I’ve come to a downer of a realization in that I am experiencing an ever increasing disinterest in the new music being released by one of my favorite artists ever, the prolific and amazing Steven Wilson. He’s worthy of those two adjectives still, the first because its true (Porcupine Tree/ Solo Albums/ Blackfield/ Bass Communion/ No Man/ Storm Corrosion/ various production work), and the second because to me and many others, he’s responsible for some of the most inspired, interesting, and emotive music that I’ve ever heard, regardless of genre, period.
But I suppose its fair to say that most of that music comes within the context of Porcupine Tree and Blackfield, and the former is on hiatus and Wilson’s songwriting involvement in the latter has waned incredibly with their third release. It seems his priority for the past few years has been his solo work, and I actually enjoyed a good bit of Wilson’s first solo album, Insurgentes. Soon after came his second solo set, Grace For Drowning, and I was surprised to find myself loving only a couple of tracks from that album (the sparse ballads “Postcard”, “Deform to Form a Star”, and “Like Dust I Have Cleared From My Eye”). And well… its the internet dammit — so you see loads of people on social media everywhere proclaiming the sheer genius, the great artistry of the album and think to yourself, “Huh, it must be me then”. Yes, a selfish, naive, and maybe melodramatic perspective, but an honest one still. I’d read interviews with Wilson where he’d be discussing the more jazz centric role he was investigating with his new band on that album and silently yearn for something else from him that was… well, not that.
So while I wondered like many others if Wilson had sown his solo oats and would be dutifully reuniting with his Porcupine Tree brethren, it was announced that his third solo album was finished and would be released relatively soon. Well, things are what they are, and if this is what Wilson is doing these days, so be it. He’s one of those artists in my musical world from which I’ll easily buy an album without hearing a note beforehand, he’s come through for me so many times (and one thing about buying Steven Wilson albums is that he delivers the goods on the packaging). So, The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories) arrives with a flurry of mainstream attention and critical praise from all corners that is unlike anything a Steven Wilson project has ever seen, even with Porcupine Tree. And to get right to the point, there are some really spectacular moments on here that I quite enjoy, but they’re often sandwiched between what I’ll just politely call A.D.D. moments where my mind wanders and I’m distracted by Reddit yet again. So I’m probably going to be the one to spoil the party a little bit, and say about the album: I don’t love it.
Maybe you’ll be along with me in the minority, and find yourself agreeing when I say that the sublime moments here seem isolated, remote, and often fleeting. I’m referring to moments such as the beautiful, sparsely strummed mid-section of the opener “Luminol”, the classic Wilson-esque balladry of “Drive Home”, or the best moments of “The Pin Drop” and “The Watchmaker”. The album closer title track is certainly haunting in its lyric, yet I find the music somehow lacking… atmospheric yes but emotive all its own? I’m not so sure. And I fail to understand the excitement and hype about the album centerpiece, “The Holy Drinker”, a ten minute plus barrage of wild instrumentation with no coherent order among any of it. Do people really get off on free form saxophone? I’m not trying to be pedantic, I’m really curious… I find the instrument irritating most of the time. My overall feeling about the album is hard to put into perspective because on the whole I think that I may be finding more to enjoy here than on the chaotic, free-for-all that was Grace For Drowning, as its a much more song driven affair (no real jazz odysseys to be found here… thank god). Yet at the same time, I feel that I really love those few aforementioned Grace For Drowning cuts whereas I merely like the albeit, greater amount of good material here.
And I guess whats alarming as a fan of the guy is that the deeper he goes into his solo prog explorations, the further away he’s getting from what drew me to him in the first place. I’ll admit, I found Wilson’s music through Porcupine Tree’s heavier, more metal-inflected albums starting with In Absentia and Deadwing, but I went backwards in the catalog and loved everything from the Pink Floyd-ian The Sky Moves Sideways to the pure pop of Lightbulb Sun. The conduit through all of those albums was I suppose, relatively linear song structures, where even the intensely prog-rock moments and ambient soundscapes were held in check by a commitment to either a rock/metal backbone, or a pop songwriting driven focus. He loses me musically with the jazz perspective, and while I wish I could say I’m able to clue into that world, I simply can’t. The aggravating head-scratcher about The Raven That Refused To Sing is that it actually is a careful step back towards relative linearity… so where does that leave me?
P.S.: I want Porcupine Tree back.