Steven Wilson’s Low?
When David Bowie temporarily moved away from guitars and released Low in 1977 it strongly divided fans and critics, but later came to be seen as another classic. Could Steven Wilson’s electronica-driven sixth album The Future Bites (29 January 2021; Caroline) come to be seen in a similar way?
Co-produced by Wilson and David Kosten and assisted by drummer Michael Spearman, bassist Nick Beggs, keyboardists Adam Holzman and Richard Barbieri, and British DJ David Kosten, The Future Bites is ostensibly a nine-song album, but Wilson’s record company also offers an additional CD with 10 bonus tracks, including six unused songs from the album recording sessions. This review, however, deals specifically with the nine songs.
The Future Bites represents another radical change of direction for Wilson, both in the musical and lyrical sense. Regarding the former, he draws on 1980s synth, pop and electronica, which might sound cold if it wasn’t for his well-established skill at producing catchy melodies. In relation to the lyrics, his themes this time revolve around identity, consumerism and technology, with his press release stating that it "picks apart our 21st century utopia, while also allowing for moments of personal growth and optimism".
And at a historical moment in which social media has heavily contributed towards an assault on one of the world’s leading democracies, Wilson’s analysis of “how the human brain has evolved in the internet era” might just have nailed the zeitgeist.
The album opens with the introspective Unself, a one-minute prelude with sparse instrumentation that appropriately segues into its nemesis on the bluesy track that follows, Self. Here vocalists Bobbie Gordon, Wendy Harriot, and Crystal Williams combine to add warmth to the cold and distancing lyrics and music, which strongly recalls the sound of the 1980s.
This is a mere appetizer however for King Ghost, which is one of the album’s highlights. The song makes you think the album is heading into To the Bone territory but, refreshingly, Wilson then throws us a curveball by opening 12 Things I Forgot with gently strummed acoustic guitar on what looks like his 1988 Ovation Elite. This cut is a pure piece of nostalgic alt-rock that thankfully also offers relief in the form of self-knowing humour, as Wilson sings:, ‘I just sit in the corner complaining, Making out things were best in the eighties’.
Single Eminent Sleaze harks back to disco with its clapping and female choruses, and - it has been suggested - possibly feature’s Holzman Fender Rhodes. Personal Shopper is another standout track, poppy and upbeat, which deals directly with society’s obsession with consumption: ‘Just keep on spending, never compromise,’ Wilson intones. It might come across as impossibly po-faced if it weren’t for the comical (in the best sense) intervention of Elton John providing a list of consumer products that include designer trainers, diamond cufflinks and fake eyelashes… It reminded this critic of Radiohead’s Fitter Happier or, going further back, to The Tubes What Do You Want From Life. Whatever, it is a wonderful song.
Follower addresses the phenomenon of social influencers but, like them, doesn’t have much else to offer; while the album closes with the touching Count of Unease, which features Wilson singing along plaintively to a soporific piano backing. It sounds like a plea for help in what might be seen as the technological madness we’ve unleashed upon ourselves, and provides a stark but appropriate end to the album.
The Future Bites represents another bold step for Wilson. It might upset and even alienate some fans but, like Bowie’s Low, it may well come to be seen as a classic that captures something essential about this transformative moment in history. Time will tell, but in the meantime we can enjoy Wilson’s melodies and look positively towards the new musical journeys he will undoubtingly take us on in the future.