SHIFT­ING PER­SPEC­TIVES

30 YEARS INTO HIS CA­REER, TO THE BONE SEES STEVEN WIL­SON BLEND­ING HIS POP AND PROG SEN­SI­BIL­I­TIES MORE AUDACIOUSLY THAN EVER BE­FORE. AUS­TRALIAN GUI­TAR GOT HIM ON THE PHONE TO TALK ABOUT, AMONG OTHER THINGS, WHY THE ‘80S WAS SO GOOD.

Australian Guitar - - Feature - BY ALEX WIL­SON

“For me, if play­ing one note through a chain of ef­fects is the sound I’m af­ter, I don’t feel any re­gret about that.” These might seem like strange words for a man rou­tinely praised as the great­est art-rock mu­si­cian to come out of the UK in a gen­er­a­tion, but Steven Wil­son has al­ways had a con­flicted re­la­tion­ship with pro­gres­sive rock. He’s con­sis­tently pushed the stylis­tic and emo­tional bound­aries of a genre that’s of­ten ruled by the tastes of ‘70s-ob­ssessed clas­si­cists. In sim­ple terms, Wil­son’s lat­est of­fer­ing, To The Bone, pushes the clock for­ward one decade to the 1980s. The al­bum’s songs are gen­er­ally punchy and re­splen­dent, with pop hooks that evoke wa­ter­shed artists like Kate Bush, Tears For Fears and Talk Talk. But there’s much more depth to his mu­si­cal shift than sim­ply homage to a dif­fer­ent pe­riod. “It’s about a par­tic­u­lar com­bi­na­tion of great pop with ex­tremely ex­pert pro­duc­tion, per­for­mance and mean­ing­ful lyrics,” says Wil­son. “That bal­ance be­tween ac­ces­si­bil­ity and am­bi­tion is some­thing the ‘80s ex­celled at. With a few ex­cep­tions, the last cou­ple of decades have seen this ideal dis­ap­pear in pop song­writ­ing.”

“Per­ma­nat­ing”, one of the al­bum’s sin­gles, en­cap­su­lates this shift. Driven by a propul­sive beat and dreamy tex­tures, the hooks and pol­ished pro­duc­tion con­ceal a com­plex ar­range­ment and a note of melan­choly. It also fea­tures one of many so­los Wil­son has scat­tered across the al­bum, which is of note for fans.

Wil­son’s pres­tige, as for­mer leader of Por­cu­pine Tree and now a solo artist, has given him the pick of prog’s best guns-for-hire for his past few records – at one point, his band fea­tured renowned shred­der Guthrie Go­van. But for his lat­est batch of songs, he wanted a more per­sonal touch. “There’s a dif­fer­ence be­tween play­ing the gui­tar as a song­writer and play­ing the gui­tar as a ses­sion player,” notes Wil­son. “I wanted the gui­tar play­ing – in the so­los par­tic­u­larly – to be an ex­ten­sion of the song­writ­ing sen­si­bil­ity. I wanted it to have more of an or­ganic qual­ity that’s emo­tion­ally in­te­grated with the songs. Not to di­min­ish the con­tri­bu­tions of any other gui­tarists I’ve worked with, but that’s the nub of it.”

In terms of gear, Wil­son takes a “what­ever works” ap­proach. “I do like to ex­per­i­ment and I’m not a purist,” he says. “I’m equally keen to play around with plug­ins on a dig­i­tal work­sta­tion as I am to play with an ana­log sig­nal chain. There’s ev­ery­thing from my punky Mex­i­can Tele­caster go­ing through a tiny prac­tice amp I keep in my stu­dio – that’s the main sound for the track ‘Peo­ple Who Eat Dark­ness’: very bit­ing. The other ex­treme is the cathe­dra­lesque shoegaze gui­tars at the end of ‘Pariah’. They’re go­ing through oc­tave ped­als, re­verbs and dis­tor­tion to the point that it be­comes pure tex­ture.” Ul­ti­mately, it seems that the method mat­ters less than the re­sult. The main goal is for some­thing to sound good and have a char­ac­ter that is fresh and in­ter­est­ing. “I love to ab­stract the gui­tar and I love the fact that the gui­tar re­mains the most ver­sa­tile in­stru­ment of all,” says Wil­son. “I’m of­ten dis­ap­pointed when I hear records that don’t ex­plore the in­stru­ment’s pos­si­bil­i­ties.”

Wil­son’s lat­est songs may have a pop tinge, but they don’t lack any lyri­cal depth that com­ple­ments the mu­si­cal pol­ish. To The Bone con­tin­ues his tra­di­tion of bring­ing emo­tional res­o­nance and ma­ture sub­ject mat­ter to a pro­gres­sive rock au­di­ence – one of­ten ma­ligned for be­ing con­tent with pre­ten­tious lyrics. “I feel like the best art is all about hold­ing up a mir­ror,” notes Wil­son. “It’s not preachy or overtly top­i­cal, but it’s an at­tempt to re­flect your per­spec­tive back to your au­di­ence.”

It’s with no doubt that 2017 is a strange year. Wil­son is aware of this, and won­ders if there’s a place for his record in both the mu­si­cal and wider worlds. But if he truly has any doubts, they haven’t stopped him from ask­ing the big ques­tions. “This is an al­bum about per­spec­tive,” he ex­plains. “It starts with a quote about truth, and goes on to ex­plain that what we call ‘truth’ isn’t any­thing of the sort. It’s ac­tu­ally all about per­spec­tive, fil­tered through your race, gen­der, re­li­gion, pol­i­tics and up­bring­ing. This is what I see – do you see your­self in here as well?”

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