Friday, March 2, 2012

Steven Wilson's "Grace for Drowning" in the Real World

The death of the record store is a tragic loss for the music fan as a site for cultural exchange, especially as we become increasingly specialized in our listening tastes. I was fortunate to pick up Grace for Drowning at the closeout sale of a local record store. When I brought it to the counter, the clerk's face lit up.  I stuttered through a conversation about Steven Wilson's genius that I never thought I would have with a living, breathing being, distracted by the knowledge that encounters like this are irreplaceable in the virtual realms.

Like the clerk, I am astonished by the amazing breadth of Wilson's work, but his sprawling output is somewhat challenging to my listening categories. I was introduced to Wilson through his prog band Porcupine Tree, so historically I have viewed everything else he has done as a side project. In truth, Porcupine Tree is a relatively small component of Wilson’s oeuvre. Nevertheless, whatever he touches seems immediately essential to understanding his overall concept.

In recent years, however, Wilson has taken a further step – cultivating a solo career. Cut free from the confines of collaboration or expectation, Grace for Drowning spills free of the boundaries set by a singular project. Its broad, orchestral palate pits choirs against grunts and orchestras against post-industrial studio manipulations, and its dissonance overlaps harmonically advanced metal with jazz fusion. On a Porcupine Tree album, these extremes might be cause for alarm, but within the context of a solo album, they reveal the breadth of Wilson’s imagination.

Wilson is probably one of the only progressive rock artists out there that is able to avoid cliché and nostalgia in major doses, but whose work is identifiably in the genre. It’s true that there are many progressive rock bands out there that are infatuated with the sound of their predecessors, but not as many capture the ideology of exploration that lies at the roots of the prog tree. Steven Wilson, however, gets it, and although he shows hints of his influences to those that are in the know, overall is work is distinctively moody and intellectual.

When I gave Grace for Drowning its first serious listen a couple of weeks after picking it up, I was on my annual trip to San Antonio to attend the Texas Music Educator’s Association convention. TMEA is usually a conflicting combination of inspiration and frustration for me, and despite being surrounded by like-minded people and networking opportunities, it can sometimes be a lonely experience.

The album's gently self-flagellating melancholy empowered my introverted mood. With Grace for Drowning on headphones, I meandered out of the showroom floor onto the Riverwalk on that overcast February afternoon and, while I ate lunch and watched the bustling crowd, I took that time to appreciate the movement of pigeons begging for food and boats full of people lazily floating down the canals. Perhaps a good number of them were feeling isolated and aloof in the crowd as well, but I doubt that any sought out the odd comfort of Wilson’s resigned loneliness.

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