Steven Wilson is the last person you’d want to attend your high school reunion. He’s too much of an overachiever: his remixes (including surround sound) of such classic progressive-rock bands as Yes, King Crimson, and Jethro Tull would silence the bragging businessmen, plus the multi-instrumentalist has already compiled a lengthy discography with (among others) Porcupine Tree, No-Man, and Blackfield, and also as a solo artist. In a broader sense, he deserves credit for following his own path, as critically no genre has inspired more critical wrath than progressive rock. Yet sometimes I appreciate Wilson’s music more than I like it. I enjoy Fragile, Red, and Animals, but some neo-prog seems to codify old ideas rather than break new ground, which was kind of the point originally. His 2013 release The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories) boasted virtuosic musicianship but left me cold; however, I quickly grew fond of the more pop- oriented Hand. Cannot. Erase.
Wilson conceived Hand. Cannot. Erase. after learning about the tragic story of Joyce Carol Vincent. Even though Vincent was young and had family and friends, after she died three years passed before anyone thought to check on her. Sounds like a maudlin premise for an album, but Wilson bypasses the gory details and instead focuses on Vincent’s mundane everyday life. Ultimately she comes across not as a recluse but a person with real (if at times tenuous) human connections. Because Vincent ultimately seems like a lot of people, the album suggests that what happened to her could happen to anyone. Somehow the record manages to evoke sympathy for Vincent without resorting to melodrama, and that by itself is a feat.
I’m also impressed by the songwriting, as Hand. Cannot. Erase. contains numerous passages that, hours after a listening session, drift back into my head the way good pop songs do. The episodic “3 Years Older” and the more concise title song and “Transience” both have strong (and relatively straightforward) pop melodies. The best moments on the album occur when the Israeli singer Ninet Tayeb trades lead vocals with Wilson on “Perfect Life” and “Routine.” When Tayeb belts out the climax of “Routine,” it seems that the pain and anguish lurking beneath the surface of Vincent’s dull, flat existence is given full expression.
Less impressive are some echoes of Wilson’s prog-rock forefathers (Chris Squire-like bass lines, Keith Emerson-ish organ riffs, and a nod to King Crimson’s “One More Red Nightmare”), which seem too literal and secondhand. (Pink Floyd seeped so deeply into Wilson’s musical DNA so long ago, however, that by this point its sound has blended with his own personal voice.) Also, some instrumental sections simply strike me as bombastic, especially on the lengthy “Ancestral.” Yet by the following track, “Happy Returns,” the lyrical melodies that characterize much of the album return. At the end of the song there’s a brief guitar solo reminiscent of David Gilmour’s work with Pink Floyd. Using long, sustained notes and lengthy silences between them, Wilson sounds as expressive here as Ninet Tayeb does during her musical epiphany. Sonics are clean and detailed, with superb dynamics.