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 were so good. Words 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?”