Steven Wilson explores truth and perception on ambitious forthcoming album To The Bone
What is truth? Does it really exist? British musician Steven Wilson delves into those questions on his new album To the Bone, his major label debut on Caroline International. It’s an expansive effort that finds the singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist known primarily for progressive rock-influenced output exploring a more accessible, yet ambitious sound.
“This album is about my love of songwriting and isn’t weighed down by a conceptual element which has been a strong part of my music for the last few years,” said Wilson, whose previous best-selling releases Hand. Cannot. Erase. and The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories) featured large-scale narratives and several epic, lengthy pieces. “To the Bone is inspired by albums from my youth in the ‘80s by artists like Talk Talk, Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, Prince, and Tears for Fears. It’s about focused musical journeys that include great pop melodies, experimental textures, cinematic production, and weighty subject matter.”
To the Bone’s core theme is propelled from the outset by the title track that opens the album. Its lyrics were written by Andy Partridge, the co-founder and key songwriter for XTC.
“We live in an age in which truth is so often twisted and perverted to serve different agendas,” said Wilson. “It’s filtered through so many things, whether it’s your race, gender, politics, or religion. It seems to me, that’s not truth at all. It’s your perception. Andy is one of my favorite songwriters. I called him up and asked him to have a crack at writing lyrics about the idea of truth as a flexible notion. The idea ultimately lent itself to the album title as well.”
The shifting nature of truth further resonates in “Pariah,” an emotional, poignant duet with Israeli singer Ninet Tayeb.
“'Pariah' examines truth as perception within the context of a relationship in the most simple way,” said Wilson. “The two people each have their own view of how the relationship is going. It also looks at the idea of an individual’s struggle and how the other person perceives it. The man is saying ‘What’s the point of waking up in the morning?’ and the woman is telling him ‘There will be another day. You will rise again. Take comfort from me.’”
The album was co-produced by British guitarist Paul Stacey, known for his work with Oasis and The Black Crowes. It also features an array of acclaimed musicians including keyboardist Adam Holzman, bassist Nick Beggs, guitarist David Kollar, drummers Craig Blundell and Jeremy Stacey, and harmonica player Mark Feltham. In addition, Wilson performs a great deal of guitar, bass and keyboard work himself.
“This album is more of a solo effort than a band effort, which I think was a natural consequence of making a more song-based recording,” said Wilson, who has typically produced his own work. “It made me realise I needed someone to bounce ideas off of. A friend of mine suggested Paul and we spent a whole day listening to records and talking about what we liked about them. I laid out my manifesto for this album and he was really excited by the idea. He was great at steering me away from any of my clichés and towards trying new approaches.”
“Detonation” is about twisting truth for reprehensible purposes. It begins as a very electronic-oriented piece as it digs into the lyrical theme before morphing into heavy rock territory that eventually situates itself within a hypnotic groove, accented by a mercurial guitar solo from Kollar.
“The source of inspiration was the 2016 attack on the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida by Omar Mateen,” said Wilson. “He killed 49 people at the gay venue. There was a strong suggestion that he didn’t really have an affiliation with a religious or terrorist group, but that he used the idea of a religious war as some kind of badge to justify his actions to himself and the rest of the world. The idea that this somehow made it okay for anyone because of a perceived religious fundamentalist organization linkage really started to worry me. The song is about one of those people.”
To the Bone also has moments of positivity and joy. “Permanating” is the album’s most pop-oriented moment. It’s accompanied by a fun, kinetic video featuring Bollywood dancers.
“'Permanating' is about the idea of a crystallised moment of happiness,” said Wilson. “We all have certain memories of great joy that comfort us. We draw from them as a well of positivity when we need them. A lot of them come from childhood — an innocent period when we have no responsibilities and are discovering things for the first time. It’s also about adulthood and being able to celebrate life and rising above all of its difficulties. I remember playing the song and then watching some Bollywood dancing on YouTube and I felt the two would work together well. So, that became my ambition for the video.”
The video begins with Wilson at his piano, solo, performing the introduction to the song as dancers from The Bollywood Company, a British troupe, emerge around him, illustrating the song’s vibrant, inspirational intent. The idea is the dancers are part of Wilson’s dream state as he plays the piece. As soon as he closes the piano’s keylid at the end, the fantasy concludes and Wilson exits the scene.
“I’ve always loved Bollywood dancing because it’s such a joyous form of expression,” said Wilson. “Using Bollywood dancers wasn’t a contrived decision. ‘Permanating’ is a song all about colour and joy. So, the look of the video involves maximum glamour, cinematic elements and colour saturation. It was influenced by dance sequences from Bollywood films I’ve enjoyed, including Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, Guru, and Devdas. The video isn’t trying to be purist in representing Bollywood dance. I think it’s quite fresh and unusual. I’m not interested in being pure or faithful to any kind of music, cinema or dance. I was trying to make something appealing as a piece of film.”
Wilson has an appreciation for Indian and India-inspired music, too.
“The percussionist and composer Selvaganesh is just incredible,” said Wilson. “I also really like Lata Mangeshkar, including the way the British act Four Tet sampled her work for their Morning/Evening album. It’s wonderful how Kieran Hebden of Four Tet, who’s half Indian, combined Mangeshkar’s voice with electronic music on that recording.”
Performing in India is also something Wilson enjoys. He headlined three major concerts in India during 2016, including the NH7 Weekender Festival in Shillong and Pune, and the Backdoors Festival in Bengaluru. He plans on including India in the 2018 To the Bone tour, which will see him evolving his already spectacular stage show, involving dramatic projections, films and lighting effects.
“It’s going to be more immersive than ever before,” said Wilson. “The show will be based around To the Bone and include new visual elements based on its themes. I’ll also be delving into my back catalog and picking out some gems from the past that I haven’t performed with my band before. I look forward to bringing the show to India where it’s always thrilling, exhilarating and inspiring to play for so many people who really appreciate what I do in an open-hearted way.”
To the Bone releases this 18 August on Caroline International.