(Originally published in Issue 60 of Electronic Sound magazine, December 2019)
Tim Bowness and Steven Wilson are back with the first no-man album since 2008… and it’s a return to their electronic roots, soundtracking a tale of tragic, fractured romance
Words: Bob Fischer
“In some ways, it’s the Star Trek mirror universe version of a traditional electropop love song,” says Tim Bowness, no-man‘s frontman. “With me as the evil Kirk, obviously.”
He’s talking about the opening section to Love You to Bits, the first no-man album in eleven years, and perhaps their most intensely conceptual to date: it consists of two, side-long suites (‘Love You to Bits’ and ‘Love You to Pieces’) that explore the tragic aftermath of a broken relationship from both parties’ perspectives, with a musical palette that leans heavily towards their synth-pop roots, albeit with typically eclectic diversions: there are strong nods to classic disco, 1990s dance and Eno-esque ambient pop, and even an elegiac brass band workout. It’s an album that has been seemingly nagging at the affable, thoughtful Bowness and his long-term musical partner Steven Wilson for decades.
“This album has its origins in that opening electropop piece, and that was written in 1994,” he explains. “Just as [second album] Flowermouth had been released, we were in a very optimistic state of mind, and we wrote two pieces. One of them was the beginnings of ‘Love You to Bits’, and the other was a track that eventually ended up on [2001 album] Returning Jesus, called ‘Lighthouse’. Both of them were in their infancy at that stage, short song fragments really, but in both cases we had quite ambitious ideas. So when we’d written Love You to Bits, immediately both of us thought… actually, this could be developed along the lines of something like the Georgio Moroder/Donna Summer disco epics of the 1970s. If you like, an electropop song with ideas above its station.”
“Love You to Bits was then developed over probably a period of 20 years, when we’d occasionally add to it, occasionally subtract from it, and there’d be various versions that would last anywhere between four and twelve minutes. The idea emerged again when Steven was mixing my last solo album, Flowers at the Scene… suddenly we had the appetite for it. And we thought – why don’t we finally make it what we always wanted it to be?”
The 30-year story of no-man, and the parallel individual careers of both Bowness and Wilson, makes for one of the most fascinatingly esoteric journeys in recent British musical history. Initially signed by One Little Indian, their 1993 debut album Loveblows & Lovecries – A Confession combined synth-heavy dream-pop and proto trip-hop to critical acclaim (Melody Maker described them as “conceivably the music important English group since The Smiths”), but its more experimental follow-up Flowermouth – despite improved sales and further plaudits – led to them being dropped from the label. “We opened the album with a ten-and-a-half minute rhythmless piece, and within the minute, the budget for our video had gone,” chuckles Tim.
Since then, Wild Opera , Returning Jesus , Together We’re Stranger  and the sublime Schoolyard Ghosts  have combined elements of jazz, prog, chamber-pop, electronica and various musical equivalents of the proverbial kitchen sink with immaculately seamless aplomb; and Bowness’ wistful lyricism and seductive vocals have provided a consistent touchstone. Both partners have enjoyed acclaim and success in their own right – Wilson as leader of prog goliaths Porcupine Tree, Bowness with the similarly experimental Henry Fool – as well as boasting a combined total of ten solo albums, again with a dizzying array of eclectic musical influences.
So an ambitious sense of scope is a quality that has never been lacking in their output, and if the music of Love You to Bits takes a cinematic approach – and the haunting, hymnal motif and spiralling string arrangements that recur throughout the album certainly evoke the work of the duo’s beloved John Barry – then the storyline too, detailing that devastating break-up in heartbreaking detail (“Leaving the lights on / Playing the old songs / Take midnight refuge in the past”) has similarly filmic origins.
“I quite liked the idea of looking at a relationship from… actually, three perspectives in a way,” explains Tim. “The two people who are involved in the relationship, plus that one perspective that’s shared. Where you can’t communicate, but you feel the same thing. And certainly during the time that the original songs were conceived, I was nearing the end of what had been quite a long-term relationship, so there’d have been elements of that feeding into the lyric. I’d also seen a film with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor [Divorce; His, Divorce; Hers, a 1973 TV movie] that was quite fascinating, in that it looked at the collapse of a marriage from both sides.”
“There was a line that I read in a Marguerite Duras book years ago…. I’m not even sure whether it’s true, but its supposedly a French aphorism: ‘In all relationships, there is the lover and the loved’. And in some ways I find that profoundly depressing. That was also some source of inspiration… that maybe, when we’re in the midst of extraordinarily deep, vivid feelings, perhaps it’s more one-sided than we think. Because you can never fully know how the mind of your partner works. So there was an aspect of that as well, attempting to crawl inside both minds. One of the characters is the lover, and the other is the loved… and is far more casually involved in the relationship. But there are shared feelings despite that.”
The album’s title is subtly and succinctly representative of the touching nature of this lyrical journey. “I love you to bits / I love you to pieces / I love like I don’t love you at all,” sings Bowness, and a phrase commonly used as a glib reassurance of affection suddenly takes on alarmingly destructive qualities. “It’s a banal title, but I liked its potentially cruel dual meaning,” he explains. “I’d like to think that both the lyrics and music have developed something unexpected and distinctive out of very simple and ordinary starting points. Finding personal meaning and creative possibilities in the seemingly trivial…”
“Peter Hammill’s work got to me at a certain stage in my life,” confirms Tim. “I had a fairly miserable adolescence, and music, film and literature very much became a comfort to me. And one of the albums at that stage that really spoke to me was Peter Hammill’s Over , which was all about the ending of certain relationships. He’d ended a long-term relationship with somebody called Alice, so half of the songs seemed to relate to that, but it was also about parents whose children leave home, about dealing with death… everything on the album was about something being over. And when I was 15, it was one of the most played albums in my collection, because it was so unflinchingly open.”
“And I guess in some ways it gave me the freedom to express intense emotions musically, because there had been so much honesty and openness in his work. So that was how I got into it… that album, and Van Der Graaf Generator’s Pawn Hearts . I found them both incredibly cheap one Saturday in Manchester and took them home, and by the time Match of the Day was on, I was a committed fan of them both.”
no-man are a band with curious origins; formed in 1987 when teenage musical entrepreneur Wilson read, in the pages of a fanzine, about Bowness’ work with Liverpool art-pop band Plenty, and wrote to his future musical partner, requesting a contribution to a DIY compilation album he was assembling. The ensuing phone call provided the basis for an enduring friendship. “We had a four-hour conversation on the phone,” remembers Tim. “I was based in Cheshire, he was based in Hemel Hempstead, and in the conversation we assassinated what we hated about contemporary music, eulogised what we loved, and then decided to meet up. And for one weekend in every month, we would meet at his studio in his parents’ house. He was still about 17 or 18 at this stage, and I would travel from Cheshire to Hemel Hempstead, and we would just write material.”
“From the off, it was a fantastic relationship. Again, that first time we met, we talked for about four hours. It could be anything – books, music and films that inspired us – and then we set about writing. And I think because both of us had extraordinarily eclectic tastes, anything went. And so within the first hour of meeting Steven, we wrote a seven-minute epic ballad that set a certain template for no-man, and we wrote a two-and-a-half-minute, extremely vicious – almost punk – funk piece. And then, over the next year and a half, I went there every month and we built up 30 or 40 songs.”
“The one thing that was always great about Steven – and still is – was that we could talk about anything without embarrassment, in terms of our musical taste. Donna Summer being a great example. Both of us would have loved the Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder productions of the 1970s. These were things that we thought we were fantastic pieces of art, and still do.”
Summer’s purple patch of late 1970s concept albums are a recurring feature of our conversation, and it’s easy to imagine how works like 1976’s Four Seasons of Love – detailing the year-long progression of a relationship that blossoms, blooms and ultimately fades – went into the melting pot of inspiration for Love You to Bits, both conceptually and musically. At one stage, the opening suite of no-man’s album clicks into a delicious, old school disco groove, all hi-hat and strutting bass, the very epitome of what Mark Ronson recently pithily described as “sad bangers”. The combination of the boldly creative and the unashamedly commercial, arguably at its peak during this particular mid-1970s sweet spot, is one that the duo have always seemed keen to explore.
“The mid-1970s to mid-1980s were our formative pop-loving years, and I think it was an exciting time to be brought up, because what you had was what I always refer to as the ‘creative mainstream’,” says Tim. “You had mainstream artists, whether it was Roxy Music, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Prince, Chic, even Fleetwood Mac… who were extraordinarily gifted and they were making music that communicated to millions: immaculately produced and beautifully written, but also heartfelt and creative. There were a lot of examples of truly groundbreaking music that was commercially communicative and quite experimental at the same time.”
“I think that’s always been a driving force in the music Steven and I have created, however old-fashioned that idea might be. Because I do think that since that point, you’ve had a far greater division between experimental music and commercial music. I suppose for us we always wanted to make music that managed to communicate in a big way, but also had genuine heart and a genuine sense of adventure.”
Love You to Bits succeeds spectacularly in both respects; the album is an affecting emotional journey as well as a focused, eminently accessible distillation of the diverse musical influences that the duo are always proud to acknowledge: in a subsequent e-mail, Tim is keen to namecheck Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, Ashra, Jean-Michel Jarre, The Orb, Massive Attack and Underworld as further inspirations during the album’s gestation.
But, perhaps most importantly of all, it transcends these influences to sound specifically, and affectingly, like no-man.
“The writing was very spontaneous and organic and I genuinely hope that we’ve managed to create something uniquely no-man out of a collection of myriad disparate inspirations,” concludes Tim. “When it comes down to it, we always go with what feels right, and the writing and recording process is about realising our ideas and fulfilling our particular emotional needs.”
You have to love them. Although perhaps go easy on the bits and pieces.
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