Suffering from a surfeit of weltschmerz recently? What you need is to give it a no-man soundtrack, then everything becomes clear, and by transposing your suffering and crushing ennui onto the surprisingly strong shoulders of the deceptively elfin-like Tim Bowness, you will feel uplifted. Maybe not quite happy, but heck, you can’t have everything.
Much like the wide open vistas of the Norfolk landscape familiar to Tim Bowness, Returning Jesus is a vast, slowly unfolding, and seemingly unchanging thing. But, if you look closely, you will see a windmill on the horizon, or a tractor creeping across a field in the middle distance, then a swan might fly across the criss-cross of far up vapour trails. In this manner a guitar line will appear then fade, or a lonely trumpet will call. Again in similarity, the topography of this music and its hinterland are contemplative, undisturbed by the headlong rush of modern life which remains at a remove. All that despite this album being recorded in the rather less romantic setting of Steven Wilson’s culture bunker in commuter belt Hemel Hempstead. Oh well, you can’t win ’em all!
Featuring some stellar guest appearances supporting the core duo of Tim and Steven, whose increasing profile with Porcupine Tree had brought no-man to a wider audience at the time of its original 2001 release, Returning Jesus is a classy production from beginning to end. Mixing art-pop, jazz inflections, ambience and electronica with Tim’s aching lyrics, the album is a sumptuous listening experience.
Kicking off with Only Rain, the music washes in and out again as a creeping slow tidal submergence and retreat over a flat landscape, stretching for miles inside Tim and Steven’s imagination. Featuring the gorgeous understated trumpet playing of Ian Carr, the father of British jazz fusion, an early indication of the sheer class of this record, the opening tune sets the tone of the rest of the album.
No Defence is a blues within a pop song, the protagonist reminding himself there is “no disgrace to close your eyes and quit the chase”. Tim’s familiar lyrical themes are present and correct, in the place where seemingly overpowering ennui and romantic disillusion are never quite allowed to triumph. Carolina Skeletons sees the song’s subject giving up as “She loses sight in the velvet night, drops a tin can by the chair”, but eventually facing the future with a defiant “She dreams of flight in the velvet night, throws a tin can in the air”. Weltschmerz will not win!
The unhurried nature of the album witnesses the title track, over a minimal Oriental sounding percussive background and some liquid guitar lines from Steven, imploring “Slow it all down…it always moves so fast”. There is no little irony in that line, at least from a musical perspective, as the pace rarely rises above languid, not that you’d want it to.
Of course, the real reason to buy this reissue is the bonus disc, which features EP tracks, demos, and alternate versions of songs covering a period from 1994 to 2003. A highlight of the original album for me was Lighthouse, a song of expansive minimalism if such a thing can exist, and one of no-man’s more well known songs. It has two alternate takes on the bonus disc, so I am a happy bunny! The First Demo version, a full two minutes longer than the regular album version, is a rare example of Steven’s music taking precedence over Tim’s presence, and wears the musician’s love of Talk Talk on its carelessly laundered sleeve.
Elsewhere on the bonus disc there are plenty of divergences from the finished album versions and enough other treats and surprises to keep the fan happy, and Steven’s remaster of the main album is a treat, as you would expect it to be.
Is it still true that no-one has heard of no-man as was certainly the case when Returning Jesus originally came out? With Mr Wilson’s inescapable bestriding of the prog pond these days I somehow doubt it, and that can only be a good thing, as this band epitomise the spirit of art pop/rock experimentation to a tee, to a degree even more so than Wilson’s own solo career or his work with Porcupine Tree. Ah… I’m beginning to see why the band that started while Porcupine Tree was still a solo project with guests remained a best kept secret for so long.
CD 1 – Returning Jesus (2001)
01. Only Rain (7:24)
02. No Defence (5:20)
03. Close Your Eyes (8:25)
04. Carolina Skeletons (5:08)
05. Outside The Machine (5:46)
06. Returning Jesus (5:19)
07. Slow It All Down (3:42)
08. Lighthouse (8:12)
09. All That You Are (4:44)
Total Time – 54:03
CD 2 – EP Tracks/Demos/Alternate Versions (1994-2003)
01. Something Falls (3:34)
02. Close Your Eyes – 1998 EP version (7:47)
03. Carolina Reprise (3:00)
04. Until Tomorrow – Hi-Fi (2:59)
05. Chelsea Cap (5:25)
06. Darkroom (3:52)
07. Until Tomorrow – Lo-Fi (3:15)
08. Song About The Heart (2:48)
09. Lighthouse – First Demo (10:27)
10. Darkroom – Alternate Version (5:35)
11. Like A Child (4:10)
12. Chelsea Cap – Alternate Version (6:50)
13. Lighthouse – Second Demo (8:58)
14. Slow It All Down – Long Version (5:13)
15. All That You Are – Demo (4:36)
Total Time – 76:33
Tim Bowness – Vocals & Lyrics
Steven Wilson – Instruments
Ben Christophers – Acoustic Guitar (tracks 1 & 7)
David Kosten – Synthesizer & Cymbal (track 1), Co-Producer (track 1)
Ian Carr – Trumpet (track 1)
Ian Dixon – Trumpet (track 2), Flugelhorn (tracks 3,7 & 22)
Theo Travis – Saxophone (tracks 7 & 22), Flute (tracks 8,14,19 & 20)
Colin Edwin – Bass & Double Bass (tracks 1 & 8)
Steve Jansen – Drums
Rick Edwards – Percussion (tracks 3,12 & 19)
Record Label: Kscope
Year of Release: 2001/2017