When I first listened to the new Steven Wilson album, ‘Hand. Cannot. Erase.’, I posted to Facebook that I had “goosebumps within the first minute”. It’s the kind of record that grips you from the very start and draws you into its emotional soundscape.
“First Regret/Three Years Older”
The opening track, “First Regret/Three Years Older” has so many ideas, lyrically and musically, that it feels like a distillation of everything that has made Steven Wilson one of the most exciting and talented British musicians in 2015. It begins with a few snatches of the sound of children playing, but their chattering fades into a beautiful, almost wistful, piano solo overlaid onto a single, pulsing, electronic note. This emotional refrain feels almost like a cry for help, the flickering of an individual soul struggling to assert itself against the mindless mechanical hum of the city. I love the idea of there being a spark of vitality and uniqueness amongst the uniformity of so much drab and featureless sprawl.
The overture gives way to a section of tight, dynamic, yet almost jazzy, riffing in which the band establishes its credentials, before a warm and expressive solo from Guthrie Govan ushers in the calmness of the first vocal. There’s already been a profusion of ideas and moments to savour and we’re only five minutes in. The opening verses are both lovely and yet severe, with echoes of the emotional passages in ‘Luminol’ and ‘The Watchmaker’ that hint at the bleakness to follow.
And when Wilson sings ‘I can feel you more than you really know/I will love more than I’ll ever show’, the chord change and sudden uplift is so achingly beautiful that if a band like Coldplay ever did something similar, I swear to God it would break the web. Track 1, side 1. Majestic.
“Hand. Cannot. Erase” & “Perfect Life”
The next two tracks are great examples of why conventional prog labels don’t apply to Steven Wilson’s music. The title song is a blinding contemporary rock track, stylistically similar to U2’s “Beautiful Day”, with vocal shades very reminiscent of James Dean Bradfield and the Manic Street Preachers. It’s confident in tone, almost reckless, as if Wilson’s heroine has begun her descent but hasn’t yet realised the danger she is in.
It’s followed immediately by the arresting “Perfect Life”, and a complete change in style, with slowed down electronic beats and half-whispered female vocal bringing splashes of Portishead, Massive Attack and This Mortal Coil (who are referenced in the lyrics). The halting poetic cadence of the spoken lyric sounds like an interviewee dredging long forgotten incidents from sunken childhood recollections. “Sometimes we would head down Blackbird Moor to watch the barges on Grand Union Canal in the twilight….she said water has no memory.” And the irony about to unfold is that people have no memory either, which is why individuals can slip unnoticed out of the world. The song concludes with a sad, plaintive chorus ‘ We have got a perfect life’, repeated over and over, almost like a catechism, an attempt to instill belief in something not quite believable. It’s a downbeat, mournful parting, which fades out like something beautiful drifting slowly, but inexorably, away from our grasp. It mirrors the way the woman is disappearing from her surroundings; life was perfect but the stream left her behind. Flowing water has no memory.
I’m not certain if “Routine” will be the standout track for many listeners, but in many ways, this song is the core of the album and the first one to get the Jess Cope treatment for its video. The insistent compulsive rhythm of the opening section suggests something going wrong beneath the surface of all this apparent precision and control. The lyrics talk about children in the past tense; there is a tragedy here that all the surface routine cannot suppress or mediate. “Keep cleaning keep ironing/Cooking their meals on the stainless steel hob/Keep washing keep scrubbing”. The acoustic arpeggios that interrupt are in a minor key, hinting at something darker, before the original theme re-asserts itself, now swollen to something huge and grandiose, like waves of anguish piling against cliffs. The plaintive, vulnerable vocals of Ninet Tayeb ring out but her voice is in danger of being overwhelmed by the epic sounds around her. You sense the despair of someone vainly attempting to hold together their a slowly disintegrating world. Finally, the tension cannot be sustained and the song falls apart in a howl of madness.
The track ends with a beautiful acoustic coda from Wilson and one of his most poignant and perceptive lines, which perhaps lies at the heart of the mystery of his character, and perhaps of Joyce Vincent herself: “Don’t ever let go/Try to let go.” On paper, like many lyrics, it may not seem to make sense, but heard in context of the subject and the music, it’s nothing short of brilliant.
“Home Invasion/Regret #9” & “Ancestral”
“Home Invasion/Regret #9” and “Ancestral” are the most instrumental and (yes) progressive sounding tracks on the album. They make for harder listening in isolation but will hopefully encourage new audiences to contemplate something they wouldn’t normally seek out. “Home Invasion/Regret #9” has some great rhythms, beginning with a driving, almost militaristic riff that suggests some kind of pursuit, perhaps of an individual fleeing from all the pressures that make their life intolerable. After a few minutes, however, this breaks into a loose, funky groove punctuated by an almost psychadelic chorus, which made me wonder if the entire song is describing some narcotic release from the torment of coping. “Another day on earth has passed me by…..the awning of the stars across the sky”. Our heroine is both here and yet somewhere else. Disembodied voices murmur numbers from the ether before a blistering Moog solo from Holzmann takes the track literally and metaphorically into the stratosphere, to be met by an equally coruscating solo from Guthrie Govan. And yet the discipline of the playing remains exemplary, which for me is what distinguishes ‘Hand. Cannot. Erase.’ from so many other rock albums, progressive or otherwise. There are a lot of notes here, but they are good notes.
Ancestral” is perhaps the most austere track on the record. It’s like the dark, black monolith at the centre of the mystery. “Come back if you want to,” sings Wilson, “But remember who you are. The world will never want you. It will never tell you why.” It’s a sombre message, a call to arms: choose to be withdraw, choose to engage, the choice is yours but expect nothing in return. And then the band cuts loose with a dramatic and at times almost disturbing intensity. Live (as I’ll talk about later), this song is an absolute piledriver, a battle between light and shadow, in which the final outcome is never certain.
“First Regret/Three Years Older”
With our strong, human desire for closure, the theme of redemption is a familiar concept in art, be it literature, poetry, drama, music or the visual arts. Because of the profound subject matter, the resolution of the majestic final track “Happy Returns/Ascendant Here On” is sublimely satisfying. The opening refrain of “First Regret/Three Years Older” resurfaces but now there is a strong undercurrent of peace, tranquility and acceptance. It’s an ambiguous ending. Is the woman drifting into eternal sleep or just something temporary, with the promise of brighter things to come in the future?
(The online blog/biography created as a parallel to the album hints at something even more surreal and supernatural. In my opinion, its protagonist comes across as far more disconnected and out of touch than the persona in the songs, although its no less thought provoking and engaging because of that. In concert, this creates a slight challenge, one which I’ll come to later in my review of the live shows. But it’s enormous credit to Steven Wilson that with this album he has created so many different ways into the story, that each can stand alone or together depending on the viewpoint of the reader/listener. For me, the music is the most important thing but I recommend anyone reading this to visit the blog at www.handcannoterase.com)
Buoyed by the beautiful lyrics, the music spirals upwards, lifting the emotion of the song and the album towards a positive conclusion and the final solo from Guthrie Govan is dazzling and bright before the pace slows down to a beautiful coda of choral pads and piano. The sound of children in the playground fades in once more and we have travelled full circle. Is this what letting go sounds like or are we witnessing the beginning of something new? It’s superlative playing and deeply moving, and testimony to Wilson’s great confidence as an artist in allowing the album to end on such a quiet, almost reverential note. I’d like to think that our heroine pulls through, that unlike Joyce Vincent, she clung to something that made the difference. The beauty of this music, however, is that we just don’t know and it’s really up to you to determine her fate.
After the success of ‘The Raven That Refused To Sing’ there was a lot riding on this album but Steven Wilson absolutely succeeds in meeting expectations. It’s too early for me to say if I think it’s ‘better’ than its predecessor because I fell so much in love with that record, but ‘Hand. Cannot. Erase’ is still growing on me and easily surpasses any other new record I’ve heard since ‘The Raven…’ was released. In terms of public appreciation, I think in time it will become more highly regarded, partly because it has such a strong and emotional concept and partly because the sheer weight of ideas and invention on this album is nothing short of spectacular. It isn’t just ten tracks, variations on a theme, but a rich, diverse and thought-provoking record by one of Britain’s finest musicians at the very peak of his powers.