In January of 2006, the remains of Joyce Carol Vincent, aged 38, were discovered in her London flat. She died in her apartment in late 2003, surrounded by undelivered Christmas presents. She was described as outgoing, attractive, and ambitious by neighbors, friends, and family, but somehow wasn't missed. This chilling story made headlines in Great Britain, and the mysterious person behind it moved Steven Wilson to create this fictional concept album (small "c"). He doesn't adhere to story's grim details. Instead he writes from the perspective of a living woman who is, due to choice, circumstance, or both, alone and ultimately unknowable. Engineered by Steve Orchard, and produced and mixed by Wilson, the album is sonically rich and detailed. It's an immense, imaginative landscape that melds classic album rock, sophisticated '80s pop, metal, prog, and electronica in expertly crafted songs. Prog isn't the driver as it was on 2013's The Raven That Refused to Sing, but there are ample places for Wilson's muscular all-star band to stretch. Israeli vocalist Ninet Tayeb plays an important guest role. Wilson's melodies and arrangements illustrate the complex parts of his protagonist's persona as much as his lyrics do. Individual songs matter, but perhaps more than any record in his catalog, this album needs to be taken as a whole because it is a study in contrasts and mercurial contradictions. After a soundscape intro, "3 Years Older" alternates between lilting ballad and anthemic overture. It frames the story with all of the thematic dissonances Wilson employs musically and lyrically throughout the narrative as it flits between notions of tenderness, bewilderment, longing for connection, militant solitude, and anger directed outward and inward. Tayeb's spectral spoken word on "Perfect Life" details a reverie about a connection with a foster sister amid loops and droning synths before Wilson sings the refrain repeatedly. On "Routine," Tayeb adds subtle operatic backing vocals to the ballad in the first section before taking the lead in the second, soaring as the track explodes into prog fury. Wilson's own singing -- as on the title cut and "Transcience," is empathic and quietly yet expertly expressive. The sprawling, multi-sectioned "Ancestral" details a poignant, frightened emotional abyss illustrated in various sections by loops, strings, synths, strings, stinging guitars, and stacked, layered vocals. Wilson offers respite in "Happy Returns," where a reunion with a family member instills a short-lived sense of security, but gives way to inescapable vulnerability and isolation. "Ascendant Here On" is delivered wordlessly by a boys' choir accompanied only by piano and the sounds of children's voices. After the unsettling nature of the inner monologue throughout the album, these closing moments offer the impression that the often intense internal suffering expressed is over, and it makes Hand.Cannot.Erase. all the more eerie. This troubling but deeply moving record is a metaphorical treatise on societal alienation, loneliness, and urban dislocation, offered without pretension. It is aesthetically attractive while being emotionally and intellectually resonant; pop music cannot hope to accomplish more.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek