I know I’m going to hurt my prog cred (whatever that is worth is up for debate), but I’ve never really connected with Steven Wilson’s past work. Sure, there were some great songs throughout, and he’s clearly a talented musician, but growing up with Rush, Between the Buried and Me, and Dream Theater, Wilson’s more subdued alternative prog rock wasn’t something that felt tailor made for me. A lot of that had to do with his penchant for writing existential and morose tales. Wilson has notably had quite an animus toward writing happy tunes, and, look, I get that it’s hard to write cathartic music when you’re happy. It’s not like I only appreciate optimism (far from it), but I’ve always kept my distance with Wilson’s work for whatever reason, musical or thematic.
All that has changed with To the Bone, Steven Wilson’s self-professed “pop record”. Much has been made that he’s abandoned prog with this album, and while this is certainly different, that’s wholly untrue. To the Bone is quite progressive and diverse. Aside from the last two over-long songs (more on that later), the album spans quite the musical range, and Wilson does this admirably. He’s equally effective with operatic pop prog (the opening title track) and hooky hard rock (“The Same Asylum As Before”), as he is with Abba piano pop (the joyous “Permanating”) and haunting industrial synthpop (“Song of I”). Never before has Wilson written a song-focused album; all of these tracks are meant to be able to stand on their own – and they do! – which gives a nice bit of diversity to the listening experience. Paradoxically, by writing a record of individual songs, Wilson has crafted arguably one of his best whole albums of his lengthy career. It’s really a joy to listen to.
Thematically, To the Bone isn’t exactly happy, but there’s a real sense of optimism and hope for humanity here that has never really come through before. Sure, there are some darker moments (“People Who Eat Darkness” and “Detonation”), but there are shades of light in the darkness which work really well with Wilson’s forays into progressive pop. It’s clear that he studied what made artists like Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, and David Bowie so great – their ability to write pop numbers that didn’t sacrifice musicianship for cheap hooks. The biggest issue with the record is how unfortunately it ends. “Detonation” is maybe a touch too long, and its climactic ending comes a minute too late, while “Song of Unborn” feels unnecessary. It doesn’t really go anywhere, and it gives the otherwise excellent record a sense that it’s dragging too much at the end. It would fit at the end of a concept record, but at the end of a pop album, it seems superfluous. That aside, whatever flaws I had in myself (or with Wilson’s music) have been upended, as To the Bone is a triumphant success.