Review Summary: Steven Wilson's second solo album is a fantastic piece of work - if a little too much to handle at times.
As I’m sure we all know by now, too much of a good thing can lead to disaster. In the case of Steven Wilson’s latest project, that aforementioned excellent – yet ultimately overdosed – quality would be ambition. Ambition is what keeps a good musician’s career alive, driving them to try out new styles and sounds and ultimately keeping their music fresh enough that people still give a damn when they’ve been going strong for years on end. On the other hand, a good musician will know when the time comes to pull their foot off the acceleration, to push on the brakes and say to themselves; “Hold on a minute. I need to slow down.” Because ultimately, when you’re trying to do something new, you’re going to make mistakes. It’s inevitable. So it was probably a bad call on Wilson’s part, when he started writing this ambitious new material, to compile it into a huge 80-minute double album with tracks approaching the 25-minute mark and dozens upon dozens of musicians. Because while this formula reeks of magnum opus to the pretentious prog-rocker in all of us, Grace for Drowning
’s imperfections sour the listening experience enough that I cannot bring myself to call this the stunning accomplishment I wish it could have been.
That’s not to say Grace for Drowning
is bad at all – it is, for the most part, a truly excellent album, and the vast majority of songs present here succeed with grandoise style. “Postcard” proves a definite highlight, packaging a lot of what the whole album is all about into one concise, heart-wrenching, four and a half minute masterpiece. Accompanied by gorgeous piano melodies, Wilson’s soulful vocals and blunt lyrics tug at the heartstrings until the song builds into a massive, beautifully orchestrated climax. Songs like “Deform to Form a Star” and “Like Dust I Have Cleared From My Eye” follow in similar footsteps; heartfelt, simplistic, filled with warm melodies, and very traditionally Wilson.
On the other hand, Grace for Drowning
ventures into darker waters at times too, showcasing Steven’s fantastic talent for atmosphere. “Remainder the Black Dog” proves the best of these dramatic excursions, taking a typical, dark, Steven Wilson atmosphere, and turning it on it’s head with the inclusion of jazz influences, sax solos, and piano leads. For songs like this, the ambition and newfound influences rescue it from becoming “just another Steven Wilson song” (as a certain track by the name of “Index” ultimately ended up). And in short, that’s what makes this album great; luscious, warm melodies, dark, intriguing and rather unsettling atmospheres, variety, unusual influences, and top-notch songwriting.
So where did it all go wrong? On paper, Grace for Drowning
looks like the perfect example of a magnum opus. It should be soaring and breathtaking and beautiful, but it just doesn’t feel like it accomplishes what it set out to achieve. And why?
Because, dear God, it drags. This is what I meant by Wilson needing to know when his ambition is getting ahead of his common sense. “Raider II” is the ideal example here. It has it’s moments of epic, heavy, jazz-infused drama, spells of dark, brooding, genuinely exciting atmosphere – but the rest? It’s pointless, dull, overly dragged out and, ultimately, achieves nothing. “Sectarian” meanders around acoustic riffs, atmosphere, and heaviness, but never really goes anywhere with any of the ideas. Other songs – such as “Track One” – feel like they head off on tangents and end up forgetting their original purpose. It kills the mood, it sours the listening experience, and results in any feelings of wonder being pushed aside by an overwhelming sense of “Ok...When is this going to end?”
And there you have it. An excellent album, stuffed with ambition and off-the-wall ideas - it’s just packed a little too tight in places.