One morning in late January 2006, bailiffs from a housing trust in west London broke into a flat to repossess a property that had fallen into arrears. It should have been a routine procedure, just another sad statistic to add to the thousands of hard luck stories that pass unbidden and unnoticed in a city the size of London. As the opened the door, they could hear the sound of a television set, but inside the tiny living room, the officials made an awful discovery: the skeletal remains of a woman lying next to a pile of unset Christmas presents, with the TV performing an unending electronic requiem over her corpse. Based on the date stamps of food in the fridge and the landfill of unopened mail behind the door, it emerged she had lain before the flickering screen of the television for almost three years. Her name was Joyce Carol Vincent.
Forgotten or Fugitive?
But contrary to conventional wisdom about those who perish isolated and forgotten within our communities, Joyce had no history of mental health issues, nor was she some latter day Eleanor Rigby, aging and reclusive. As investigations into her past continued, a picture emerged of a woman who had been young, beautiful and charismatic. What was tragic, and remains compelling to this day, was not just the fact that she had died in such macabre circumstances, but that nobody had noticed – or at least, noticed sufficiently – to establish that she was okay. It wasn’t that Joyce had been forgotten, the ambiguity of her final months suggested that this may have been what she herself wanted.
Joyce had worked for a major accountancy firm and had a wide circle of friends with whom she did all the slightly wild and crazy things that young people do in a city like London. Attractive and intelligent, she had mixed and mingled with the wealthy and the famous, using, it seemed, a variety of personas to hide her background and fit in with whoever she was spending time with. Friends later speculated as to whether they really knew her at all, whether having so many characters, the real Joyce eventually found it hard to deal with the reality of her own life. In 2001 she had left her job and moved into a shelter for victims of domestic abuse but thereafter, as she retreated into her own private world, her movements and motivations became unclear.
Acquaintances pictured her living in a Victorian house with lovely furniture, whereas the bedsit where she was discovered was just another cell in a block facing the back of Wood Green Shopping City. Known locally with grim irony, as ‘Sky City’, the estate is relentlessly grounded in the bleak reality of uncaring modern life, a warren of red brick walkways and ramparts of industrial grey concrete, pockmarked with grilles and bars and indistinguishable from the shopping centre below. A former boyfriend, with connections in the music industry, had introduced her to luminaries like Isaac Hayes and Gil Scott-Heron. She had even shaken the hand of Nelson Mandela at the Wembley tribute concert in his name. Millions would have glimpsed her anonymously on television that day. Just a few years later, millions of people went about their lives just yards away from the small room where Joyce Carol Vincent quietly left hers. Nobody came.
The origin of ‘Hand. Cannot. Erase’
Years later, however, the director, Carol Morley, was so moved by this tragic story that she made a film about Joyce, ‘Dreams of a Life’ and it was this documentary that motivated and inspired Steven Wilson to create his new album, ‘Hand. Cannot. Erase.’ The fictional character portrayed on the album is not intended to be Joyce, but someone like her, giving the artist the freedom to the themes and issues raised by her death. In interview with Prog Magazine, Wilson stated:
“The really interesting thing here is that you hear her story and you think ‘Okay, she was a druggie’ or perhaps a bit of a mad old bag lady, the kind of person you’ve seen around who operates on the fringes of society, or rather someone who has society has become separated from. But she wasn’t….It’s frightening that in the Facebook age someone can end up so isolated and alone.”
We often think of cities as being islands of densely packed humanity, when, according to Steven Wilson, it would be better to regard them as millions upon millions of tiny islets, distinct and wholly separate from each other. Far from being some embracing, nurturing, organic system, cities are perhaps the most atomistic and isolating constructions humans have managed to invent. It must be a terrible feeling to live surrounded by thousands of your fellow citizens and to know, with complete certainty that everyone is indifferent to you. Cities are not places you go to embrace humanity, rather, as Wilson says:
“Because I think in the 21st century if you really want to disappear, if you want to be invisible, you wouldn’t go live in the country where everybody knows everyone’s business. You would go to the heart of the metropolis. And you will become invisible.”
This concept of losing identity and fading into the background is reminiscent of the ‘fourmillante cité’ of Baudelaire’s Les Sept Vieillards and the metropolis of Eliot’s Waste Land, where each person fixes their eyes to the ground as they shuffle through the dull brown fog of their lives. It’s to the credit of vision behind ‘Hand. Cannot. Erase’ that these challenging and difficult themes are brought together in an album and live experience that does justice to their inspiration. As a listener and onlooker, you are really pressed to think and this is a welcome achievement in the age of YouTube multimediocrity.
Steven Wilson: In Brief
Hopefully, ‘Hand. Cannot. Erase’ will continue the upward trajectory of Steven Wilson’s career that has seen him become a self-effacing and somewhat reluctant figurehead for contemporary progressive music. As his lyric for ‘Time Flies’ describes, he was “born in 67, a child of Sergeant Pepper and Are You Experienced” and it’s only natural that his music fills the gap implied by those two reference points: psychedelic, experimental, progressive, innovative and profoundly melodic.
Wilson came to greater prominence as a member of Porcupine Tree, the band he formed and led with increasing success until 2010, when he placed their activities on hold to pursue a solo career. He has also participated in several significant collaborative projects – No-Man, Blackfield and Storm Corrosion – as well as releasing ambient music under the guise of Bass Communion. By the time of their ongoing hiatus, Porcupine Tree’s last album, ‘The Incident’ had made the top 30 album charts in both the UK and US. Subsequently, Wilson was becoming much in demand as a producer/remixer of classic prog albums for new 5.1 surround sound formats. And as a solo artist, his previous album, ‘The Raven That Refused To Sing’ reached a wider audience than ever before, with its evocative, melodic and often dreamlike visions of individuals under pressure and struggling to cope. At the time, it was arguably his most powerfully realised and consistent album, supported by the beautiful art direction of Hajo Mueller and award-nominated videos like those for “Drive Home” and “The Raven That Refused To Sing” produced by animator, Jess Cope.
Even before ‘The Raven’, however, Wilson was trying to move away from being pigeonholed by the constricting stereotype of prog rock. In an interview with Anil Prasad for Innerviews in 2012, just after his second solo album, ‘Grace for Drowning’, was released, he stated:
“…there is no attempt on this album to fit the music into a specific market or genre, or appeal to the existing base, managers or record companies.”
I can understand why he would feel that way. Although I’m a huge fan of classic progressive rock, I question the relevance of the term in today’s music. For me, Steven Wilson is a progressive musician with a small ‘p’ in the same way that Kanye West is progressive or Arcade Fire are progressive: artists who push the boundaries of their craft. One of my gripes is that these tribal labels tend to do more harm than good; they hold back appreciation of some fabulous music because people see the description ‘prog’ and instinctively recoil from men in capes doing strange things with their instruments for half an hour. When I think of “prog rock” as a category, I think we’re still guilty of defaulting to Topographic Oceans, Gabriel bellowing “A flower?” and the weird and wonderful world of Daevid Allen. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with prog rock or with double albums that contain only four songs and I love them as much as the next fan. But I believe you can categorise classic prog rock as a genre with a distinct beginning, middle and end, spanning the decade from around 1969 to 1979.
Outside of these dates, I think you have to work harder with the definitions as you move away from the “terroir” of a given period. If you want to make music that draws on a heritage of classic prog rock in 2015, it’s not your fault you’re not recording in 1975. I just don’t think you can label it as ‘prog’ as if the two are one and the same thing. Because, if you’re going to retrospectively look back and claim (as the UK’s Prog magazine did recently) that Tears for Fears first album ‘The Hurting’ is prog, then either everything is or nothing is. Take “David’s Last Summer” from the album ‘His And Hers’ by Pulp. Seven and a half minutes of utter wonderfulness; different moods and tones; long instrumentals, spoken word poems; keyboard solos. But prog? The labels make no sense whatsoever.
Consequently, I think generically categorising Steven Wilson’s latest album as prog rock puts up a barrier between the music and the much wider audience that it deserves. Progressiveness is not the preserve of a 9/8 time signature or anything longer than you’d hear on the R1 Breakfast Show. True, there are tracks on ‘Hand. Cannot. Erase’ that definitely lean more to what we might consider to be “prog rock” in ambition or influence but they in no way characterise the whole album. And even these longer, more instrumental pieces, have a freshness that makes them more than just a re-tread of How We Use To Listen circa 1974.
In conclusion, what I love about Steven Wilson’s work is the depth and richness that exudes from every aspect of his musicianship. The ideas and questions raised by the songwriting on ‘Hand. Cannot. Erase’ are deeply thought provoking and intelligent. I believe it’s his finest album to date. Reading reviews of the record, almost every writer has chosen to engage with the mysterious life and tragic death of Joyce Carol Vincent; it’s serious subject matter that evokes a serious response. The music is satisfyingly complex without being inaccessible. One of the criticisms that even I would make about some progressive music is that it’s simply too hard to listen to. I can’t see the point in music whose primary function is to state ‘I am far more clever than you’. There is some superlative instrumental work on this record but there are also some emotional melodies that would not sound out of place on mainstream radio, however you define it these days. And finally, by surrounding himself with superlative musicians to interpret his writing, the playing is virtuoso. Ninet Tayeb, Nick Beggs, Adam Holzman, Marco Minnemann and the astonishing Guthrie Govan elevate each and every track to something far above the run-of-the-mill.
As this post has turned into something much longer than I originally intended, I’m going to split it into three parts. The next section will review the new album, ‘Hand. Cannot. Erase.’ in detail and the final part will cover the concert on 13th March at St. David’s Hall in Cardiff from the current UK Tour.