Steven Wilson’s work is generally held in high esteem and for good reason. The multi-faceted musician truly made his name with Porcupine Tree, a band that has been on indefinite hiatus since 2009’s The Incident, and has also peppered his reputation with projects like Blackfield and producing Opeth over the years. However his solo work has largely been a patchwork of disjointed ideas that sometimes blossom into something beautiful or something kind of aimless.
2008’s Insurgentes, Wilson’s first solo endeavour, was for all intents and purposes a beautiful record that showed different sides to his character; up to that point Porcupine Tree had been becoming gradually heavier, kind of allowing the strains of Opeth-like metal to seep onto their palette. Insurgentes on the other hand showed Wilson’s flirting with Radiohead-isms on ‘Harmony Korine’ and had utterly gorgeous stripped down songs like the title track.
Never one to rest on his laurels, once Porcupine Tree exited stage left a few years ago, Wilson emerged again with a slew of projects in 2011, like Storm Corrosion (the decade-in-the-works collaboration with Mikael Akerfeldt), but also a second solo effort, Grace for Drowning, an expansive double album that challenged the listener more than any of Porcupine Tree’s early prog-obsessed work would. This is where that disjointed patchwork comes in.
Grace for Drowning was dotted with stunning moments, ‘Deform to Form a Star’ is a must, but truthfully, it shouldn’t have been a double album. It meandered at great lengths too and lost sight of purpose. Wilson certainly wasn’t short on ideas but he may have been lacking in judgement when it came to quality control. These concerns evaporated by the time 2013’s The Raven That Refused to Sing came along, arguably his best work to date that doesn’t bear the name Porcupine Tree.
What’s the point of this history lesson you may be asking? The context of Steven Wilson’s solo work is important when immersing yourself in Hand.Cannot.Erase. It’s a difficult record, as expected. Wilson never does anything by halves so it’s incredibly demanding but not in the same sense as Grace for Drowning.
Hand.Cannot.Erase is equally vibrant as it is moody, a logical balance given the concept explored within its lyrics. The album looks at the case of Joyce Vincent, a London woman that died in her apartment and whose body remained undiscovered for three years after she had fallen out of contact with family and friends. Told through her perspective, or possibly a fictional woman inspired by Vincent, it tells the tales of “perfect lives” going sour.
“She was young, she was popular, she was attractive, she had many friends, she had family, but for whatever reason, nobody missed her for three years,” says Wilson of tragic story of Joyce Vincent.
‘3 Years Older’, first track proper, is a ten minute odyssey that has Wilson’s shamelessly utilising hook-laden melodies along with gorgeous acoustic verses and memorable vocal harmonies while the title track is an ebullient number, which sets a strange tone for the frankly macabre subject matter. However, a song like ‘Perfect Life’ sees our protagonist regale stories of a teenage friendship that eventually fell apart inexplicably and is an altogether more brooding vibe.
Wilson really lays out his wares on the first couple of songs on the album but unfortunately he loses his way a tad by the midway mark with songs like ‘Home Invasion’. By the time the 13 minute ‘Ancestral’ rolls around though, he’s back on track and in a realm where he’s most comfortable with eerie and moody electronics and strings, which hark back to The Raven…, giving way to verbose Yes-esque passages.
This is largely emblematic of the record as whole with a swinging ebb and flow. When Wilson hits his stride, he can be compelling and totally unforgettable but sometimes moments of humdrum can put a damper on things as evidenced by spots on Hand.Cannot.Erase but generally speaking, it’s another solid record from the insanely busy man, just not essential.