Review Summary: Finally, Bowness helms his very own ship
No matter who you compare him with, Tim Bowness is one of the most distinct vocalists of the past three decades. Besides his main output with No-Man, a band created with Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree mastermind/solo artist, ex-Blackfield, Storm Corrosion, etc.) and lately Henry Fool, he collaborated with a myriad of artists on several records along the years. At first, he was reluctant to launch a solo career, but finally assembled the first LP, My Hotel Year
exactly 10 years ago. It was a bittersweet, sometimes sparse experience that captured very well the essence of his gorgeous voice yet felt less memorable than other projects he's been involved in. After a long decade, the time was right for the follow-up, Abandoned Dancehall Dreams
What was originally the foundation of a new No-Man album (sigh), recorded with a live band, soon became the starting point for Bowness' very own full length. Since Wilson was too busy to add his input any time soon, Tim took advantage and continued with the sessions. This was a great idea as the result is a lovely and rewarding listen. Whereas it doesn't differ very much from their usual collaboration, the tunes are more engaging, while boasting the same misty atmosphere. Also, the very interesting lyrics, like always, portray various stories of several characters that are actually losers in life. Whether there's someone who will always be overshadowed by another ('The Warm-Up Man Forever'), an aging person who reflects upon her life ('Smiler At 50' & 'Smiler At 52'), others missing opportunities ('Dancing For You') or growing apart throughout the years ('Songs Of Distant Summers'), each of these descriptions are exceptionally brought to life with the help of his magnificent, emotional voice.
Musically, Abandoned Dancehall Dreams
has a dominant 80s sound, heard in both the reverbed piano lines with various synthesized touches. Also, the overall atmosphere echoes the likes of Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, late Pink Floyd and even King Crimson at times. Since Bowness has all the space he desires to elaborate his ideas, we can observe how much he actually adds to the mood of each track. Rather than piling layers of instruments, he focuses on dreamy tones that evoke more through less intricate compositions. However, there are many people who contribute and help realize all the cinematic visions portrayed best on the two epics, 'Smiler At 50' and 'I Fought Against The South'. Both are assisted by King Crimson drummer Pat Mastelotto, plus Henry Fool keyboard player, Stephen Bennett, who together with multi-instrumentalist Andrew Keeling, provide the backbone of the live band. The former is the most gorgeous song here, sharing a bleak piano rhythm backed by occasional slide leads. The depressing tone is magnified by the lovely, melancholic chorus and even more by the grandiose finale complete with strings, distorted guitars and powerful synths. 'I Fought Against The South' is a thrilling climax for the entire record that slowly marches on with somber, string picking and eulogistic violins, before unleashing an entire orchestra, courtesy of Keeling, who's a very fitting addition to the entire adventure. Bowness has always been capable of directing his own visions yet never helmed like this all by his own. As a consequence, these new collaborations provide a different result that isn't altered by Wilson (this is not meant to put him in a negative light, only to show there's more to Tim than many knew or thought there was)
Even though the two aforementioned tracks are clearly centerpieces, the shorter cuts share their lovely moments too. The eerie 'Waterfoot' brings back to memory the shiny early days of No-Man, with pastoral flutes, gentle acoustic guitar and warm bass lines, recorded again by Keeling & topped by Tim's heavenly delivery. Both are joined by Steven on 'Dancing For You', who adds the soft drum machine, creating another amazing tune. Reminiscent of mid-90s Porcupine Tree, the song shares some flashy solos and deep bass grooves that provide the perfect foundation for the vocals. Again there are such beautiful moments created with common chords and progressions. At the same time, 'Songs Of Distant Summers' benefits from even more minimal approach, consisting of etherial piano and synth pads that carry Bowness' voice like a lullaby. It could have been included on Together We're Stranger
, No-Man's most introspective album yet. The thing is, you never know when it actually gets personal, because the lyrics are many times first person narrations that may or may not be related to Tim. The passion he sings with makes them all so intense and honest, you can live what the character goes through.
In the end, I can't say if this would've turned out better or worse as a No-Man album. It's an interesting debate that in essence proves just how important this man has always been to the group, even if Wilson is more renowned overall. It took many years for him to have the strength to develop his solo career and now it finally paid off. As a visionary, he conducted the sessions really well, designing Abandoned Dancehall Dreams
without any compromise. Moreover, the brilliant supergroup assigned to contribute have added their own touches even though they have been filtered through Tim's ears. The tender voice and the touching lyrics provide the rough core of the album, while the music helps shape everything much like a soundtrack to these short stories sketched by Bowness. There are a lot of layers to unfold with each listen and it will surely be an album that will stick onto a lot of people's playlists once they have gotten to the heart of it.