May 1993; US Edition, May 1994
Sweetheart Raw, January 1993
Only Baby, March 1993
Painting Paradise, June 1993
Taking it Like a Man, April 1994
Couldn’t find the Hit the North session recording from 1992. Mea culpa.
This is not visible to you, the reader, but this one comes after Two. Solid. Months. of stalling because (a) lots of travelling bollixed up my writing steez for basically all of that time (Amsterdam and New York were both wonderful, though), and (b) I quite simply could not get a read on this thing. Even as this post goes live, a month and a half after I wrote it, I’m still not entirely certain I have the first No-Man album nailed down.
Let’s begin with first impressions. I was surprised at how not-that-bad it was. So surprised, in fact, that I had to go back and listen to all of No-Man’s albums and make sure that my initial negative impression of No-Man from way back in 2011 was artificially produced. And it turns out…it kind of was.
I probably shouldn’t have started back then with Schoolyard Ghosts, which (spoilers) I still think is a weak album. I also probably should have found a better way to listen to the albums than track-by-individual-track on YouTube, which seriously broke up their flow and forced me to think of them as a bunch of tracks all in a row, as opposed to coherent wholes. And—let’s be honest—part of it was me, and the expectations I had for what a Steven Wilson Thing should sound like.
So, some more spoilers. There’s good stuff here. They recovered pretty well from losing Ben Coleman, to the point where Together We’re Stranger is probably their best album. (Although this opinion may change by the time we actually get there.) Their shift away from trip-hop in the late-90s / early-00s was unequivocally a good idea, because if they were still trying to bring back the spirit of the early-mid 90s in 2003, it wouldn’t have gone over well. No-Man is still my least favorite of SW’s four biggest projects, and many of their songs still feel either unambitious or unsuccessful attempts at eclecticism, but I’m not nearly as dismissive of them as I was.
Also, Days in the Trees remains the best thing they’ve ever done.
Now, to the album. This is in many ways a stylistic continuation (I won’t say maturation) of what they were doing in Lovesighs – An Entertainment, in that much of this album is that slightly awkward mishmash of ambient music and trip-hop, only this time with not as much violin to save them when they flounder. This means that its high points are when it does something different. For instance: once in a while you can hear the occasional Porcupine Tree flourish, like in Sweetheart Raw, with the raw (heh) guitar work, the occasional sample lifted from Voyage 34, and that sweet solo at the end. The Voyage 34 samples return briefly in Beautiful and Cruel, and while they don’t exactly salvage what is easily the album’s worst song, they do give it a point in its favor.
Some other examples: Only Baby, the best song off the UK release, sounds like a slightly new-age version of Ebeneezer Goode, to the point where it seems like the song’s message is that the ecstasy of love is just as potent and revolutionary as actual ecstasy. Tulip has a fantastic flute solo. Break Heaven’s chorus is incredible. The US release brings back Days in the Trees yet again, at last giving it the stature and exposure it deserves. The thing is, though, the high points of an album ought to be when you’re taking the general aesthetic you’re going for and either pushing it to new heights, expanding it, or pulling it back and letting it breathe; not when you’re pushing it aside to let something else come in and perform for a bit.
There was some ancillary stuff released about the same time as the album; a few singles, a few remixes. I wasn’t all that impressed with what I could find. The Only Baby single release, for instance, can be streamed on Spotify. I feel like I’m talking about a favorite child when I bring up Days in the Trees again, but it seems like that EP spoiled us by how radically it reworked that song, several times over, bringing forward overlooked facets of the song or just using bits and pieces of its melody and dramatically recontextualizing them. In so doing it apparently set the bar extremely high for what a No-Man remix should look like.
In contrast, three-fourths of Only Baby is the same song cut up and rearranged, with sections added and removed, as if by a mechanical arm at an automated workstation. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing—there’s a stretched-out mix of Perfect Life on the Hand. Cannot. Erase. Blu-ray that’s just as powerful as the original—but here I don’t get the sense that any new angles of the song were illuminated. I don’t think we gain anything from these different versions of the song beyond a temporary indecision on the part of Steven and Tim as to which version was definitive. It’s just there.
In that way, the Only Baby single could be treated as a synecdoche for the album itself, really: it’s there, it’s a decent way to kill some time, and it certainly isn’t as bad as I remember, but I don’t think it’s something that I’ll be coming back to very often.
- Loveblows & Lovecries: A Confession