Review Summary: 25 years in the making…
Once the main project of Steven Wilson and Tim Bowness, No-Man has evolved significantly over the years. While shape shifting from one album to another, their roots were definitely grounded in pop music. No matter how far they have ventured both together and separately, that pop sensibility eventually kicked in. At the beginning of this century, the group entered a more downtempo, late Talk Talk-esque phase that favored minimalism and subtlety over groovy beats. The atmosphere got darker with each LP, Together We’re Stranger
& Schoolyard Ghosts
featuring some of the bleakest tunes yet. As a result, the 180 degree turn taken on the latest project, Love You to Bits
comes across as a surprising move. Nevertheless, it didn’t burst out of nowhere, since both men recently released two of their most accessible solo releases so far: To the Bone
and Flowers at the Scene
Love You to Bits
is essentially a 36-minute composition (a la Porcupine Tree’s Voyage 34
) that flows through several sonic phases ranging from funky disco to ethereal ambient passages. Divided into two main parts, ‘Love You to Bits’ (5 bits) and ‘Love You to Pieces’ (5 pieces), the song sees the two musicians reaching back to their original, early ‘90s sound, albeit with faint dips in later experiments. In fact, the former’s draft was recorded in late 1994, while working on a follow-up to Flowermouth
. The tune was shelved multiple times over the years due to sonic incompatibilities with the then-current material, but was finally dug out in late 2018. After some months of rearrangements, plus further recording, ‘Love You to Pieces’ was conceived too. At a first glance, the whole project seems head scratching, yet after a couple of listens it really sinks in. As the synth bass and sequencers kick in on ‘Bit 1’, Tim passionately starts singing, accompanied by what seems to be a hazy, high pitched, E-bow guitar lead. Shortly, the disco groove settles in, alongside gentle piano notes. Although spiced with current production technology, this throwback to a long gone era is compelling. After a short interlude, ‘Bit 3’ introduces a playful, twangy guitar melody which soon will find its place in between the multiple layers (and will resurface later). Then, ‘Bit 4’ suddenly stops the beat, giving way to lush synth pads and a dreamy build-up during which Bowness’ lovely croon takes over. The Pink Floyd-esque guitar solo on this part fits brilliantly, reminiscing early PT output. A contrasting, noisier, oscillator-manipulated one follows, a nod to recent paths. The band always enjoyed pushing the envelope, combining disparate elements into weirdly cohesive journeys. This is pretty much what we’re offered with Love You to Bits
Venturing a bit from the tune’s core, ‘Love You to Pieces’ acts as a slightly moodier counterpart to its predecessor. A cello introduces ‘Piece 1’, growing into a slower paced version of the main groove with a stronger emphasis on sequencers. Bowness’ intense vocal contributions at times share a sinister undertone and the lyrics suggest difficulties in maintaining a love relationship and ponders the consequences of ending it. The old school trance influences reveal themselves through melodic key arpeggios, plus, ‘Piece 2’ and ‘Piece 3’ take their cues from early ‘90s dance music, complete with acid jazz influenced keyboard solos and Pet Shop Boys aesthetics. Nevertheless, there’s an inevitable come down to this party. The album’s finale sheds most instruments, leaving an airy synth pad to send us off. ‘Piece 5’ includes sparse piano notes that gradually fade out, while Tim cautiously contemplates the future of this relationship and perhaps losing interest in his partner. The ambient coda can be further explored on the bonus composition, ‘Love You to Shreds’ (see the LYTB EP
). In a way, it wouldn’t be No-Man without presenting us both sides of things, leaving room for interpretations. The front man’s stories were usually centered on precise details, small gestures or reactions, as well as overthinking characters with hidden intentions and regrets.
I would say Love You to Bits
is a polarizing record, yet after observing the band’s eclectic catalog, it doesn’t seem so surprising. The fan base might be divided, still, chances are a good part of it is open to any experiments Tim Bowness and Steven Wilson release (both have constantly explored new grounds). Despite the stylistic differences, there is significant attention to details and focus on groove. The only issue might be the fact that the LP is too insular. You get 36-minutes of music (50 if you add 'Love You to Shreds') that revolve around similar ideas. They managed to add a good amount of diversity, so you remain attentive. Even so, the piece can be better appreciated when digested as a whole, rather than separated. As a result, it doesn’t share the immediacy or peaks of previous affairs, however, I admire the way No-Man sewn it together. What's more important is that the duo continue to produce strong material and hopefully, it won't take another decade to receive new music from them.