No-Man – Loveblows and Lovecries: A Confession

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.

  1. Loveblows & Lovecries: A Confession
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Porcupine Tree – Voyage 34

Phases I and II, November 1992
Phases III and IV, November 1993
The Complete Trip, June 2000
Remastered, October 2004
Delirium Years Edition, 2016

“Does Porcupine Tree cause hallucinations?” —The album notes, a riff on the backmatter of Timothy Leary’s LSD album, indicating that we’re clearly not in Kansas anymore.

Before we begin, a note on categorization: Wikipedia lists Voyage 34 as a compilation album, other sources list it as an EP. I’m calling it a single, because it isn’t one of PT’s main releases and I think of it as one big song split into four thematically linked phases.

But anyway here we are; the apotheosis of Space-Era Porcupine Tree. We’ll get to how it interacts with Up the Downstair when we actually get to Up the Downstair, so for now let’s treat it as its own thing. What we have here is a seventy-minute monster that is a distillation of Porcupine Tree’s sound up to that point and the jumping-off point for their subsequent musical endeavors for the rest of the Space Era.

Wilson said in a 2012 interview that Voyage 34 was supposed to be “a one-off experiment in a particular genre in which I knew I wouldn’t be staying for very long.” This when it turns out Voyage 34’s more spacey, trancey approach to psychedelia would see echoes in Up the Downstair (natch), The Sky Moves Sideways, and even Signify, to an extent.

And, most impressively, it doesn’t feel like seventy minutes. Even though the individual movements are allowed to unspool at their leisure, there’s a sense of purpose—of progression—to them that wasn’t quite there on any of the earlier Porcupine Tree Long Songs.

We’ll dive in with a short note on structure. Voyage 34 is a song about a young man named Brian who went on an LSD trip that went pear-shaped, and comes in two halves. Phases I and II were what was originally intended for the aborted second album of Up the Downstair. Phases III and IV are remixes of the first half, Phase III by Astralasia, Phase IV by Wilson and Richard Barbieri. As for how the two halves relate to each other, Phase II famously ends with “Is this trip really necessary?” hanging pregnantly over everything we just witnessed. Unfortunately, this question comes after we spent the past thirty minutes listening to something that sounds like if David Gilmour made trance music, with only the occasional low atmospheric drone reminding us that this particular trip is not a good one. So it almost feels like we must be watching what’s going on from the outside, because if this is what the trip felt like to Brian then why on earth are we talking about how psychologically damaging it was? If we take Phase I and II as the full song, that question loses quite a bit of its effectiveness.

In the context of the full 70-minute song, however, “Is this trip really necessary?” functions instead as a signpost saying, prepare yourself, here’s where things get really messed up. And indeed, the unease of Phase III and the overwhelming throb of Phase IV give us a better idea of what exactly was happening in Brian’s head during his twelve-hour nightmare. Phase III itself underscores this by beginning with “Is this trip really necessary?” echoing expectantly around Brian’s acid-addled cranium, soon to be joined by all the other spoken-word samples the first half laid out before us, all blended together in a dark soup that would come to encapsulate Brian’s fears and anxieties in that moment.

Those spoken word bits are important as they’re the primary vector through which the song’s concept is communicated. There’s the dry, facts-on-the-ground narration of Brian’s bad trip itself, yes, but that’s all neatly contained in the first half. After that, the song focuses on the ripples and contexts of Brian’s bad trip, through what is presented as excerpts from interviews of drug users and drug experts (the latter of which, especially the Timothy Leary samples, could be seen as a riff on whenever an artist connected to UK rave culture samples, say, Terence McKenna). Some noteworthy ones, in no particular order:

“They may be severely depressed, with suicidal tendencies, or may be very serious suicide attempts…” After about fifty minutes of experts and users glorifying LSD use, about its effects upon the consciousness, about its potential uses to combat unrest, about how those who use LSD could even be considered a “new indigenous religion,” and right in the middle of the pounding hangover headache that is Phase IV, here comes this punch in the gut. It says, no, Brian is not the only one traumatized by a very bad trip, that there are many other Brians shuffling zombie-like around our streets and our cities, and in fact, Brian should consider himself lucky he managed 33 trips before having a bummer.

This probably doesn’t reflect the actual experience of taking LSD. The sample was cribbed from something Wilson has described as “propaganda,” after all. But in this case, this doesn’t change the impact on the listener at all.

“In 15 years, the high school and college students who are experimenting with LSD will be running our institutions and guiding public policy…” Fifteen years out from 1967, we arrive at 1982, at which point those same high school and college students who’d experimented with LSD turned around and happily pulled the lever for Reagan and Thatcher and their joint reign of neoliberal terror. Fifteen years out from 1992, we arrive at 2007, at which point those same high school and college students happily cosigned “humanitarian interventions” in Afghanistan and Iraq, and gave us such wondrous life-changing gifts as Guantanamo, Abu Grahib, mass surveillance, and the Military Commissions Act. It’s almost as if, once a particular [privileged] sort of person reaches a particular stage in their life, they’ll have systematic incentives to abandon their previous radical ideals and mold themselves neatly into the box white supremacist capitalist patriarchy has set aside for them. And why wouldn’t they? It’s lucrative.

Although politically Steven’s much closer to the center than I am, it’s not hard to imagine him also shaking his head at the atomized legacy of what seemed at first to be so revolutionary…if it ever was revolutionary to begin with.

“I don’t like what’s going on in the world, I’m scared of that. […] I’m just… I’m just scared, you know?” The Palahniukian chorus underscoring the whole song, the one sample used more often than any other, in multiple instances spread across three phases. It functions both as a diagnosis of why The Youngs are using LSD (and I say The Youngs knowing full well Wilson was younger than I am when he made this) and why Brian’s trip went so poorly (why’s set and setting important, again?).

This one sample and its prominent placement in Phase IV is why, although I love this song to pieces, I have a very hard time listening to it all the way through. It hits just slightly too close to home for an anxiety-riddled political person for whom the question of humanity’s future is an endless yawning chasm of existential dread. I first listened to Voyage 34 in 2011, right around when Occupy Wall Street was in high gear and simultaneously when it was dawning on me precisely how serious and intractable the problem of climate change was. And listening to Voyage 34 in 2018, well…Brexit and Trump. You do the math. It’s a message that has serious staying power, no matter when you listen to it. There’s always something going on in the world to be scared of.

No-Man – Ocean Song

September 1992

Gotta say, after covering a little Porcupine Tree after three No-Man posts in a row, coming back to No-Man feels like coming home, in a weird way. Ocean Song is a three-track single thingy, so this joint is gonna be a bit shorter.

The single’s structured beautifully. You have the main event right front and center, and then after that is a shortish ambient interlude, and then the B-side. So, first up, title track. Ocean Song is based off the melody of Donovan’s “Turquoise.” This is literally the only thing the two songs have in common. I listened to Ocean Song and Turquoise back-to-back and I can only faintly hear Leitch’s influence, probably because the bits from Turquoise are so radically altered from their original context (60s folk vs. 90s trip-hop) that they may as well be original to No-Man. (This is in contrast to Colours, where more of the original’s essence was retained in the transition.) The song itself is quite good; turns out that if you don’t have an ambient expanse to give your song a soul, a few acoustic guitar bits and Ben Coleman’s violin will do almost as well.

The ambient interlude, Back to the Burning Shed, is small and sweet and gets the job done. The B-side is Swirl, an eight-minute wander that is decidedly not single-worthy. Much of it proceeds in typical No-Man fashion, but this time with some decidedly Porcupine Tree touches like the guitar solo in the first half and the feedback swells accentuating the “let it all hang out” spoken word piece at the end. And actually, suddenly throwing PT in there like that was a bit jarring. 90s No-Man sounds very little like anything else Wilson’s done, and at this point I’m so used to the two bands’ sounds being so different and—more importantly—discrete, that I have to consciously remember that Wilson isn’t just there to look pretty.

But the song’s high point, once again, is the violin that kicks in at four minutes. Honestly, in a typical No-Man song the violin is doing quite a bit of the work; Ben Coleman has the superhuman ability to salvage a terrible song and kick a good No-Man song into the upper atmosphere. He is, at this stage, the glue holding No-Man’s artistic output together, and I think I’m going to sorely miss him once he’s gone.

But of course the absolutely best part of this record is the drag queen on the cover. How could it not be.

Porcupine Tree – Yellow Hedgerow Dreamscape

Recorded 1989-1991, Released 1994, Remastered 2013

INTERVIEWER!SW: “You did mention recently in an interview in New Musical Express that you were considering issuing a box of unreleased demos and–”

MUSICIAN!SW: “Well, the thing at the moment, the way the money’s going, I think the box will be as far as we get, an empty box.”

[Ten solid seconds of laughter]

INTERVIEWER!SW: “I see.”

There’s a lot of stuff that happened between the release of On the Sunday of Life and this thing, don’t think we’ve forgotten, but this thing consists of most of what didn’t make it on Sunday, so we may as well knock this out while we’re here.

Most of what was relegated to Yellow Hedgerow Dreamscape are some of the more ambient/experimental tracks from Tarquin’s Seaweed Farm and The Nostalgia Factory, aka the ones primarily responsible for wrecking their flow and causing them to drag. This is not to say that the songs, when considered in a vacuum, are terrible. Mute, for instance, is very good and performs spectacularly in its role as album opener. An Empty Box, The Cross, and the title track are also excellent. But (a) it’s no coincidence that those three are some of the more structured songs on the album, and (b) I have a very hard time finding a place to slot them in on Sunday. So here they are.

Furthermore, even though this album contains some of the more filler-y entries from Tarquin’s and Nostalgia Factory, care has been taken to make sure things progress smoothly. The more ambient tracks fade into each other. They do the same thing they did on Sunday where some balance is struck, structurally, between shorter ambient intermissions and longer Actual Songs. Having the title track be the second to last song on the album as opposed to the closer allows Music for the Head to function as a sort of epilogue that allows us to catch our breath after the thundering wall of sound has abated. The improvement here is considerable.

Other random notes. Listening to these songs again in their new context got me to pick up on certain things I didn’t notice the first time around. For instance: No Reason To Live, No Reason To Die has audience applause and chatter spliced in; so before where I thought it functioned as a sort of spiritual sequel to Radioactive Toy, it now feels like a real song the fake band is actually performing live in all its technicolor glory. Radioactive Toy itself, now that the ten-minute version exists, feels incomplete if it’s not closed out with a five-minute solo (although the fuzz effect over the vocals lends a particular air of desperation to the smart kid’s situation, as it makes it sound like his equipment is dying). Colours Dance Ang—er, “Track 11”—is able to do more to justify its existence when divorced from Linton Samuel Dawson. Hokey Cokey becomes considerably creepier when it’s called “Execution of the Will of the Marquis de Sade,” as the effect is less “haunted house phonograph on LSD” and more “sadomasochistic torture chamber on LSD.”

Now for the two songs that weren’t on the first and last tapes. The first is Out, which only shows up on the vinyl version, replacing the Prince cover for probably obvious reasons. I…honestly prefer seeing The Cross there. It’s a better fit, and also, quite frankly, a better song, probably the best from this point in Wilson’s musical career. Out belongs on a much tighter record, like the one it was yanked from. Speaking of Love, Death, & Mussolini, it’s also pretty obvious why that version of It Will Rain For A Million Years, good as it is, can’t be found anywhere else: it doesn’t fit anywhere else.

The second is An Empty Box, which has somewhat of the opposite problem of It Will Rain For A Million Years, in that it clearly didn’t fit in any of the demo tapes, but its thundering drums and wailing, squealing guitars work great here.

And that’s it. That’s the detritus of the early era dusted off and released. Most of it’s filler, but there are some serious gems here that shouldn’t be overlooked. Now the ghosts of the past have been dealt with and Porcupine Tree can finally move on as a proper band. This was, after all, released not long after Barbieri, Edwin, and Maitland formally joined and Porcupine Tree ceased functioning as a Steven Wilson solo project.

Porcupine Tree – On the Sunday of Life

July 1992

Here we go. Even though we’ve heard 90% of this before in some form or other, this remains the first proper Porcupine Tree joint. For this compilation, the first three tapes have been cut up and rearranged as follows:

  • Tracks 1 and 2: Tarquin’s Seaweed Farm
  • Track 3: Tarquin’s Seaweed Farm, renamed
  • Track 4: Two from Tarquin’s Seaweed Farm, combined and renamed
  • Track 5: The Nostalgia Factory, re-recorded
  • Tracks 6 and 7: Tarquin’s Seaweed Farm
  • Track 8: Tarquin’s Seaweed Farm, expanded and re-recorded
  • Track 9: The Nostalgia Factory
  • Tracks 10 – 16: Love, Death, & Mussolini
  • Track 17 and 18: The Nostalgia Factory

In a lot of ways, this is a transitional record for the “band.” I say “band” because this is the last time the Psychedelic Spinal Tap facade is kept up with any degree of effort whatsoever (some parts are credited to two fake band members and one pseudonymous real band member alongside Steven Wilson). I also say “band” because, let’s be real here, this is at this point a Steven Wilson solo project, although in the coming years various musicians would start to drift in and find a home here, and a band would eventually solidify. This is the moment Porcupine Tree outgrew its parodic origins and became an Actual Concern.

Differences between the demo tape versions and the album version. Music for the Head (Here) has the last parenthetical dropped from its title, as (There) only appears on Yellow Hedgerow Dreamscape. It’s also mixed louder, which helps bring out the composition’s more ominous elements, giving us a better idea of what we’re in for. The two Nun’s Cleavage drum jams are decoupled from each other (one renamed, another combined with the track before), and thus no longer serve as bookends for Clarinet Vignette.

Now for The Nostalgia Factory. I’m glad it’s here. On Tarquin’s there were five tracks’ worth of jamming and instrumental vignettes between Jupiter Island and the next proper song, Radioactive Toy, and while far from damning in and of itself it does contribute to the weird lopsidedness that makes the tape’s back half a chore to sit through. Here, though, there’s only two or three (depending on how you count) between Jupiter Island and this thing, helping to balance the album out a bit more.

The track itself is great too. Although (once again) it uses half the old lyrics from the Karma version of Nine Cats, that’s where the similarities end. This song doesn’t have the same efficiency that PT!9C has, but the increased pace and almost galloping instrumentation lends it a certain urgency missing from the Karma version. And when you have two tracks of instrumental noodling separating you from actual songs on both sides it’s an urgency that’s sorely, sorely needed.

Skipping merrily (“merrily”) along here, the version of Radioactive Toy here is twice as long as the version that’s on Tarquin’s. The second half is mostly a guitar solo based off the main riff of the first half, which when your other option is launching straight into Towel is not unwelcome. Instead, we’re eased into Nine Cats, and thence seven-ninths of Love, Death, & Mussolini, in all its tight, loopy glory.

This Long Silence itself is a welcome addition here, as its general sound and placement in the album makes it come across like a darker reprise of Jupiter Island, giving us the impression that we’ve finally come back home again after the second half of Radioactive Toy launched us into uncharted territory. Ominous, yes, but it’s the sort of ominousness we’re used to. And, of course, It Will Rain For A Million Years once again functions as a great outro to the weirdness that came before, making sure that we land back on Earth on two feet. (Even if its former role closing out three EPs worth of material makes it seem like this trip was artificially shortened, in comparison.)

Even if you hadn’t listened to the demo tapes first, it’s clear that On the Sunday of Life is a Franken-album, a monstrous thing sutured together from the corpses of demo tapes past, here cleaned up and presented as a proper thing for the public. This is what our first exposure to Porcupine Tree should have been, as people more than two degrees of separation from the man. And, well, that was honestly a good decision. Yes, it’s clear the source material for the first and second halves are different, but there’s not much to be done about that beyond rerecording everything. It’s still clear there was more thought given to how the tracks interact with each other than there was on any of the demo tapes they came from, because the balance of long actual songs and short instrumental experiments makes for a more even listening experience. This album is not a complete chore to sit through, and what fatigue we do experience can be chalked up to sheer length (76 minutes) as opposed to shoving all the long songs to the back where we’re least prepared for them.

I’m told it’s traditional to rank full releases, so here we go. I have a feeling the [still] patchwork nature of this album will push it further down as we go, but it is what it is.

  1. On the Sunday of Life

No-Man – Lovesighs – An Entertainment

April 1992

This is another collection of stuff from 1990 and 1991, some of which we’ve seen before, some of which we haven’t. Technically not the band’s first EP, if we assume a continuity between No-Man and No Man Is An Island. But we’re stalling.

Let’s get the OK tracks out of the way first. Heartcheat Pop is kind of a generic trip hop thing. The violin’s nice, the Your Woman-esque sample is very nice, but (once again) I’m not entirely sure what Tim’s trying to do with his voice here. It seems like it’s trying to be almost lascivious, especially in the first verse, but Bowness’ voice is fragile and vulnerable, better suited for high notes, so listening to him stick a toe into the lower half of his vocal range, in this context, makes him sound like a kid trying to wear his dad’s clothes. The not-quite-a-remix, Heartcheat Motel, is a bit better, largely because the verses are jettisoned and the instrumentation is given more space to unspool itself. Kiss Me Stupid runs in a similar vein to Heartcheat Pop, but without as much to distinguish itself. And I once again find myself wishing the closer, the Reich mix of Days in the Trees, was two or three times as long as it was.

Now then, the good stuff. First up, the cover of Donovan’s “Colours.” Here No-Man does their civic responsibility as a band in 1992 and makes it sound to a 1992 audience what the original sounded like to an audience in 1965. That is to say, they turned it into a trip hop song. And it sounds great as a trip hop song. The acoustic riff in the original translates surprisingly well to the drum loop in the cover. And Bowness’ voice is actually put to good use here; attempting to give his vocals the same slightly sinister edge as in Heartcheat Pop but here actually succeeding. The video is great, too, largely because we learn that Bowness had Brian May hair in the early 90s and dances like he found himself behind the wheel of a large automobile. The early footage of Wilson intensely but emotionlessly playing guitar in the background doesn’t hurt, either.

And, of course, there’s the Mahler mix of Days in the Trees. In the context of the album, if the first track is the warm-up, the second track is the Statement of Purpose, and there’s no better Statement of Purpose than this brilliant little number. Here’s why.

At this point in No-Man’s career they’re oscillating between two different poles—the ambience of Speak and the trip hop of this album—but not quite feeling comfortable with either. But this song manages to reconcile both sides of their musical personality, and allows them to build on each other. The trip hop gives the ambient side a pulse, and the ambience gives the trip hop side a personality. This right here is the platonic ideal of an early No-Man song. Savor it, for I don’t think we’ll see anything quite like it again. (And, of course, the violin solo at four minutes is still amazing.)

Come to think of it, Days in the Trees actually works better in the context of Lovesighs. On its single of the same name, it functions as a base mold, existing only to be manipulated into different forms. Here, though, it’s with other songs that are trying, with varying degrees of success, to do the same thing. It’s among peers.

If I were to choose between those two sides of No-Man, I definitely prefer the trip hop side, largely because the failure mode of trip hop isn’t a formless mush the way it is with ambient music, so it was welcome to see an album where No-Man pulled together all the things they did in that vein, even if it wasn’t 100% successful. Might also explain my response to what they’d get up to later.

Next up, something we all know.

No-Man – Speak

Recorded 1989-1991, remixed and released 1999

As the recording information makes clear, this album exists in two places at once, chronologically. The original recordings of all these songs were done in in the late 80s and early 90s, and released on cassette tapes that are no longer readily available. Then, almost ten years later, Wilson and Bowness dusted off all those old songs, remixed and rerecorded them, and released them in their current forms. Nevertheless, enough of the material on this record dates back to the early 90s that I’m comfortable covering it now.

Ambient music is a deceptively tricky beast. Done right it can be contemplative, expansive, even spiritual; something that’s able to crystallize broad swathes of emotion and experience into a few notes, washes, and textures. Done wrong it can be a dull and lifeless chore to sit through, made even worse by this feeling that we should be feeling something in this moment but aren’t. There’s not a lot of room between the two. Some of the tracks on Speak do manage to reach those sorts of heights, but as the album goes on, most of them collapse into a vaguely pink taffy mush.

For instance, the title track, first song off the album. The violin, the singing, and the bass (especially the bass), all lovely. Or Pink Moon, the Nick Drake cover, which switches out the acoustic guitar for something more meditative, and chops up and reverses the original’s piano bits and sends them gently floating down to earth, like snow. It’s also a minute longer, allowing the ambient swells to take center stage and nudge the song forward. Thing is, those are the only two songs I’d unambiguously recommend off this album.

Songs like Iris Murdoch Cut Me Down, though, don’t work quite as well. In that one, for instance, the instrumentation doesn’t really go anywhere, and the vocals sound like they came from a completely different song. Curtain Dream seems half-finished (ironic, considering that was one of the ones completely re-recorded in ‘99). The instrumentation in River Song is identical to the original, with the same ominously pastoral atmosphere, but the No-Man vocals don’t have the same punches and harmonies that Donovan’s do. The Ballet Beast is just kind of…there. Death and Dodgson’s Dreamchild doesn’t cohere at all.

I get what No-Man are going for here. This is supposed to be a record that documents small, quiet moments both positive and negative. And many of the songs do have moments that capture that sort of feeling. For instance: the harmonica in Heaven’s Break; the violin in French Free Terror Suspect, and Night Sky Sweet Earth (god bless Ben Coleman); and the piano in Riverrun and Life With Picasso. But those are all moments. Otherwise, much of Speak seems oddly half-finished, like they were a collection of sketches more than actual songs (which would have been fine if that’s how it was advertised), and pale especially in comparison to the more developed stuff they’d release later on.