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No-Man: Together We're Stranger

John Kelman By

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No-Man—Together We're StrangerNo-Man
Together We're Stranger (remastered/expanded)
2014 (2003)

With Steven Wilson on the cusp of releasing Hand. Cannot. Erase. (Kscope, 2015), and Tim Bowness' Abandoned Dancehall Dreams (Inside Out, 2014) one of 2014's best releases, now's as good a time as any to revisit the pair's music together as No-Man—specifically, Together We're Stranger (Snapper, 2003), reissued last year on Kscope in a remastered and expanded edition that sounds even better on the Tetra listening instruments that were one of two reasons for starting this Rediscovery column.

It's hard to imagine that Bowness and Wilson first came together in 1987, when the singer was 23 and the multi-instrumentalist who'd go on to greater fame in a number of projects, including his flagship Porcupine Tree, was just 19. But from the outset, the duo's music as No-Man—which first began as a trio with violinist Ben Coleman on the group's 1993 debut, Loveblows and Lovecries—A Confession (One Little Indian), but quickly pared down to a duo by the time of Flowermouth (One Little Indian, 1994), albeit invariably with the participation of numerous invited guests—was a mélange of styles that should, in retrospect, be no surprise to fans of either artist. Both Bowness—in subsequent projects like Henry Fool and his own infrequent solo work—and Wilson (who, in addition to other projects, has become an important go-to guy for new surround sound and stereo mixes of classic progressive rock and, more recently, just plain pop albums) possess voracious musical appetites, and their individual and collective refusal to become boxed in by any reductionist definition is what has ultimately rendered No-Man's six studio recordings and two live recordings so distinctive...and so ultimately important in defining their respective careers.

The only apt word that can describe No-Man's music is: beautiful. Of course, beautiful can mean many things, and No-Man built a reputation on exploring the many possibilities of the word and its relationship to the human condition. And while there are those who will apply other epithets such as trip hop, art rock, synth pop, dream pop, folk music and ambient, the truth born out by this reissue that includes two bonus tracks—the harmonium-driven "bluecoda" (harmonium provided by keyboardist Roger Eno) and a second version of the album-closing "the break-up for real," that augments Wilson's driving acoustic guitar and layers of additional instruments and vocals with David Picking's propulsive percussion—is that this is music informed by all those things..and much, much more.

The eight-minute title track that opens Together We're Stranger is a good case in point. Beginning with Stephen Bennett's drone of noise that seems atypically harsh for No-Man's characteristically beautiful music while, ultimately, making perfect sense given the subject matter, it soon dissipates, leaving Peter Chilver's sinewy "space bass." Wilson's warm synth cushions are ultimately augmented by lush, tremelo- driven guitar chords and Michael Bearpark's volume pedal-driven electric guitar solo, which respects the simple demands of the song's three-chord form. Bowness' lyrics are as spare as he's ever been—saying little but intimating much, sung with his characteristically unaffected, sparsely ornamented delivery:

"We step outside
And face the poisoned weather.

You and I are something else together.

Arm in arm,
We'd waste our charms forever.

Drifting off, despite the cost,
Afraid to ask for better.

You and I are something else together.

Listening to Together We're Stranger twelve years later, the construction of the music reveal so much of what's to come in the songwriting styles of both Bowness and Wilson, in particular Wilson's ability to construct longer-form pieces—like those he would ultimately reveal on solo albums like The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories) (Kscope, 2013)—which unfold slowly like a flower at sunrise, and use instruments in atypical ways. Those who are surprised to hear his use of banjo on Hand. Cannot. Erase's "Regret #9" will be less so when they revisit Together We're Stranger and hear his equally uncharacteristic use of the instrument, plucked sparsely, as the song gradually builds to its gorgeous, near-hymnal conclusion.

That Together We're Stranger received the lowest rating of any No-Man album by (a paltry two stars) while garnering the highest ranking of any of the group's recordings at (more than four out of five) only demonstrates how superficial such simple metrics can be. Instead, isn't it better to consider this—or any album, for that matter—with the most important things you've got at your disposal: your ears, your mind, your heart?


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