Wilson has incorporated more and more pop structures into his music of late.
From the moment that Porcupine Tree shifted from its early, Pink Floyd-derived progressive-psychedelia into a bleached-out brand of numbed alternative music around the turn of the millennium, Steven Wilson has plumbed the deadened emotions of the digital age, exploiting his narrow vocal range to embody a sense of displacement and loneliness. This theme coalesced in full on Porcupine Tree’s Fear of a Blank Planet and reached the deepest expression on Wilson’s last proper LP, Hand. Cannot. Erase., a travelogue of disconnect and isolation. To the Bone continues this thread but with an aesthetic twist. Wilson has incorporated more and more pop structures into his music of late, and here he expressly acknowledges the influence of ambitious ‘80s pop albums like Peter Gabriel’s So and Talk Talk’s The Colour of Spring.
The immediate effect of these focused influences is a broadening of Wilson’s tone, with brighter colors shining through the artist’s usual grey and white. Mark Feltham’s harmonica adds a blistering blues touch to the opening title track and “Refuge,” his howling runs further distorted by Wilson’s production to conjure ghosts of a musical past that has rarely figured into the artist’s proggy sterility. On the first track, that harmonica winds around some synthesized pipe percussion that gives the song an upbeat, faux-exotic atmosphere. Throughout the album, Wilson’s guitar has a warmer sound than usual; he’s never been one for the wankier side of prog showmanship, but nonetheless this marks a clear departure. On “Nowhere Now,” chiming chords pivot from a measured piano opening to ethereal pastoral pop, every bit as floating as its lyrics of drifting among clouds. “People Who Eat Darkness” harks back to early-aughts Porcupine Tree with its driving metal riff, but the brittle quality of the guitar is offset by small, twanging fills and Ninet Tayeb’s soaring vocal complements, which are sprinkled across the album to provide a contrapuntal element of power to Wilson’s more reserved singing.
The song’s lyrics aren’t too different from Wilson’s stock and trade, detailing the paradoxical loneliness of apartment life, of people in close proximity who are walled off from each other despite similar lives, but there’s a not sense of wallowing in the way that some of Wilson’s more didactic and one-note material can be. Wilson has dabbled in numerous styles before, but here he seems to put the music into genuine opposition with his words, using the contradictions to deepen his pop leanings while also drawing out more complex conclusions from his songwriting. “Pariah,” for example, name-checks Facebook amid a broader narrative of self-disdain, but Tayeb contrasts it with more inviting, hopeful lyrics that may be trite in isolation (“Take comfort from me” expresses a simplistic savior narrative) but in context steer the track out of miserabilism. At the other end of the spectrum, “Song of I” manages to use its layered arrangement to plunge deeper into Wilson’s somber moods, stacking synth flourishes that seep into the mix, perfectly backing lyrics of sexual obsession.
The contrasts help distract from the simplistic quality of some of Wilson’s lyrics, always his weakest attribute, and where the artist’s music has sometimes exhibited too great a distance from his composition and writing, here he manages to use the former to buoy the latter. The record may not achieve the same graceful apogee as Wilson’s previous album, but his songcraft remains stronger than ever. The closing trio of songs marks one of his strongest sustained runs, moving from the disturbingly inviting “Song of I” to the anti-extremism epic “Detonation” (which manages to incorporate some funky rhythms into its elegant stretch) to the peaceful, hopeful ballad “Song of Unborn.” Yet the most beguiling track may be “Permanating,” a complete departure for Wilson that sounds like one of the artier UK disco approximations birthed from the post-punk scene. Soaring chorus, shimmering keyboards and four-on-the-floor percussion make it just about the only Wilson track you can dance to. It’s the poppiest song on this baroque pop throwback and the clearest indication yet that its maker is starting to come out of his millennial fog.