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Steven Wilson’s The Raven That Refused To Sing: A Confessional Perspective

March 2, 2013

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.

 

 

5 Comments leave one →
  1. March 9, 2013 4:00 pm

    I agree. It’s not bad sounding, but the songwriting is not holding the same water for me as some of his past work.

    • March 10, 2013 6:28 pm

      The silver lining for both of us might be the frequently proven method of revisiting some of these albums of his a few years from now and coming away with a better appreciation for them. It could happen… hopefully.

  2. L Roy permalink
    March 23, 2013 11:29 pm

    I’d actually go so far as to say this is the best of his three solo albums (4 if you include the Storm Corrosion project with Akerfeldt). Not that I’m trying to sing his praises, moreso I agree that this is the record that has returned to (slightly) more focused songwriting. It seems that in recent years he has achieved more recognition (and probably remuneration) through his production work, thus giving him more freedom (both financial and from the label) to do his own thing.

    Which raises the question… if his name is more lucrative than that of PT nowadays, why not continue to operate with the PT guys except with a change of name; eg, Steven Wilson or Steven Wilson and Porcupine Tree? Or perhaps Wilson has been affected by the same bout of ego that affected one Mike Portnoy – who split from his long term band to chase gratification (and perhaps an additional paycheque)?

    • March 24, 2013 12:14 pm

      You could have a point, although I believe that the latest Porcupine Tree record charted higher in the States and the UK than any of his solo albums (I believe) and individual albums like In Absentia and Fear of a Blank Planet have outsold his solo discography as a whole (100,000 for the former and a stunning 250,000 for the latter). Commercial statistics aside… its often times hard to make the distinction between what makes his solo records different from his Porcupine Tree stuff on a purely sound/music level. But honestly the way I can make the distinction in a general sense is that I enjoy the PT stuff more… a flimsy pretense perhaps but a telling one for me. I wonder if the PT band dynamic is really more complicated than we think, as in the other members going “hold on Steven, that idea is too weird”, or other input that keeps the PT sound very focused.

      I think he’ll go back to PT at some point. It will be interesting to see what happens musically at that point because it can be argued that The Incident was really a precursor to Wilson’s move away from ‘metal-based’ riffs and sounds into the avant-garde, jazzy stuff he’s doing now. Will the styles he’s explored on his solo albums follow him into PT or will the other guys in the band insist on something else? If they can that is…

      • L Roy permalink
        March 24, 2013 8:15 pm

        Thanks for the reply, Pigeon =)
        On Wikipedia, Wilson is quoted as noting at least one member of PT “doesn’t like Jazz”, and that he himself is “tired of metal music”. I also get the impression he’s the man that wears the pants in PT (the PT guys don’t produce any of the records, even though they’re all more than accomplished; he also looked quite the tyrant in the making of ‘The Raven…’ footage). Unless they’re happy to revisit pre In-Absentia days, that doesn’t bode well for a new release any time soon…

        Whether the rest of PT want to wait that long also remains to be seen.

        In the meantime, I am quite happy with Riverside’s new one (SoNGS) – they’ve been my equally satisfying alternative to PT for a few years now.

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