A Lonely Woman, a Ghost and a Serial Killer: Why Steven Wilson Always Has His Fans on their Toes
With complex storylines and haunting imagery, the British prog rocker has cracked the code to keeping audiences hungry for more
After prog rock icon Steven Wilson announced his upcoming album To the Bone last month, the anticipation for the British artist’s next direction is at a steady build-up. Wilson dives deeper in every new album, into themes that revolve around life, death, everything in between and beyond while also crafting visual worlds for audiences to immerse themselves in.
Known for narrating an emotive array of stories through each album, Wilson manages to keep his fans on their toes while simultaneously delivering exactly what they expected. In his four records till date, the musician has woven tales of a lonely woman, a ghost, a serial killer and what have you. Here are some of the stories behind his solo music:
Wilson’s first full-length solo album was largely experimental, focusing on a multitude of themes–from a post-apocalyptic world to religious strife that plagues modern society. One of the standout tracks on Insurgentes was “Harmony Korine,” named after the American film director. Korine’s work is primarily surrealist, the imagery playing on absurdist themes and dark humor, all of which went on to inspire the music video for the track as well.
Insurgentes came along with a short road-movie of the same name made by Wilson’s Porcupine Tree collaborator, Danish film-maker Lasse Hoile. The film notably showed the musician exhibiting different ways of destroying iPods all the while voicing his distaste for the digital age.
Grace for Drowning (2011)
Released three years after Insurgentes, Grace for Drowning is more cohesive and structured. Thematically, the tracks form a set of short stories involving water and drowning, signaling a more streamlined approach this time around. Although a common story runs through the entire record, what sets apart each song is the individual treatment and imagery. While “Deform to Form a Star” is about people who ‘deform’ themselves to meet expectations, “Raider II” is from the point of view of the American serial killer Dennis Raider and the methods he employed to kill people.
The Raven that Refused to Sing (And Other Stories) (2013)
The Raven that Refused to Sing is perhaps his most ambitious and seminal project till date–a concept album par excellence. Every track on the record tells a riveting ghost story. When released, the album came coupled with a 128-page book of lyrics and ghost stories, illustrated by Wilson’s frequent collaborator, the German artist Hajo Müller.
The Raven that Refused to Sing is often labeled as Wilson’s most depressing work but the musician frequently addresses the album’s title track as his best-written song; it tells the story of an old man who lost his sister as a child and now imagines her as raven. The illustrations for the track and for “Drive Home” were spun into music videos by animator Jess Cope.
Hand. Cannot. Erase. (2015)
Picking up from where he had left off, Wilson topped his previous project with an even more fascinating one. Hand. Cannot. Erase. is written from a woman’s perspective, loosely chronicling the curious case of Joyce Carol Vincent, whose remains were found in her apartment three years after her death. Dealing with themes of urban isolation and anxiety, the album strings together songs around Vincent’s life. On “Routine,” Wilson chronicles her melancholic life and slow detachment from the world that eventually drifted into oblivion. The musician once again teamed up with Hoile for the album’s imagery and graphics.
To the Bone (2017)
In an exclusive interview with Rolling Stone India in 2016, Wilson said, I think it’s important to always have a new challenge, move in a different direction and be progressive.” Although peculiarly mysterious, Wilson’s themes have always been contemporary. In his latest statement on the album, the musician spoke of the “paranoid chaos of the current era” and the “flexibility of truth”—things that find resonances in the modern-day refugee crisis, religious fundamentalism and terrorism. To the Bone also marks his fifth solo collaboration with Hoile.