There’s a popular quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson celebrating the self-reliant greatness of the individual: “An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.” Divorced from its idealism, it doesn’t take too many steps to see how an inflated sense of self-obsession can follow from this aphorism. But what happens to individuals when institutions silo them in cocoons of consumerism — where what is consumed are the material fragments of their personalities? Well, they become snakes devouring their own tails — or, as Wilson notes, “I am the universe.”
Self-obsession is the big theme that pervades The Future Bites, Steven Wilson’s sixth solo record. It’s a self-obsession borne in an age of hyper-consumerism that the internet amplifies. “Personal Shopper” is the bluntest expression of consumption as the “ultimate high.” The pursuit of happiness comes in the one-click purchase of things we’re told we need in Elton John’s wonderfully resonant voice: “Bluetooth headphones, monogrammed luggage, branded water, deluxe edition box sets” and the like. However, tucked into that list are birth control pills and self-help books. Yeah, why risk bringing another into your Universe of One with pesky children taking up all the time and money? And the self-help book? Help in what way? To be more into ourselves? Likely, since “Unself” has the lyric “The self can only love itself.”
However, The Future Bites doesn’t only take aim at consumer culture. Rather, Wilson seems to be saying the kind of psychological pathologies that grow out of millions of universes where “we are self” becomes manifest when we act like “a fucking clown,” or selfishly engage in sex without regard for the other, or even becoming divorced from shared facts and existing in a universe of one’s making. It’s a delusion that masks any sense of challenge, failure, or risk. But those delusions can only be tamped down for so long before some uncomfortable truths bubble up. “King Ghost” alludes to this when Wilson sings: King Ghost hold me/Like I was your only memory…You can wash away the dirt/But you can’t wash away the failure.” It gets worse in “12 Things I Forgot” when the narrator says: There was a time when I had some ambition/Now I just seem to have inhibitions. It’s those inhibitions that get twisted into incessant complaining, lack of commitment, or even an inability to be loving to another person.
Yes, lyrically the future does indeed bite on this record. However, the music Wilson composed for the nine songs that comprise the album shows that he’s an artist who’s willing to ditch past successes in favor of risking new ideas that will likely alienate his fans. But that’s what makes Wilson such an interesting artist. He doesn’t latch onto proven formulas as a way to keep churning out variations of a hit record. Instead, he challenges himself in similar ways that Prince, Kate Bush, or David Bowie did to keep progressing beyond what’s comfortable, lucrative, or tailor-made for mass consumption. However, it’s abundantly clear from the packaging of The Future Bites that Wilson is trying to have it both ways. Sure, lyrically, the album doesn’t hold back on critiquing the Age of Consumption and The Self, but Wilson also celebrates the products he holds up for a drubbing. Case in point:
Far be it from me to say artists shouldn’t make some money off the work they create. I remember in the late ‘80s when one of my college professors made the case that art needs to be liberated from the cage of consumerism and be free for all to see, hear, and even touch. He thought he was being radical in his approach. Many in the class saw it more like “Why bother to create art if you can’t even feed yourself from fruits of your labors?” Little could we know that the internet would create the conditions my professor was touting as ideal, and render a lot of creative work almost valueless in a monetary sense.
But if there’s a mixed message in The Future Bites, it’s a similar one U2 had when they released Pop in 1997. At the time, they were trying to make a statement about consumerism by announcing their tour at a Kmart in New York City. The message was kind of muddled because reporters weren’t sure what to think. Was U2 saying that we shouldn’t consume them as a product because they are artists? Or were they saying that they are just another disposable commodity like the Bluelight Specials at Kmart? Steven Wilson’s The Future Bites skates very close to the ice U2 were on during the Pop era. Not necessarily in the lyrical content of the album, but rather in celebrating the very things he scrutinizes for 42 minutes on the record. Maybe that’s the point. We are contradictory creatures — even in our self-curated cocoons of consumerism.