Review Summary: A departure into sparse, stark ambience, "Together We're Stranger" is a heartbreaking, beautiful record, with Bowness' lyrics and Wilson's musicanship and production arguably at their best.
"You and I are something else together."
This line, one of the six of the sparse lyrics that make up the title track of the album, are a great summation of Steven Wilson and Tim Bowness' musical oeuvre; No-Man began in romantic dance-pop, then onto dark trip-hop, then onto beautiful chamber jazz. The two are indeed something else together; they have managed to hop varied genres throughout their career, and yet with each album they produce music that is constantly challenging and wholly unique. Wilson himself has said that "Together We're Stranger," along with "Returning Jesus," is the "quintessential" No-Man record. After listening to the entirety of this melancholy recording, Wilson's estimation is not far off. "Together We're Stranger" is a brilliant record, awash with fantastic lyricism, poignant instrumentation, and outstanding production.
One of the highlights of listening to any No-Man record is the peculiarities of Tim Bowness' lyrics. At first listen, Bowness' lyrics often sound odd, given the strange metaphors and the very specific details he uses to convey the emotions he's expressing. This is particularly evident on this record; the album is full of personal, intimate details that, while clearly very close to Bowness himself, resonate deeply in their meaning. Whether it's the "hollow thump of life that has no taste" ("Things I Want to Tell You") or the "needle [that] pushed the red" ("Back When You Were Beautiful"), Bowness knows exactly how to pinpoint the emotion he is yearning to express. On this album, as Bowness stated in the excellent "Mixtaped" documentary on No-Man, "Together We're Stranger" is about expressing bereavement in its different forms; the album is full of lyrics on the subject of the melancholy of loss, whether it be a lost lover (the heartbreaking "Things I Want to Tell You," "The Break-Up For Real"), a person lost in a city trying to find where to go in life ("All the Blue Changes," "Photographs in Black and White"), or even the loss of a person's beauty ("Back When You Were Beautiful"). And, as usual, Bowness' literate, introspective lyrics are perfectly stated by Bowness' voice, which expresses that perfect sense of yearning unlike any other No-Man record.
While Bowness' lyrics could be released as poems and still remain their poignancy, on this album they are aided by the polymath musician Steven Wilson, who clearly knew exactly how to further convey the bereavement Bowness was seeking to express. The album is devoid of the often lively instrumentation that occupied their past recordings; this is a sparse record with almost no percussion that is heavily dominated by texture and ambience. (The album's desolate artwork, by longtime No-Man collaborator Carl Glover, further supplants the imagery conveyed by the music). Two examples stick out in particular: the title track begins with a quell of harsh noise, which then abruptly ends and is followed by a pastoral, drifting synth, painting a sparse desert of a soundscape. The song also features an anguishing textural guitar solo by No-Man collaborator Michael Bearpark. Then there's "Things I Want to Tell You," perhaps the most emotional No-Man song ever written; the track is driven largely by the same style of synth playing found in the title track, this time accompanied by a sparely picked acoustic guitar, with Wilson hitting high notes on the guitar as Bowness cries out for his lost lover. This is deeply sad music, no doubt, but it is nonetheless beautiful.
While the album retains a consistent theme throughout, No-Man's eclecticism hasn't faded any; take "Back When You Were Beautiful," perhaps Bowness' finest lyric to date:
But it mostly goes
And you mark your time
With your fading clothes
As the song comes to the close and Bowness sings the song's final lyric, Wilson begins picking on a banjo, not an instrument I would imagine for a song as heartbreaking as this one. In the song, however, it sounds brilliant, like it was meant to be there. No longer the instrument of upbeat, jaunty country jams, the banjo here rings with the sound of nostalgia for the things in us that have faded.
Something is also to be said of the production of the album. Steven Wilson is a man well renowned for his lustrous 5.1 surround sound mixes, and this might be close to, if not his best. The ambient soundscapes of the album blend seamlessly with the other instruments, whether it be organic. The sorrowful mood the album drowns the listener, allowing whoever is experiencing the album to fully experience the somber mood conveyed by each song. Every musical texture created on the album flows beautifully out of the speakers and is an auditory experience like no other.
No-Man have consistently been brilliant, but this album is no doubt their high point. Very little music sounds like this; but even more than that, very little music could convey a message like this album does. "Together We're Stranger" is an album unlike anything in Bowness or Wilson's career; while Wilson would go on to further explore some of the ambience found on this album with his solo outlet Bass Communion, none of that music could ever match the stark, heartbreaking beauty of this record. Wilson and Bowness are indeed something else together, and this album is the greatest testament to that fact.