No-Man – Returning Jesus

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.

  1. Flowermouth
  2. Returning Jesus
  3. Wild Opera
  4. Loveblows and Lovecries: A Confession

No-Man – Wild Opera

September 1996

Housewives Hooked on Heroin, May 1996
2-CD edition, May 2010

Take One

The process is as follows:

Listen to the subject of the post—in this case, the Housewives Hooked on Heroin EP—several times, in an attempt to generate an interesting angle on the music or the lyrics.

Best you can come up with is something to the effect of “the title track is pretty terrible but the EP itself is redeemed somewhat thanks to Urban Disco and Where I’m Calling From. Also the Scanners remix of the title track is actually some pretty good chilled-out DnB, kind of prefigures early Pendulum in a sense. I know Wilson hates it but then Wilson hates a lot of things. What you gonna do.” After that, something something prelude to Wild Opera. This is not enough for a single post, especially when Wild Opera itself comes right after.

At that moment, realize the EP works best as a prelude to Wild Opera and surmise that the supplementary EP, Dry Cleaning Ray, will be similar. Get an idea.

Listen to Wild Opera.

Take Two

Three at once, this week. We’re obviously focusing on Wild Opera, but we’ve also got the two supplementary releases orbiting around it like moons, Housewives Hooked on Heroin and Dry Cleaning Ray. These three are quite closely linked, and for that reason it’s worth examining them as a single unit representing where No-Man’s collective head was at entering the decade’s back half.

First up is Housewives Hooked on Heroin, released four months prior to Wild Opera and thus serving as an introduction to what they’d be doing on the main release. One can imagine the No-Man fandom faithful stumbling upon this joint and its radical change in sound—especially the glitchy, staccato Hit the Ceiling—and reacting roughly as charitably as certain portions of Wilson’s solo fandom did upon hearing Permanating for the first time. It’s, well, it’s decent enough on its own. The title track really doesn’t live up to that incredible name. Urban Disco is pretty good, though.

If we arrange these three releases chronologically and establish a narrative through-line between them, then Wild Opera represents a refinement of the musical concepts first explored in Housewives Hooked on Heroin. This is No-Man’s “dark” album, and while it is their heaviest and most abrasive release, let’s not forget what their default mode is. Nothing on here is sufficiently dark for a patented Jess Cope nightmare-inducing tour visual, for instance. In addition, most of the time the primary influence is not straight trip-hop, hence why whenever those influences showed through up to this point it always sounded generic and watered down. This actually dovetails nicely with something I wrote in the Flowermouth entry:

“However, in listening to this album it becomes quite clear that the trip hop sound didn’t come from their heart as much as their attempt to mold themselves in One Little Indian’s image in the hopes they’d sell more records.”

Compare with what Bowness said on his blog about Wild Opera:

“If Flowermouth was gleefully oblivious to fashion, on a purely instinctive level, Wild Opera was the sound of No-Man heeding the musical signs of the times.”

So, basically, they’re no longer trying to satisfy One Little Indian, but emulate the musical zeitgeist of 1996….and yet it miraculously doesn’t sound like they’ve sold out. This is because the trip-hop here is of a more jazzy and orchestral bent, where the lonely streetlamps are in front of the embassy of an Eastern European nation instead of in, say, Brixton. In other words, they wanted to sound like Portishead.

This is key. Because it approaches the genre at an odd angle and through John Le Carre-tinted glasses, the Portishead flavor of trip hop actively resists being watered down, and thus retains more of its…authenticity, for lack of a better word. So even when No-Man tries to sound like Portishead, they land not at Portishead full stop but Portishead filtered through No-Man’s fractured history. Not a bad place to be, all told, although that does mean I start to wish they’d have had the guts to get real dark and dive into the abyss headfirst, to the point where something like My Revenge on Seattle would have been better served on a castoff EP released several months later.

Several times over the course of this retrospective we’ve come back to the idea of a record representing a window into a potential evolution in a project’s sound that never quite came to be…but that analogy doesn’t quite work here. Although this is a serious effort to do something a bit more beat-driven, it’s also clear that trip hop itself was a dead end in the band’s progress, as future albums would owe more to Flowermouth than this one. However, that doesn’t mean this experiment was a complete failure. Bowness and Wilson both knew the darker atmosphere present in Wild Opera still had potential. If Flowermouth and Wild Opera represent the band’s sound from Lovecries splitting in two, then every album from Returning Jesus onward represent those two halves coming together again, but differently.

Speaking of things disassembled and reassembled backward, Dry Cleaning Ray.

Take Three


Realize (a) that Dry Cleaning Ray is mostly outtakes from the Wild Opera sessions instead of remixes, and (b) that maybe only one song off the album could legitimately be described as “disassembled and reassembled backward.” Discover that chunks of Dry Cleaning Ray pull from releases you haven’t covered yet. This angle ain’t gonna work.

Try to dig up contemporary press—reviews and interviews, that sort of thing—to back up the claim that Wild Opera is widely regarded as the dark album. Come up empty. The only even remotely interesting piece of criticism comes from the sole comment on the album’s AllMusic review, which calls “trip hop” a dirty word. Wonder how that guy feels about iPods.

Feel yourself pulled in ten thousand fruitless directions. At the same time, imagine yourself as Barton Fink, and all that implies, staring at a blank typewriter.

Attempt to continue the essay, this time focusing almost entirely on Wild Opera. Shoehorn something in about how you wouldn’t be surprised if Jerry Martin were listening to this album and Endtroducing… on repeat while composing the SimCity 4 soundtrack, based off that magnificent sax in Radiant City. Observe that Ben Coleman’s absence really is not deeply felt here, and nothing against the man, but anything he could have contributed to the album would have been superfluous.

Try and fail to excise the Housewives / Opera / Dry Cleaning Ray angle from what you’ve already written. Realize you still have quite a lot of things to say about the interplay between dark and light that can’t be squeezed into the essay you have as written, and how it basically doesn’t work. Try to find yet another creative way to say that Bowness’ voice is not very well suited to dark music, and that as good as the trip-hop is they’re still fundamentally uncomfortable with it, and stuff like Flowermouth is better largely because it really does feel like their natural habitat, and including songs like My Revenge on Seattle means they probably know it. Realize with some horror that what you really want out of No-Man is Together We’re Stranger rerecorded and rereleased endlessly, and that demand fundamentally goes against what constitutes good musical artistry and what you value in music that has any business calling itself “progressive.” Recall that based on stuff he said about “progressive” music when you saw him perform in New York back in April, Wilson probably agrees with you.

Bang head against keyboard.

Take Four

Throw hands up. Go trawling for buzz one last time, come up fruitless. Discover the following completely unrelated extract from that 2000 Innerview you quoted the last time you covered a No-Man studio album:

“I think No-Man go through phases of distinctively reflecting the current musical climate such as Lovesighs, Loveblows and Lovecries, Wild Opera and Dry Cleaning Ray, and phases of retreating into ourselves and trying to produce something we consider timeless and meaningful such as Carolina Skeletons and Flowermouth. The new album definitely fits into the latter category. Next time, it’s disco!”

Well, it took seventeen years, and it was only one half of the band, but by God we finally got our bloody disco.

  1. Flowermouth
  2. Wild Opera
  3. Loveblows and Lovecries: A Confession

No-Man – Flowermouth

April 1994

Flowermix, September 1995
Remastered October 2005

In the entry for Lovesighs: An Entertainment, I wrote the following:

“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.”

This is, upon further reflection, not quite a true statement. Flowermouth sees the band upsetting that delicate balance, drifting more toward ambient-influenced music, and creating a stronger record for it. Part of the issue with what I said earlier is that the trip-hoppy aspects of their sound evolved largely from the time and place (80s/90s England) where the band was formed, whereas the ambient parts of their sound form an emotional core. It provides a path forward when trip hop becomes decadent and ossified. The other problem with that statement is that while it’s much easier to screw up ambient music, the reward for doing it right is something transcendent, almost spiritual. And god help me, they did it.

In addition, leaning on the ambient side of their sound short-circuits another concern I had. In the entry for Ocean Song, I wrote the following:

“Honestly, in a typical No-Man song the violin is doing quite a bit of the work […] He [Coleman] 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.”

Yes, at this stage, meaning that period between 1990 and 1993. His relative absence was deeply and profoundly felt in Loveblows and Lovecries. Not quite so much here. He’s featured on seven of the album’s nine tracks, but he’s no longer shouldering so much of the responsibility for making them good. Nor are they wheeling him out to do a violin solo when they need to fill space. (…usually. *Looks askance at Shell of a Fighter.*) His parts are actually accentuating the music now. So while I’m still going to miss him once he’s gone, especially because this album gestures in a direction their music would have gone if he stayed with the band, it’s clear No-Man isn’t going to fall apart without him.

In a 2000 interview with Anil Prasad, the band said that Flowermouth was an attempt to go back to making “pure No-Man music” after spending the previous four years playing the Music Industry Game by the rules with little to show for it except serious record label tension. In many respects the attempt was successful. However, in listening to this album it becomes quite clear that the trip hop sound didn’t come from their heart as much as their attempt to mold themselves in One Little Indian’s image in the hopes they’d sell more records. (But what about Wild Opera, you say. We’ll get to that next time.) The verses of You Grow More Beautiful and Soft Shoulder in particular sound forced, almost perfunctory, like the disintegration of their relationship with their old label left behind a malfunctioning autopilot and they’re still playing what’s expected of them. The choruses of both songs, however, are soaring and beautiful. If not for the characteristically melancholy lyrics, they’d sound downright anthemic. They sound like how No-Man want to sound.

It would be reductive to say that all the electronic performances were soulless or done without passion. Simple, for instance, is a taut, tense piece of trancey dance pop majesty. Richard Barbieri’s contributions to Shell of a Fighter are what make (or, less charitably, rescue) that song. Going back to the Soft Shoulder chorus, its almost shoegazey wall of sound is brilliant. As clear as it is that their wheelhouse is firmly on the organic side of things, and they know it, they can do something harsher when they want to.

Speaking of stuff that’s organic, Mel Collins. His soprano saxophone solo on the first track sounds like it wandered in from a Dave Matthews Band jam session, and in the twenty seconds it works its magic it injects more urbanity to the album than a million programmed 90s drum beats ever could. (The first track in general is excellent, really.) His flute solo at the end of Animal Ghost is no slouch, either, pulling the track it’s on in a different, more natural and ethereal direction. The horn boy only shows up on the album three times, but he contributes some of its greatest moments, and is arguably as integral to the Flowermouth sound as Ben Coleman.

And finally, there’s the last track. Things Change is a brutal, merciless, gut-wrenching portrait of a dead relationship’s very final moments, slowed down second by excruciating second. It is, to its credit, very hard to listen to, especially with Tim Bowness’ repeated, pleading refrain of “You’re leaving me behind” reminding us exactly what’s going on here. Twisting the knife further, this breakup is reframed as the culmination of a slow drifting apart, an occurrence as natural as changing seasons, underscoring that Bowness is powerless to stop what’s happening. He can only stand and watch as his lover moves on without him. Ouch.

The drums are by Chris Maitland, who you may know. It is, in fact, partially on the strength of his work on this album that Maitland was invited to join Porcupine Tree. Well done, lads.

  1. Flowermouth
  2. Loveblows & Lovecries: A Confession

*record needle scratch* We’ve forgotten something.

A big problem with pulling together the No-Man bits of this retrospective is that their supplemental stuff, remix albums, EPs, and such, are stupid hard to find. In contrast, I was able to listen to every single album in that JBK post all the way through. But No-Man has pretty consistently had the largest proportion of Stuff That Can’t Be Found On The Internet Without A Torrent Or A Paid Spotify Subscription, and it’s given me a lot of problems. And that includes Flowermix, this album’s now-deleted companion remix record.

Between the cassette and CD versions, there are twelve songs that are featured on this album. YouTube, as of this writing, has four: Angeldust, Faith in You, Sample, and Why the Noise. All four are worth listening to at least once, but Angeldust is my personal favorite, largely because it takes that lovely soprano sax solo (soprano sax is the true sex sax) and lets it permeate the rest of the track the way it wants to. It’s not quite its centerpiece, but it’s pretty dang close, and I love it for that.

I wish I could find the others.

[Update 10/12/18: Glory hallelujah, here’s the whole thing. Flowermix, it turns out, is about an hour of trancey goodness, sounding roughly like what would happen if Bowness had substantially contributed to Voyage 34. A lot of the songs on here are elevated when they’re presented as their own standalone thing instead of as a remix of something else. The first track is still the standout, although the closer, Born Simple, is no slouch either. I actually might like it better than the source material.]

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