A melancholy disco masterpiece
Love you to bits is the seventh studio album by No-Man the long-running collaboration between Steven Wilson former frontman of Porcupine Tree and now a solo artist, and singer Tim Bowness. The band was formed in the late 1980s and signed to the label that also featured Björk, and for a little while it appeared that the band would be the most successful of Steven Wilson’s many projects. Steven went on to have far more success with Porcupine Tree whose final album The Incident reached number 23 in the charts. Steven’s most recent solo album To the Bone reached number 3, and by comparison Love you to bits reached number 94 when it was released late in 2019. But don’t let that put you off; the album is a masterpiece of moody electronica and disco beats.
The album has taken 25 years to complete. It was begun in 1994 and then left languishing on a hard drive until its completion in the summer of 2019. It’s divided into two parts, love you to bits (bits 1-5) and love you to pieces (pieces 1-5). It describes the breakup of a relationship from the perspective of both protagonists separately, and sometimes both at once. Helpfully, the lyrics in the cd booklet are colour-coded to make it clear which point of view is being expressed.
On the surface, the album is very simple. It’s basically one song repeated many times, with an earworm of a chorus. But on repeated listening the album reveals great richness and subtlety. Each of the two tracks is divided into five segued sections, and the structure of each track feels more like a suite of classical pieces, a theme and variations, than a standard pop album. Listening to it feels like climbing up a hill – there seems to be little change as you walk higher up the hill, but glancing back over your shoulder you realise how far you have travelled and how the landscape has changed. It’s a journey well worth taking.
Part 1 Love you to bits
Bit 1 starts deep in the heart of an industrial soundscape, out of which emerges a muscular disco bassline and a four-to-the floor insistent drum beat. This contrasts with Tim Bowness’ heart-wrenching vocals as he looks back over a broken relationship,
who are you holding? how are you coping? did you move on, or stay behind?
Here, as throughout the album Tim’s vocals are gentle, intimate and contemplative, beautifully expressing sorrow and heartache.
In Bit 2 the disco bass line continues with a mournful synth line floats about, while the vocals submit to the misery and exhaustion of weeping for lost love, eventually fading out completely as if the protagonist has given up, while the instruments continue playing.
Bit 3 is perhaps the highlight of the whole album, a thrillingly visceral guitar break, effortlessly funky, a minute of pure joy before the vocals stutter back in.
Bit 4 begins with a similar instrumental feel to the electronica of Steven Wilson’s most recent release, the track Personal Shopper, perhaps suggesting the new musical direction he will pursue on his next album, The Future Bites (now postponed until next January due to Covid-19). Ash Soan’s virtuoso rolling drums bring a sense of drama to the track; his playing is superb throughout the album. The guitar solo from David Kollar is startlingly angular, summoning up the spirit of King Crimson at their most deliciously dystopian. Appropriately enough, David has (according to his website) been described by King Crimson guitarist Pat Mastelotto as ‘one of the most innovative and driven young guitarists on the scene today’.
Bit 5 begins with enthusiastic sequenced synthesisers and a powerful drum break, and haunting echoing background vocals repeating the words ‘I love you’ that gradually morph into a gorgeously melancholic brass band arrangement that perfectly expresses the ‘heartache’ described in the lyrics.
Part 2 Love you to pieces
Part 2 is in some ways more inward-looking and contemplative than Part 1, and perhaps not as immediately accessible, but it repays repeated listening.
Piece 1 begins in a very gentle, soul-searching mood and gradually comes to life, with heavy use of evocative echo effects as the track progresses.
In Piece 2 we are suddenly thrown into a very dark place, with an oppressive, pulsating bass line as the two former lovers argue bitterly, ‘we got everything right’…’and everything wrong’. A frenetic electric piano solo takes us into the world of jazz, and in particular Miles Davis in his later electronic period – not surprising as it’s played by Adam Holzman who also played in Miles’ band on Tutu. The track is another highlight of the album.
Piece 3 arrives like a ray of light in out of the gloom of Piece 2. Glittering synthesisers sparkle like the ‘stardust’ in the lover’s eyes, quelling for the moment ‘my constant sense of dread’.
In Piece 4 for a moment as everything goes right in the relationship we seem to be floating in the ether, although the occasional slightly discordant note suggests the ‘dread’ that lurks far below on the earth. The dream ends as it implodes in on itself with a sound like a cassette tape unspooling as the music unravels.
Piece 5 ends in the depths of despair – one love refers to ‘fights in the hallway’ and the other says ‘you got colder and colder’. We are in an emotional Arctic, Tim’s desolate vocals accompanied by a slow, lugubrious piano. Finally, ‘time disappears’, and our journey has ended; how did we get here?
Steven Wilson – all instruments except as listed below
Tim Bowness – Vocals
Written and Produced by No-Man
The Dave Desmond Brass Quintet (Brass on track 1 bits)
Ash Soan (Drums)
Pete Morgan (Electric Bass on track 1 pieces)
Adam Holzman (Electric Piano Solo on track 2 pieces)
David Kollar (Guitar Solo on track 1 bits)