crafted these songs are. By the time Song Of I slithers into view with its faded Peter Gabriel T-shirt on, all Intruder-like stuttering beats, seismic bottom end and clattering percussion, it starts to seem ridiculous to suggest that To The Bone isn’t, in fact, hugely rooted in prog territory, but once again there is a stripped down, crystalline precision to the melodies and structural shifts that sets this apart from much of Wilson’s catalogue. Only the fidgeting, anxious Detonation hangs around long enough to enable the musicians involved to indulge themselves, but its sprawling mid-section owes more to Trevor Horn’s futuristic funk-driven pop triumphs with Grace Jones and Frankie Goes To Hollywood than it does to King Crimson.
Ultimately, there is no need to panic and every reason to celebrate. He hasn’t exactly taken a wild detour here, but there are a few curveballs to juggle and a sense that Steven Wilson is consciously rehabilitating an approach to pop music that, let’s face it, is long overdue a widespread revival.
And, as with everything else, he does it better than most.