It has been a while since I could be fully supportive of a Steven Wilson project. It’s not a residual issue with his apparent forsaking of Porcupine Tree. If we were to get into the weeds with that, PT was a band identification Wilson adopted to call his original one-man recordings at the start of his career, so just about anything he has done as primary songwriter could and could not be classified as Porcupine Tree. Really my reticence with Wilson’s output has been that they’ve been artfully, but airlessly, impeccable. They’ve shown no small about of talent and skill, but had very little in the way of emotional lift. They have been dark and melancholic — something by Wilson’s own admission he prefers — but after a time it all adopts a sort of sameness.
Hand Cannot Erase pushes back at this, at least by small degrees. It too is steeped in melancholy, but does not neglect the “rock” part of progressive rock. That is seen in the second track on the album, “3 Years Older” which has the feel as if Rush had Steve Howe as a guest guitarist, thanks to the bass/drum combo of Marco Minnemann and Nick Beggs, with guitarist Guthrie Govan over top. That’s for the instrumental sections, whereas the verse and chorus sections are pure Wilson, in the best possible sense. The third and title track, despite the shifting time signatures, could be a single. I’m presumptuous in saying it should be, but I don’t think Wilson has accomplished something as crowd-pleasing as it since the In Absentia years, and more directly the Stupid Dream/Lightbulb Sun years. The second-to-closing track “Happy Returns” tugs at the heartstrings in a sad and affecting way. It may be a tired, critical thing to say it is “haunting,” but the assertion stands to the material.
I’ll go one better. The album is as close to a Porcupine Tree record as Wilson’s solo output has come, including the Blackfield stuff. To these ears, Hand Cannot Erase seems like a spiritual sister to Deadwing, down to the break into thrashy, metallic stomps in the midst of “Ancestral,” and in that way it reminds the listener of “Arriving Somewhere But Not Here.” That’s not to say that Hand Cannot Erase is trying to copy Deadwing. It most certainly isn’t; but the narrative focusing on an individual and a circumstance cannot help but draw parallels.
As for that narrative, Wilson said he was drawn to a story of a woman found dead in her apartment. She’d been there for a long time, and the natural assumption was that perhaps she was old, marginalized, with limited family and friends to wonder where she went off to. It turns out that the woman was young, attractive, had lots of friends, good standing relationships with family members, and by all accounts her absence from daily life should have raised red flags…yet didn’t. The song cycle is neither biographical or journalistic, but is a jumping-off point for Wilson’s imagination, and an attempt to try to answer a vexing question. Our culture, which is the most densely populated, most connected, and in ways the most social that the species has seen in its history, can also be the most alienated. You can imagine Wilson questioning how an individual who by most accounts could have been the center of attention could go un-missed for so long, how in this societal version of Schroedinger’s thought experiment, no one is aware enough of the cat to wonder if it is dead or alive. And what went on in that tiny, one-person universe when no one else thought to look?
It is heady stuff; perhaps more than we’re used to from a genre mostly known for flights of fancy and excuses to noodle around on one’s instruments. Yet there are rather breathtaking moments throughout the album, and real songs here, rather than the lofty “pieces” that have killed more than one well-intentioned prog rocker’s best efforts. By the end of the record, you will have been engaged, and moved, which is really what any musical experience should offer when you think about it. Hand Cannot Erase comes with high recommendations, and makes a strong case for Wilson’s continued solo presence, in both name and content. It has chops to spare and grand ambitions, but what it has most is a soul.