Hand. Cannot. Erase. – Steven Wilson (2015)
If there’s a such thing as a “deserted island album” – the one album you can’t live without – this may be it. This is the Dark Side of the Moon or the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band caliber album that many people, especially in the US, may have never heard. Written by Steven Wilson, the artist once described as “the most successful artist you’ve never heard of,” this album is one of the most emotional you’ll ever experience – especially when you understand the story on which the concept is based. We’ll get to that in a moment…
To begin, let me say that I was one of the first people in America to get into the music of Steven Wilson. There were only a few thousand of his records in distribution in the US when I – by lucky chance (or perhaps divine appointment) – came across an early Porcupine Tree CD and my life was forever changed. Over the years as his popularity grew and his musical style evolved, I continued to follow his remarkable and prolific output, eagerly anticipating each release. But even as fanatical as I have always been over the music of Steven Wilson, nothing could prepare me for this album.
The rough concept of this album involves the true story of Joyce Carol Vincent, a woman who died and yet no one noticed she was gone for nearly three years until her body was discovered. One might think such a story is uncommon but typical for an elderly loner. But an elderly loner she was not! She was young, had been employed, had family, and was popular with friends before her life took a tragic turn. Intrigued by the idea that someone like that could just disappear without being missed by anyone for nearly three years, Steven Wilson penned this album written from the female perspective and dealing with the subjects of loss, regret, and even how we might use “social media” tools to isolate ourselves and actually be less social in reality.
Many will label this album Prog Rock – and that’s not necessarily untrue if you find that you must label music with a genre. But there’s something about this album that transcends any labeling – not just because of musical style, either, but because of the emotional experience of listening to this album… it is an exhausting ride! There are songs on this album (“Routine” foremost among them) that have literally caused me to break into tears. Hand. Cannot. Erase. is an emotional experience – a journey that should only be taken as one long song. This is not an album that you can “dip into” and understand what the artist is trying to convey. My strongest advice is to listen to this album in one lengthy sitting – with good headphones or on a superb stereo system – alone and without interruption and at a high volume.
I’d like to point out a few highlights and mentionables along the journey listening to this masterpiece.
“First Regret / 3 Years Older”
The lengthy opening (including an awesome bass line by Steven Wilson that is a joy to play) sets the stage for the remainder of the album and paints a picture of a childhood characterized by being misunderstood and alone – but with “a thousand futures cascading out.” One thing I’ve always said about Steven Wilson’s vocals… he is – at the same time – both the perfect vocalist and yet lightyears away from winning any Grammy Award for Best Male Vocalist. His voice, while certainly not a Robin Zander or Freddie Mercury by any stretch of the imagination, is absolutely perfect for the music he composes. Perhaps it is just that he is connected intimately to his music and feels it in a way another singer could not… there’s just something that makes his voice perfect on this album. And that is certainly noticeable on the opening line: “You cross the schoolyard with your head held down.”
The narration that is the centerpiece of this electronic yet somehow nostalgic piece of music is meant to point out a time in your life – your young teenage years – where you have the closest friendships you may ever experience in life. It’s meant to be understood, however, from the perspective of being older, wiser, and longing for that “perfect life” you didn’t realize you had in your youth when things were more free. The refrain that repeats throughout the second half of the song will be stuck in your head long after you put the album back in its sleeve. Catchy…now that’s a word you don’t hear often with regard to “prog” albums. Something that sets Steven Wilson apart…
If this song doesn’t rip at your emotions, you simply have no heart. Steven Wilson is a master at composing great songs of depression and darkness… and this song is the preeminent example. Ninet Tayeb shares vocal duties with Steven Wilson for this track which is a musical story of Loss, Pain, and only at the very end, Renewal. To best understand the lyrics, watch the music video – and keep a box of tissue nearby. To summarize, imagine a woman who has spent years going through her daily routine of being a wife and mother, perhaps even burned out by the never ending duties – though she loved her family dearly. But one day, she just wants a break. She asks her husband to allow her to sleep in just this once to drive their children into school himself. He does so… but upon pulling into the school parking lot, the family finds itself victims of a school shooting which kills her husband and children. The wife/mother is left alone in a home that has endless reminders of her lost family. From the children’s running shoes and dirty clothes to their schoolbooks and pictures still stuck to the fridge, she can’t escape the reminders of her loss and pain. At the same time, she can’t bear the thought of discarding any of it. She continues life doing her old daily routine over and over – cleaning their rooms, washing their clothes – to escape having to deal with her tragic reality. Finally, she allows herself to break down and she experiences a renewal as she faces a new future, one for which she did not plan but must ultimately accept. This song – and the music video – is superb. The harsh music that accompanies the moment when she breaks down allows the listener to empathetically feel her pain and brokenness.
Thirteen minutes and thirty seconds of sheer musical genius. What starts as an electronic tune of sorts turns into a prog masterpiece. This song includes a musical segment that is the “heaviest” portion of the album and also the most interesting in terms of paving new ground musically – which is what true progressive rock should seek to accomplish. This track was a favorite during the tour and serves as the climax to the album.
“Happy Returns / Ascendant Here On…”
The album’s final track serves as the last words from our female in distress who we find writing a letter to her estranged brother, and leaving the letter unfinished, before dying unexpectedly. It would be three years before her body is found and her death is known to the world. As the listener knowing her tragic fate, however, the last lyrical line stings us to our core: “I’m feeling kind of drowsy now so I’ll finish this tomorrow.” She never does.