Throughout his career, Steven Wilson has often written about unsettling themes. A few songs from Porcupine Tree’s masterful album In Absentia seem to have been written from the perspective of a serial killer (the poppy, energetic “Blackest Eyes” is maybe the most clear example). He’s written about ghosts, suicide, existential angst, nuclear fallout, and a number of other dark topics. When I first heard that he was writing an album that was inspired by a news story about a woman’s body being found after three undisturbed years in a bedsit, I assumed that it was just a tired foray into the macabre gallery of topics that he has treated previously in his music.
My conclusions might have been a little hasty. Steven Wilson’s latest offering, Hand.Cannot.Erase. is a concept album loosely based on the disturbing story of Joyce Carol Vincent, a beautiful, ambitious socialite who, over a period of time, decided to isolate herself from society and alienate her friends, until she eventually passed away quietly in her London flat in 2003. Her body was discovered three years later. The story is shocking in many ways, but perhaps the most alarming part of the story was the fact that she was able to so effectively fade out of people’s consciousness and memory, to the point that no major search was made for her, not even by her friends and family, for three entire years. Wilson was moved deeply by the tragedy of her story and decided that he would simultaneously honor her memory through music and use her story as a vessel to address greater societal issues.
Hand.Cannot.Erase. is an album about isolation in our modern age. The main character of the album is an unnamed female protagonist, based on Vincent, who decides to progressively shut herself off from society. The album uses elements from her story (isolation due to abuse, painful nostalgia, shame) to frame the main character’s behaviors as the unfortunate symptoms of the greater existential problems associated with modern life in the city. Wilson has always been willfully ambiguous with narrative details, but to create a more complete main character, the album was coupled with a fictional blog written by the main character and a promotional video. Hand.Cannot.Erase., as a complete work, rightly reminds us of the irony that, in a modern, technological, interconnected age, and in a city as crowded with people as London, someone who is in many ways surrounded by people can slip away silently.
Wilson has always surrounded himself with highly accomplished musicians, but on Hand.Cannot.Erase., his backup band is stunning. WIlson is fully aware of this, so he gives lots of opportunities for extended solo passages. Although there are some stunning moments musically from every instrumentalist, the obvious standouts are Guthrie Govan and Marco Minneman (two-thirds of The Aristocrats, an insanely technical fusion trio). Guthrie Govan’s guitar work on the album is totally captivating. His solos have the melodic power and intentionality of David Gilmour, but they are garnished with plenty of flair and technical prowess. He shines when he is given the opportunity, and plays understatedly and tastefully throughout the rest of the album. Marco Minneman, who is one of the most respected drummers in the scene, really shines throughout the album. Whether he is showing restraint in the poppy “Hand Cannot Erase” or thumping along to jolted Meshuggah-like double bass rhythms in “Home Invasion,” or freaking out in the sinister, menacing “Ancestral,” his playing further proves his incredible capability and versatility.
The album is a milestone in Wilson’s career as a social statement and an emotional narrative. In the past, his forays into darkness have garnered him a reputation for being detached from his subject matter, but the album is a revelation for him, because it treats the topics with such humanity and care. “Perfect Life” begins with spoken word as the narrator waxes nostalgically for her sister “of 6 months,” with an electronic backdrop reminiscent of Massive Attack. It culminates with lush harmonies and the retrospective lyrics, “We’ve got/We’ve got the perfect life,” a phrase that hurts when you realize the current state of the main character — someone for whom happiness is a distant memory. Although a departure from the main narrative, “Routine,” is the emotional highpoint of the album. It tells a story about a woman who loses her children under tragic circumstances, and is compelled by her deep grief to continue with her routines of washing and cooking despite their absence. It features guest vocalists Ninet Tayeb, who plays the woman, and Leo Blair, who sings the part of a young choirboy. The subdued but rising grief in Israeli singer Ninet Tayeb’s voice throughout the song as she quietly sings “Routine keeps me alive/Helps me pass the time,” paralleled with the innocent atmosphere of a young boy’s voice, makes her frantic breakdown at the end of the song and her spine-tingling scream all the more moving — so much so that even after a number of spins, it still gets me. The song closes with the heartbreaking line, “Don’t ever let go/ Time to let go,” which reminds us of the conflict of grief- when is it OK to move on?
Despite Steven Wilson’s insistence that he is driven by a mantra to not repeat himself, I hear echoes of all of his previous work in this album. In a lot of ways, this music has lots of musical and thematic parallels to the 2005 album Deadwing. Lonely protagonists, electronic influences, and even some similar musical moments (I hear a little of “Mellotron Scratch’’’s pre-chorus in that of “Home Invasion,” for example). This is not a bad thing, necessarily. Artists with such high output and developed writing styles will inevitably have echoes of their past littered throughout their music. That said, Hand.Cannot.Erase. is a more coherent, complete artistic statement than Deadwing, although the tracks may not work quite as well on their own.
The album is best enjoyed as a whole. The songs blend seamlessly into each other, and melodic themes repeat throughout the album, so it’s best viewed as a complete statement. And it truly reveals itself if listened to with headphones from start to finish — you know, the hard way. Its production is incredible — deep, layered, and nuanced — and the incredible sound is further testament to one of Wilson’s greatest assets, that being his sought-after skills as producer and mixer. I mean, the guy produced Opeth’s Blackwater Park for goodness sakes.
The triumph of Hand.Cannot.Erase. above Wilson’s other works is the emotional impact and humanity of the album. He has attempted to treat similar themes of modernity in the past with Deadwing, In Absentia, and Fear of a Blank Planet. And the music throughout the album may not be as radically different or new as Wilson might hope, especially for longtime fans who will hear echoes of No Man, Blackfield, and Porcupine Tree on the album, but this is not even an issue as it is secondary to the narrative power. Hand.Cannot.Erase. is his most haunting and human album.