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Tim Bowness: Ghost Lights and Life Sentences

John Kelman By

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I don’t think it is all is over yet for physical formats or non- mainstream music. The future isn’t always what big companies want it to be. —Tim Bowness
As much as it's something most would prefer to avoid, when a pair of musicians share a lengthy musical history together it's difficult not to compare and contrast the work they do when apart. Beyond contributing added clarity to their individual work, it helps to articulate what each of them bring to the table when they're collaborating. Singer, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Tim Bowness may have yet to achieve the same degree of commercial success that his partner in the currently on hiatus No-Man, Steven Wilson, may be enjoying these days; but since releasing his first "real" solo album in 2014, Abandoned Dancehall Dreams and its equally exceptional 2015 follow-up, Stupid Things That Mean the World (both on Inside Out Music), Bowness has managed to achieve a similarly upward trajectory with both increasing critical acclaim and sales at a time when most artists are experiencing a decline in commercial success, thanks to the tectonic shifts that have taken place in the music industry, especially over the past 10-15 years.

"In cold, hard numbers I'm probably at a little more than 25% of No-Man's sales base," Bowness explains, "and I'd say that 25% contains some new fans. A definite positive is that each of the three recent solo albums has done better than the previous one in a climate where albums are generally selling less.

"So, the good news is that there is growth and that the albums do better than anything else I do outside of No-Man," Bowness continues. "The press reactions have also been amongst the best I've ever had—including for No-Man's work. Additionally, it's been a period of learning and evolving, and feeling that everything is new again. At this stage in my career, that's a wonderful thing to experience."

The youthful-looking, fifty-something Bowness' third solo album, Lost in the Ghost Light (Inside Out, 2017), represents a shift for the singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist. Abandoned Dancehall Dreams and Stupid Things That Mean the World are both unmistakably influenced, amongst many sources, by progressive rock—a genre that's experienced a substantial resurgence in interest over the past two decades, thanks to an influx of new music from artists like Bowness and Wilson, as well as the reemergence of legacy artists like King Crimson, Steve Hackett and Van der Graaf Generator, who've all managed to balance audience demand for their classic repertoire with new music that's every bit as good and relevant as their best music from back in the day.

Lost in the Ghost Light is, however, not only an unapologetically progressive record; it's also a concept album...another genre touchstone. The album brings together some of the dreamy, nostalgic elements of No-Man—amongst Bowness' many signatures—with aspects of the more aggressive/progressive-leaning Henry Fool, Bowness' group with Ghost Light collaborator, keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist Stephen Bennett and a revolving door of additional musicians that has (unfortunately) released just two superb albums since 2001 (Henry Fool, reissued by Kscope in 2013 on the heels of the group's sophomore release, 2013's Men Singing). Bowness also brings elements of his collaborations with other artists including Centrozoon, Judy Dyble, Slow Electric, Opium Cartel and Darkroom; but this time the references to some of Bowness' favorite progressive music of the '70s is much more overt, more direct and more dominant, despite still being defined by his atmospheric approach to color in his music, and a softly understated way of delivering his sometimes direct, sometimes abstract but always poetic prose.

It expresses many of Bowness' concerns about music, the life of a musician and the challenges of a passion that has become, to some extent (and in Bowness' words) a prison sentence through the creation of a band (Moonshot) and singer (Jeff Harrison), told in the now but looking back at events of the past 50 years. As Bowness says in his brief liner notes (and in his characteristically poetic fashion): " Lost In The Ghost Light is an album about the state of a particular type of half-remembered musician in the present day, but it's also a love letter to a memory of a feeling that lingers."

Bowness has compared Lost in the Ghost Light to Steven Wilson's 2013 unexpectedly massively successful The Raven That Refused to Sing (and Other Stories (Kscope), about which Wilson said, in a 2015 All About Jazz interview: "I was as surprised as anyone that The Raven did as well as it did. That was a willfully uncommercial move. It had absolutely nothing on it that was even remotely acceptable to the mainstream, and yet it's become the most successful album of my whole career; it's the best-selling record I've ever done. It's extraordinary. And what that tells me is: the more self-indulgent and willful I am, the more likely the album is to appeal; it almost gives me license to keep doing my thing."


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