26 February 2001
Lighthouse (1994 Demo), May 2001
Complete Sessions, June 2006
Double CD reissue, 3 November 2007
No-Man will release a new studio album next month, their first in over a decade. Wilson describes it on his website as “a return to [their] synth-pop roots, albeit with the conceptual sweep of [their] more recent albums.” The album’s centerpiece is an idea they’ve spent pretty much their entire time together whacking into shape. The narrative writes itself: a dialectical synthesis of their 90s and 00s work, or, more audaciously, the culmination of No-Man’s entire history, a definitive statement of what No-Man is supposed to sound like.
We know what happens with narratives that haven’t been written yet. The new joint could be brilliant, it could be a stinker, all we have right now is a short preview on Instagram, so we’re acknowledging the whole “magnum opus” idea right now so it doesn’t clog up the post when the time comes to actually write it. Let’s instead content ourselves with what we currently know: the new thing will open a new era in the band’s sound. Convenient, then, that we’re now at an earlier album that did something similar.
That’s not quite true. The style that No-Man was known for in the 00s actually begins with Carolina Skeletons in 1998, and the faded-memory songs off that EP inform the general atmosphere of many of the songs on this album. Here, though, is where the style first explored in Carolina Skeletons reaches maturity. No Defence, for instance, feels like combing through the ruins of an abandoned googie-style building, haunted by the ghosts of everyone who ever set foot inside its doors. All That You Are has a similar effect. We know what to do when we encounter ghosts of the past. Time for an exorcism.
It’s February of 2001. I am now nine. My mom is about to become pregnant with my sister. My dad is becoming increasingly disenchanted at his job, and comes home each day talking about issues with the management that go over my head. (I’ve come to his work once in a while, and there’s a fundamental disconnect between what I see and what he tells us. Everything seems okay…but then I spend all my time on whatever computer was vacant at the time, so I’m not really paying attention.)
More critically, there’s a new President. There’s nothing that poisons your understanding of American democracy quite like (a) having the 2000 election be the first one you have any memories of, and (b) supporting Al Gore. I knew basically nothing about what Bush or Gore actually stood for—I remember something vague about Bush supporting tax cuts, but that’s it, not even Gore’s whole “I invented the internet” thing managed to penetrate my head—but I wanted Gore to win because he was Clinton’s vice president and was a Known Quantity. So I sit down to watch the election and things in Florida promptly go off the rails in a drama that would extend for far too long. Your first election should be something like 1996 that was relatively painless, a demonstration of how elections should take place, not whatever this was. Either way, the end result was this: the wrong guy is in the White House and we’re stuck with him.
The news stories I remember from around this time would have related to the USS Cole bombing and the impending execution of Timothy McVeigh. My parents spent the early months of the Bush administration largely complaining about his environmental policy. We are about to tip over into a recession. And, of course, there’s the unspeakable earth-shattering horror looming a little over half a year away. The world is slowly eating away at my isolated bubble, and the way it slowly dribbled in led me to believe these were isolated incidents and not a part of some greater unraveling. Ignorant of the context of what was happening, I would naively believe that these would all be temporary interruptions and we’d soon go back to normal. Though I didn’t recognize it at the time, the 21st century’s first act was to slowly strangle the end of history.
The people who were making art at the time knew what was coming. Consider some albums: Kid A, released in 2000, too blitzed out on millennial anxiety to even form coherent sentences. Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven, also from 2000, a sprawling, nightmarish monument to the imminent eschaton. Lateralus, from May 2001, a paranoia-soaked descent into a spiralling spiritual hypercube, at once liberating and suffocating. Toxicity, released a week before 9/11, a sketch of the 21st century’s looming imperial horrors. Outside music, of course, there’s House of Leaves. Released in 2000, an infinite nesting structure of unreliable narrators and secret codes and other ergodic adventures, a millennial cosmic horror ostensibly about a shapeshifting, malevolent house that’s slightly bigger on the inside (hey!), but which is actually about the point just behind your head, where you are most vulnerable, and the fourth wall will not protect you. The only place where the Minotaur inarguably exists is in your mind, where it is real beyond refute, in all its grandeur and monstrosity. In video games, Deus Ex caught a whiff of the unfolding horror, as technical problems meant the skybox depicting New York City conspicuously omitted the World Trade Center.
And finally, preceding and anticipating them all, Alan Moore’s 1999 spoken-word masterpiece Snakes and Ladders, a Kabbalistic ascent to enlightenment, and all the beauty and terror that flows from it. This is what was in the air at the time, numerous artists seized with the curse of prophecy, speaking in tongues and codes about looming futures too alien and terrifying to ever plainly articulate. After this, the wreckage, and a brave new world, and Boards of Canada writing cryptically about numerology and cult suicides.
If you had an awareness of the world between Princess Di’s death and 9/11, millennial anxiety would eventually filter down to you in some fashion, even if it was as small as momentarily freaking out about the Y2K bug. In 2000/2001, it trickled down to Fish and John Wesley, who were inspired to write A Pilgrim’s Address, about wars gone by and wars yet to come. And at the same time, it also reached Steven Wilson and Tim Bowness, who found themselves with the back half (and especially title track) of Returning Jesus, whose title is clearly reminiscent of a certain key facet of Christian eschatology. In fact, The Second Coming of Christ is a concept so loaded that, once invoked, it immediately collapses the faith into a mystical death cult endlessly chanting apocalyptic prayers and spells within its garish, cavernous halls. (Recall that evangelicals vociferously support the State of Israel entirely because it’s a key player in their end-times rituals.) Perfect for 2001.
According to Tim, the lyrics gesture toward an ignored Messiah, with lyrics like “Follow me down to where I’ll always be” rendered in a delivery that the character believes is inviting but belies a particular lack of confidence, as if they’re questioning whether they’re any sort of savior at all. Set against the desolate instrumentation and the character’s pleading to “slow it all down, it always moves too fast,” the effect is of a character crudely wrenched out of time and space and into an isolating, alienating new world. The past colliding with the present.
And that’s where we are. The period of unease and uncertainty as one era bleeds into another. Broadly, as the 90s give way to the 2000s. More specifically, as I develop a more complete understanding of the outside world. And even more specifically, as No-Man completes its transition from the relatively accessible trip-hop through which they tried to gain a wider audience toward the ambient-inflected art rock that would define their sound in the new century.
I personally am kind of sad to see the funkier (“funkier”) elements of No-Man’s sound go. It lent their music a particular eclecticism and versatility that made their rarities so interesting to listen to. Now it feels like they’re beginning to wall off parts of themselves in an attempt to sound more like one thing instead of many things.
However, and this is important, I don’t want them to return to their old sound. Although I’ve developed more of an appreciation for their 90s material as I’ve gone through it for this blog, for them to return to that sound would nevertheless constitute a regression, even if the music itself was more to my liking. What I want out of No-Man going forward, especially as they prepare to release their newest album, is to be just as varied and interesting as they were in the 90s, but in a completely different way, to push their sounds in directions they haven’t explored yet. Put another way, I may love Dry Cleaning Ray to pieces, but that doesn’t mean they should have spent their entire subsequent career rereleasing Dry Cleaning Ray over and over. Bands need to grow and evolve, and hopefully with Love You To Bits they’ll push their music in a new and exciting direction. Based on the previews we have, it sounds like they will, but we won’t know for certain until the whole thing drops four weeks from now.
- Returning Jesus
- Wild Opera
- Loveblows and Lovecries: A Confession