Review Summary: Beautiful Songs You Should Know
Trying to determine No-Man’s style someone might finally come up with the term “Progressive Pop”. But the fact that the music is neither really pop nor is it really progressive gives a sense of how hard No-Man are to categorize. Yet they aren’t unusual in any way, but welcome and well-known like an old friend, a wonderful combination of genres like singer/songwriter, post rock, progressive rock and art pop, including hints of ambience and even some jazzy undertones.
All of that is created by the long-time duo of Steven Wilson and Tim Bowness, who are writing music together since 1986 - a year before Porcupine Tree was even formed. As time went by the original quartet named No Man is an Island shortened its name to No-Man and lost two of its members. Yet the project expanded from the initial sample-based pop music and established a formula that’s still ongoing: Tim Bowness provides lyrics and vocals while Steven Wilson is supplying most of the instrumentation and arrangements. Who actually writes the songs isn’t revealed, but rumours want it that Tim Bowness is to blame for most of “Schoolyard Ghosts”.
Though the album contains performances of about a dozen guest musicians the music itself is very low key, unrushed and almost minimalistic for most of the time. The songs are carried by only one or two instruments in the foreground that are backed up by studio wizardry and various instruments laying layers of sound over the original structures. The arrangements are superb and the flawless production has its share in turning the album into a wonderful listening experience as well. Yet the most obvious thing to state about No-Man’s style is that it’s slow. And melancholic. The album is full of playful details to make it seemingly endlessly listenable, yet the structures themselves are evolving in slow-motion. The opener All Sweet Things
might be suitable as the exemplary “Schoolyard Ghosts”-song: centered around piano and acoustic guitar, the song keeps adding layers of sounds, distant noise, orchestration, choirs and slow electronic drums, without ever sounding overburdened. And above all that Tim Browness’ soft voice lingers. Just before all of that fears to eventually lull the listener, a simple tone scale played upwards on a glockenspiel breaks with the structure, without destroying it, turning a beautiful opener into one of the album’s masterpieces.
The album draws its power both from moments like the tone scale in All Sweet Things
, as well as slow repetition of patterns and adding of new layers of sounds. And every of the song has its own moments, its own patterns. But the incredible beauty and atmosphere the opener awakes is only matched on the 13-minute epic Truenorth
, the album’s cornerstone. Tim Bowness stated in his online diary that “All Sweet Things and Truenorth are perhaps the pinnacle of the band's achievements...”
and while I’m new to the band, it isn’t hard to believe. The longest song centered in the middle of the album is like a soft counterpart to Porcupine Tree’s Anesthetize
, also divided into three different sections that could exist on their own, but when added together form a coherent unity. Flute and acoustic guitars are woven into an orchestral string arrangement by Dave Stewart, carried out by the London Session Orchestra. And the electronic rhythm the song finally culminates in gives a wonderful contrast to its gentleness.
Quite naturally the rest of the album has its problems next to two masterpieces of that calibre. But like my Tim Bowness citation goes on: “All Sweet Things and Truenorth are perhaps the pinnacle of the band's achievements with most of the other pieces not far behind.”
And that’s true as well. Songs like the orchestral ballad Wherever There Is Light
, Song of the Surf
, the closer Mixtaped
and Pigeon Drummer
are all addictive and overwhelmingly beautiful. And the two “weaker” songs, the mainly acoustic ballad Beautiful Songs You Should Know
and the electronic Streaming
, are still very enjoyable far from mediocre as well.
So “Schoolyard Ghosts” seems like a beautiful atmospheric album without rough edges? Pigeon Drummer
proves all that wrong: the most Porcupine Tree-like song on the album is torn apart by two noisy percussive explosions, done by King Crimson drummer Pat Mastelotto. While the album stays calm for the rest of its running length, the fact that No-Man aren’t afraid to blow up their songs throws a shadow of uneasiness over the rest of “Schoolyard Ghosts”. An uneasiness that finally finds its peak during the closing track: Mixtaped
starts of slow, lonely guitar chords awaking memories of Talk Talk. But soon the subtle drum fills intensify and become more chaotic and combined with guitar feedback they create an atmosphere in which the seemingly figurative line of “You’d kill for that feeling again”
suddenly seems intensely frightening.
While taking a completely different musical road, thematically “Schoolyard Ghosts” can be seen as a more optimistic counterpart to Porcupine Tree’s “Fear of a Blank Planet”. Both albums are dealing with youth in some way, but while Porcupine Tree draw a pessimistic, cynical picture, No-Man’s approach is more hopeful. Which doesn’t mean it can’t be amazingly melancholic, sad and sometimes almost bleak. Exemplarily for the differences and similarities between Porcupine Tree and No-Man might stand the mentioning of “pills” in All Sweet Things
. Prominently featured in the lyrics of “Fear of a Blank Planet”, they served as one of the indications of a degenerated youth, here they seem to be interpreted the other way round, as a threat of losing childhood: “The schoolyard ghosts, the playtime fears / You take your pills, they disappear / The people that you've known”
. Lines like that or: “And as she takes the sun away, / She asks how you feel today. / The sky has turned pavement grey, / The remnants of her body spray / Still lingers on your shirt.”
from Song of the Surf
are more depressing than enlightening, yet they do not have the outright bleakness recent Porcupine Tree lyrics have when dealing with similar themes. And there are more than just sparks of hope to be found: “I want to give you / All the beautiful dreams you can bear, / I want to show you / All the possible ways we could care”
Tim Bowness sings on Beautiful Songs You Should Know
- a title that simultaneously is the perfect summary of “Schoolyard Ghosts”: You should know those songs indeed.
Quite like Steven Wilson’s most famous band Porcupine Tree have recently gotten the recognition they had deserved for a long time, it is left to hope that projects like No-Man will as well. But sadly it doesn’t seem like that yet. Though that might just be another layer of melancholy that adds up to a wonderful album.