September 1996 – album reviews – No-Man’s ‘Wild Opera’ (“fraying the edges of beauty to reveal a poignant discontent”)

11 Sep

No-Man: 'Wild Opera'

No-Man: ‘Wild Opera’

Late hours. Some velvety-dark bar in a city somewhere. Black décor, with sweeps of curved white delineating the spaces between floor and ceiling. Nearly deserted but for the last human fixtures, fixed to their bar stools, sunk in their own little drunken universes. Forefront: an ex-couple in an alcove, locked in mutual antipathy; maybe a month past the sharp, splintering anger of the break-up, yet now attempting to divine the reason why. He’s trying to explain.

“We talked for such a long time / That it seemed to mean a lot. / I was yours, and you were mine…”

Pause, just long enough for him to light a cigarette. The lighter clicks like a cocked pistol. Unyielding eyes meet again.

“Then the feeling stopped.”

No-Man aren’t singing about heaven and sunsets any more. Not that they ever did, exactly. For all of the limpid, luminescent, swooning beauty of past albums, there was always something rather darker going on under there. 1994’s rhapsodic, magnificent ‘Flowermouth’ (graced and expanded by chamber jazz, by majestic Robert Fripp guest solos by and creamy violins) concealed tales of anguished stagnation and defeat, the sharp edges of lovers’ memories, the simple and inescapable pain of being left behind. And No-Man have always chosen to orbit at the point where an absolute beauty intersects with a resonant pain. On ‘Wild Opera’ (their first album for 3rd Stone since the lingering death of their relationship with One Little Indian), these feelings have never been closer to the surface. Here are a procession of characters in extremis glimpsed for a moment through our veils of indifference, illuminated briefly by No Man’s peculiar mixture of compassion and alienation.

They make an odd couple, do the No Man pair. Steven Wilson is the technological wunderkind, crafting all round evolutionary pop wonder with fluent guitars and samples, sensuous beats and expansive sonic backgrounds. Tim Bowness is the baleful and reluctant dark star on the horizon breathing a chilly, beautiful wind of song across the people enmeshed in the gorgeous, sad eyed arches of songs that No Man put together. Between them they’re putting together some of today’s finest art pop, poised somewhere between Tricky, The Blue Nile, Robert Wyatt, Portishead’s ‘Dummy’ crossed with Scott Walker’s alarmingly skewed ‘Tilt’.


 
With ‘Wild Opera’ you pretty much get the lot. The ghostly, reflective atmospheres and introspection of trip hop. A sound as deep, lonely and full of frightening possibilities as 3a.m on a city backstreet. Jazz noise (pings of death knell Rhodes, hovering cymbals) mixing it up with blasting or whispering rock, and sliding up to sampleadelic dance impetus. Classy yet eloquently, exquisitely understated songwriter pop which never strays into mawkishnessness or worthy stodge. Violent, abrasive industrial dance, as on the bellowing rush of Radiant City or the jagged confusions of Infant Phenomenon. Delayed by a couple of years, in many respects ‘Wild Opera’ is closer to the sleekly disruptive post-rock efforts of Laika, Moonshake or Disco Inferno than it is to the elegantly-mannered theatrical art pop of No-Man’s beginnings or to the luxuriant high-end dance-pop of their One Little Indian years. And with the continued involvement of Fripp plus Richard Barbieri and Mel Collins (frequently via sampler cut-ups), you get the exploratory edge of the best progressive/evolutionary rock.

And all of this is fraying the edges of beauty to reveal a poignant discontent. Though Taste My Dream is a nod to familiar, naked No Man love balladry (a curve of soft tears and piano chords), such simple and direct love is rare on “Wild Opera” compared to its more dangerous flipsides. Pretty Genius is a trip-hop sigh of desire merging with a sense of disaster, its object (“you could lose your little mind, / never knowing what to find… / Don’t hide beneath the covers / don’t sit around…”) as likely to disintegrate as inspire.


 
To a background of ghostly Badalamenti swing and haunted vibes, Sheeploop sketches a portrait of a calculating, defensive, free floating swinger (“this loving is easy, this loving is free, this loving demands no part of me”), while laying bare the losses sustained with withdrawal from commitments (“you never know how people grow, become a part of something…”). Housewives Hooked On Heroin – the unlikely-titled single – is like a sliver of glass through the heart, a backhanded slap in the face of contentment which few others could pull off (excepting Andrew Eldritch, perhaps). It’s not about drugged out drudges, but millionaires growing listless in their air conditioned capsules; aging artists selling empty platitudes to complicit audiences; and a seething, jaded resentment turning towards perversity.


 
Rooting around too deeply in this shadowy, suspicious world throws up disturbing questions. Libertine Libretto (imagine Trent Reznor masterminding a jazz rock quartet while Tim’s clenched vocal scatters a string of broken, filmic images in the foreground) spews out a slew of fragmented, desperate Hollywood stories (“Arthur sheds his pheromones in fifteen thousand mobile homes / In the grip of grand emotion, Julia drowns in tanning lotion”). On Sinister Jazz, Tim pounds the streets alone chased by a swarm of disconnected, dysfunctional, fatal memories: “Wendy got it in the throat, Linda died in Alan’s coat, you read it all in Brian’s note… Robert lost the plot in Greece, the Jesus Army stole your niece, but all you ever do is eat.” The past is a foreign country – vivid, shocking, and now impossible to touch (“You’re never going home.”).


 
On Time Travel in Texas, horror-struck mellotron strings and flutes drift through a desert wind over a bone-scraping dub beat and scourging divebombing guitar. A soprano flutters tattered amnesiac rags of sound: Tim is either murmuring dazed recollections, grubbing thoughts out of the void (“all I can remember, that noise in my ear / and then there was silence / and then there was fear”) or bellowing a terrified lament in the background. You never know exactly what’s going on, but you know something’s coming to the surface, and that it will wreak havoc when it emerges. The last sounds on the track are a wail, a crash of bass piano, a string of hysterical sobs…

If all of this sounds like dead-end miserablism, think again. Like Radiohead, No-Man have a fascination for looking into the void. Like Radiohead, they save us from utter despondency by redemptively beautiful melodies and a passionate, irresistable concern for the state of the human being. In the end, they suggest that any choices leading us to disaster are ours alone, rather than mewling about the burden laid on us by a malicious world. On ‘Wild Opera’, it’s self deception that bites the hardest – as Wilson’s guitars belch and roil acidicly, My Rival Trevor lays bare the vacuum residing in the hometown stud, the masterly lady-fucker whose bedroom assurance is just so much short-term gymnastics as he “bids for beauty unknown, kills the seeds he has sown, always ends up alone.”. On Dry Cleaning Ray (musically, Massive Attack playing catch with a nifty organ sample from Dave Stewart’s Egg), the subject’s a wannabe who hasn’t yet realised that he’s aged into a never was, a working stiff whose dreams have become shopworn routines. “It’s the same old thing / it’s the same old shit. / Thirty years without a hit.”


 
Notably, No-Man are not above asking themselves similar questions. Once tagged as “conceivably the most important British group since The Smiths”… “Maybe there’s more to life than just writing songs. / Maybe not,” Tim muses on My Revenge On Seattle (which swims along on an exquisite shimmer and strum of acoustic guitar, a sleepy chatter of blushing Reichian keyboard pulse). Steamrollered by the grunge boom of the early ’90s and by brutal record industry politics, their reaction is one of hope: “My revenge on Seattle / I retreat from the battle. / Won’t you stay?”. A response that manages to be dignified, witty and touching all in one, and with a ravishing melody to clinch it.


 
No fat lady sings. Things change, things continue, some things disappear. Deep into the late hours, No Man continue to shine a captivating light on it all.

No-Man: ‘Wild Opera’
3rd Stone Ltd, STONE 027CD (5023693002729)
CD-only album
Released:
9th September 1996
Get it from: (2020 update) Original album best obtained second-hand or from Burning Shed; ‘Wild Opera’ was reissued as a deluxe expanded edition in 2010, also available from Burning Shed.
No-Man online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud LastFM Apple Music YouTube Deezer Google Play Pandora Spotify Instagram Amazon Music
 

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