Restlessness has been a defining characteristic of Steven Wilson's musical career. One need only consider his many projects as evidence: No-Man with Tim Bowness, Blackfield with Aviv Geffen, Porcupine Tree, Bass Communion, and I.E.M., and his four earlier prog/pop solo projects, Raven That Refused to Sing, Hand. Cannot. Erase, Grace for Drowning, and Insurgentes. He even whet punters' appetites for To the Bone by reissuing his cover singles as an album, and 4 1/2 to reveal the more accessible side of his songwriting.
To the Bone's press materials describe it as Wilson's "...hat-tip to the hugely ambitious progressive pop records of his youth...." Sources cited are Peter Gabriel, Tears for Fears, Kate Bush, etc. One can hear their traces, especially David Bowie's.
This is the most "song"-oriented record in Wilson's catalog. Each tune could have been recorded in a vacuum. Wilson includes members of his road band and others, and features Israeli singer Ninet Tayeb -- who nearly steals the show on several tracks. On the stellar title opening cut -- complete with Pink Floyd-esque guitars (à la "Time") Tayeb's and Dave Kilminster's backing vocals buoy the tune's hook, and add operatic support to Wilson's lead. On "Pariah," Tayeb alternates lead vocals with Wilson. The lithe harmonic architecture with lilting synths, restrained guitars, and loops creates a backdrop for his vulnerable delivery, yet her refrain resonates with emotional authority and encouragement for the protagonist's doubt. It echoes the interplay of Gabriel and Bush on "Don't Give Up" and is just as distinctive. "Refuge" takes a couple of minutes to emerge from its (mostly) electronic intro, but when it does, its sultry melody is supported by a trilling string section and thundering tom-toms, squalling harmonica and power chords to become an anthem.
Speaking of which, the utterly infectious "Permanenting" with its hooky melody (again with Tayeb's backing vocals adding heft and sincerity) nods directly at Tears for Fears' glorious harmonies while simultaneously reflecting a love of Northern soul (à la Curtis Mayfield's "Get on Up"), though its urgent guitars and popping drums are pure Wilson. "People Eat Darkness" is a fist-pumping rocker that sounds like Bowie fronting Swervedriver. Wilson nods at the post-trip-hop sounds of No-Man with "Song of I," with its loops and handclaps atop piano and strings. Its vocals are delivered in duet with Sophie Hunger. The nine-minute "Detonation" weds prog to adventurous pop with a glorious result, while closer "Song to Unborn" (featuring only his road band) is majestic; it could easily sit with the songs on either Raven or Hand. While To the Bone sometimes seems inconsistent, it's an illusion; repeated listening reveals that Wilson's brand of progressive pop is so multivalently textured and expertly crafted that its aesthetic and sonic palette refuse to be contained under a single rock umbrella. As such, To the Bone stands with Wilson's best work.