Souls remembered and forgotton

In which Steven Wilson constructs a life inspired by someone known to many, cherished by a few and forgotten by everyone

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Steven Wilson's latest album, "Hand. Cannot. Erase.," draws inspiration from the mysterious story of Joyce Carol Vincent.
Lasse Hoile

On January 25, 2006, police officials in North London executed orders to repossess a bedsit, essentially an efficiency apartment, for which rent had gone intolerably in arrears. With no reply to knocks, the police broke in the double locked front door and found the skeletal remains of an individual on a couch, in front of a running television, with wrapped but unaddressed Christmas gifts on the floor at their feet.

An inquest concluded that the remains were those of Joyce Carol Vincent, a London resident of Caribbean descent, not yet 40 years old at the time of her death. Her demise was never conclusively determined, but she had been dead, according to the best approximation that forensic science could ascertain, for about 25 months. More than two years.

Vincent’s story, remembered through the voices of the people who had known her and were close to her at various times during her life in London, was told in a 2011 documentary called Dreams of a Life, made by English filmmaker Carol Morley. The woman in question, it is stressed, was atypical of these types of forgotten-lives stories. Attractive and talented, Vincent had a professional life in various financial and legal firms in London, had boyfriends and admirers, hobnobbed occasionally with celebrities and possessed an elegant and natural singing voice. Not a drug addict, not a sufferer of mental illness, not an abandoned pensioner.

At some point, Joyce Vincent just erased herself from her own life, which by all accounts was well worth living. She’d lived at the bedsit since February 2003. It is speculated that she was escaping a domestic violence situation. Unemployed at the time of her death, there were no co-workers checking on her absence from the office. Her friends forgot about her. Her bills were paid, for a while, by automatic bank debit. Her neighbors didn’t notice the odor.

The questions that this strangely tragic case raised created the inspiration for British guitarist/songwriter/ producer Steven Wilson’s latest project Hand. Cannot. Erase. The corrosion of memory, the frailty of self, the paradox of isolation in a crowd.

Hand. Cannot. Erase., however, is not a retelling of Vincent’s life. Wilson’s approach was to create his own fictional character, another young woman with a different background and different memories and a different trajectory through life, and he tells it through the music and a variety of alternative media — a website, a blog written by his protagonist, photographs, doodles on a page. Wilson’s character, known only as H, luxuriates in her own isolation, self-imposed as Vincent’s was, but sees her world and remembers her life imperfectly and obliquely in real time.

“This story, this underlying concept, was kind of a gift as regards, as you suggested, bringing in themes that I’ve dealt with before,” he explained in an interview with the Boulder Weekly. “This is something that really taps in to every aspect of modern life. This is a story of a young woman who essentially erases herself from view, at a time when she’s living in the heart of one of the biggest cities on Earth.

“And that taps into all sorts of things. It taps into how the Internet, social networking, affects our lives in the 21st century. It taps into things like loneliness, obviously, isolation, obviously, but also things like regret and loss, nostalgia for childhood, relationships with parents and family, fear and confusion. The fear and confusion that one might experience just stepping outside one’s front door, into this crazy world we live in now of terrorists and pedophiles and religious fundamentalists.

“So, I think the more I kind of explored this young woman as a kind of character, the more I realized it kind of tapped into all these other themes I’ve been interested in talking about and have been talking about for years. So in some ways, it’s the most encompassing album I’ve ever done.”

The music here is trademark Wilson — lengthy and fiendishly complex prog figures with the guitarist’s own inclinations toward pitiless metallurgy cast against extended instrumental expeditions, chill interludes, strings and apocalyptic cadences. Wilson was for many years recognized as the founder and front man for the British neo-prog franchise Porcupine Tree, which may or may not be a past-tense enterprise, but fans of that band’s output will find much to appreciate here.

And still, despite its unapologetic ambitions, perhaps the album’s most poignant gift is the humbly portioned “Perfect Life,” a low-key meditation on memory narrated by H herself, draped over a chill mid-tempo club rhythm. “When I was 13, I had a sister for six months…” recalls H, relating the things they did together, listening to This Mortal Coil and Dead Can Dance (a detail Wilson says he cribbed from his own childhood), how her sister completed her own fragmented and lonely life, before disappearing as inexplicably as she appeared. The piece defies the listener to decide whether the sister is real or not.

This struck a particularly personal chord for this reporter. Having lost my own wife 11 years ago, I have spent many hours replaying scenes, good and bad, from the fraying and increasingly static-choked tape of my own memory, infuriatingly uncertain whether I can trust in the accuracy or meaning of my own recollection. It is a creeping awareness of being dragged involuntarily to a place where you can only be sure you remember the memory and not the scene itself. When the past is all you have of a thing, you watch helplessly as its profile in your memory corrodes over time. Loss is not always an event; sometimes it is a process, and it is indifferent to the clock.

“It’s one of my favorites, too,” Wilson says of “Perfect Life.” “I’m glad you like it. It’s a song about nostalgia for childhood. It’s a song about crystallized moments, moments that can never be… moments that are gone. Nostalgia can be this very joyful thing, but at the same time it’s always tinged with melancholy, because there’s an implicit awareness that these are moments that are gone forever.

“At the end of the day, whether [the sister] is real or not is unimportant. The point is that we really cannot trust anything we read in [H’s] blog, we cannot trust anything that she says, because it is an internal dialogue. She may believe some of these things herself, but as you say, there is a kind of natural distortion that occurs with memory and nostalgia.

“I find that I tend to have a much more idyllic view of my own childhood than is probably realistic. Because I don’t really remember enjoying being a child that much. You know what I mean? Like a lot of kids, I couldn’t wait to be a grown-up. But now I find that I have this kind of rose-tinted view of my childhood, and I am suspicious of myself in that respect… So the distortion of memory is one of the things that’s going on here.”

Ultimately, though, Wilson’s primary medium is the music, which was conceived and charted over a 15-month period from summer 2013 to fall 2014, and the show he brings to the Boulder Theater will not disappoint for lack of breadth.

“We’re playing almost all the record, about 95 percent, with a couple of small pieces that are difficult to reproduce live. Essentially the show is multi-media representation of the album, with music, video, quadraphonic sound. And I would say, it’s not even as simple as that, because it’s not like we just come out and play the record. … Other songs from my back catalogue that have a kind of resonance with the themes and concept of Hand. Cannot. Erase. have been programmed in as kind of an honorary part of the album for the night.”

For all its staggering reach and depth of conceptualization, we couldn’t help but ask Wilson if he ever feels as if he needs to temper his reach. Even just a little bit.

“Nope,” he laughs. “I’m the kind of person who really needs a challenge. Everything needs to have something about it that makes it fresh and interesting and a challenge. A lot of that comes from picking projects which mean I can get involved in writing, recording, conceptualizing, and I love it.”