Steven Wilson’s autobiography Limited Edition of One is, like the artist himself, unconventional.
The book begins as an almost standard biography that details, in 2010, what was thought to be the last concert by his band Porcupine Tree. Subsequent early chapters center on his early life growing up in England. But all that is a kind of head fake to make one think the structure of his book is going to take a familiar path. Though Wilson admits that he’s largely avoiding “the traditional rock autobiography malarkey” to spotlight how a self-described “cult artist” arrived in a place of contentment, he also reveals in later chapters that he does (at some level) crave rock star status in his almost famous career.
One can’t blame him for such wishes. After all, he’s been involved in several bands with names like Porcupine Tree, No-Man, Storm Corrosion, Bass Communion, and Blackfield. Surely the odds should be in his favor to find mega-success with one of them. In a way, he does with Porcupine Tree, but it took the band going on hiatus for a level of success to finally come to fruition. If you look at the band’s Spotify streaming numbers, you’ll see millions of streams for various songs. It’s not Taylor Swift or ABBA streaming numbers, but it’s pretty respectable for a niche prog band.
For a Gen X musician whose career epitaph could be “Missed it by that much,” he’s certainly well known enough for an imprint of Little, Brown to publish his book. What to make of this unconventional autobiography? Well, for starters, more musicians should consider doing what Wilson has done here. Instead of detailing his life linearly, he parachutes into moments and covers topics that he finds interesting. For example, many lists comprise chapters in Limited Edition of One. Wilson loves lists because of the way they organize his day to the satisfaction he feels checking off the boxes on a To-do list at the end of the day. But To-do lists are one thing – and not something that makes for good material in rock bios. Rather, Wilson writes lists like “Five Misconceptions People Have About Me,” “10 Great Albums I Discovered In My Local Library,” “100 (Favorite) Songs,” favorite books, and even “10 Favourite Albums of My Own” – with his most recent, The Harmony Codex, coming in at number 11.
While these chapters are generally fun and easily scanned, it’s the other chapters where he reveals his frustration with the music industry – especially the making of Porcupine Tree’s 2002 album In Absentia. The album was the band’s first major American label project. It cost something like $250,000 to make. The band had a big A&R cheerleader in Andy Karp at their label, and they had an opening slot for a tour with prog veterans, Yes. If it weren’t for the culture in the aftermath of 9/11 coupled with the corporate consolidation of radio in the United States, In Absentia might have been a hit with folks who like rock music. But all that money, all the crappy gigs Wilson didn’t want to take (like a radio promotion “Beach Party”), and the hype that Porcupine Tree was going to be the next Pink Floyd didn’t move the needle a bit in terms of album sales.
It has to be frustrating to experience that no matter how hard you work, and how much money is invested into a creative project, the fruits of your labor land with a dud – not just once, but multiple times. While Wilson’s metric of a dud is far different from countless musicians feeling like their best work is not being heard (likely because it isn’t), it’s somewhat heartening to see how Wilson doesn’t give up. Instead, Porcupine Tree continued with three more albums – after which, Wilson embarked on a solo career with varied success.
I say “varied” because, even with his solo career, the jobs he got remixing classic rock albums, and music he composed for television commercials, he never lost sight that doing what he loves is what matters most. Indeed, his side jobs have given him the financial freedom to be like the artists he admires (David Bowie, Kate Bush, Prince, and Pink Floyd, to a lesser extent). That is to say, he’s been able to release albums that don’t capitalize on a successful formula. Those sharp left or right turns in the music can be alienating to fans of this or that album, but those twists and turns track with his advice to other artists (“Keep evolving. Don’t be afraid to do something different”). Yes, your fans may hate you for it, but you will find new ones along the way.
Overall, Limited Edition of One is an entertaining read. Wilson co-wrote the book with music journalist Mick Wall, and it’s clear that Wall’s extensive career as a writer helped to shape the work into one that’s rarely borning. Wilson and Wall keep the narrative interesting because the chapters sometimes have a mix of formats like a Q&A and a short story. If you have no idea who Steven Wilson, Porcupine Tree, No-Man, or another of the other bands he’s involved with are, will you enjoy this biography? It’s a qualified yes. Wilson is aware his music has a limited appeal and his life isn’t exactly rock star-ish. He doesn’t drink, do drugs, and has a deep love for animals (even being vegan). But these choices, woven into the fabric of his life, bring him immense satisfaction as a married man in his mid-50s with stepchildren. This family life, in a way, has replaced the yearning for big-time fame. In fact, he jokes that if Porcupine Tree hit Led Zeppelin levels, he’d probably be found face-down in a guitar-shaped pool.