30 September 1996
Waiting, May 1996
2-CD edition, July 2003
Remastered 2-LP edition, May 2004
Delerium Years remaster, 2017
“You’ve just had a heavy session of electroshock therapy, and you’re more relaxed than you’ve been in weeks! All those childhood traumas magically wiped away, along with most of your personality!”
“The brainwashed do not know they are brainwashed.”
You’re Not As Messed Up As You Think You Are
I was brought up evangelical. Like most people who were brought up evangelical, after a certain point you realize that no God worth worshipping would mandate the brainwashing/oppression/extermination of queer people. Like most people who were brought up evangelical, after a certain point you realize that the institutional edifice[s] propping up middle-class American Protestant Christianity are fundamentally, systematically rotten from top to bottom. Middle-class American Christianity is not a belief system that survives any sustained contact with the beauty and diversity of the outside world that we were told God loathes (and somehow loves) so much.
And, like most people who were brought up evangelical, I ran facefirst into the outside world right around my eighteenth birthday, and you can probably guess how things would eventually shake loose afterward.
I should probably be very specific about what it is that so fundamentally bothers me about religion. Of course, when I talk about “religion,” I am going to primarily reference the one I was raised in, but I’m pretty sure a lot of these same issues are universal. For starters, one person or group of people quite simply has no business holding formal authority over people’s spirituality…especially when aforesaid person/group of people are primarily white men who’re middle-aged or older. In fact, an individual or a church’s collective spirituality is just too important to be trusted to anything that has any sort of implicit or explicit hierarchical structure.
Because with that power, naturally, comes abuse. The mountain of sex abuse scandals emanating from within Christianity speaks for itself and is a more damning indictment of the faith and of religious authority than Christ himself ever came up with. But it’s not just that, it’s also spiritual abuse. It’s rooting out anyone who dares question the stranglehold you have over your audience. It’s about projecting your own prejudices onto a messy collection of books written thousands of years ago in a time and place that, unless you’re Palestinian, is not yours, and which already have their own prejudices baked in. It’s hell, a concept that suddenly becomes horrifying if even a modicum of thought is applied to it. It’s teaching women that they’re lesser than men. It’s teaching people they shouldn’t have sex until marriage or they should remain in abusive relationships, and all the emotional damage that follows. It’s teaching queer people that they should be “converted” to a compulsory cisgenderness or heterosexuality. It’s a sick, twisted white supremacist nationalism—God, guns, and Trump—that in America has a robust history dating all the way back to when these very same preachers were defending (and, in at least once case, advocating for the imposition of) slavery. Say the right vaguely churchy words in the right order once in a while and the suckers just come rolling in.
Scaling up from the individual church level, it’s terrorist attacks on Planned Parenthood clinics. It’s missionaries tromping around the Third World reenacting the quest of their imperialist ancestors from two centuries previous to Bring Civilization To The Savage Peoples. It’s the Crusades, and the associated deep-rooted anti-Semitism and Islamophobia that leeched onto and sprung from them. It’s the teachings of an insignificant nomadic prophet, corralled into the service of innumerable bloodthirsty empires since at least the conversion of Constantine. It’s, fundamentally, the belief that anyone who’s not Christian ought to be brainwashed, intellectually lobotomized, or killed. Kant had a rare moment of lucidity if he did indeed say something like “Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest,” because Christianity is fundamentally Satanic.
Moving on to the freakish assemblage of texts that spawned this faith, the Bible. Nothing in the Bible really happened except possibly a few of the Pauline epistles. Much of the Old Testament exists specifically to advance particular political agendas. That we got the four Gospels we have today can be chalked up to historical accident, and none of them are factually accurate accounts of the life of Jesus…a figure about whom we know nothing beyond that he was almost certainly a real person.
And even beyond historical inaccuracy, there’s a ton of stuff in the Bible that is legitimately horrifying. People center around those long lists of things that deserve the death penalty in Leviticus and Deuteronomy for good reason, but check out how God himself behaves in the Bible if you really want to send a chill down your spine. And in the New Testament, Paul himself is a real piece of work, to the point where one suspects that his conversion experience didn’t change a whole lot besides his religious affiliation.
But here’s the fun part: a lot of what I just said about the Bible is what people learn in their first few weeks at seminary. This is literally Christianity 101. So the appropriate Christian reaction to a New Atheist type bloviating about how the Bible is false is “well…duh.”
And, of course, let’s not forget that despite Christianity’s long and storied relationship with white supremacy, it’s not like atheism’s much better. For every atheist whose rejection of a supreme being also serves as a rejection of divinely supported oppressive power structures, you’ve got an atheist whose rejection of a supreme being serves as an excuse to justify keeping their blessedly secular Europe free of muddle-headed Muslims. And really, that’s frustrating. Atheism is awful, and has been awful for a very long time, because in the West it too, like Christianity, has been co-opted to serve the whims of empire, and has been since the days of the Enlightenment. The only reasons atheism can’t be considered As Bad as Christianity is (a) the predominant tradition has only been around for about four or five hundred years, and (b) there’s still a strand of atheism that’s legitimately liberatory.
You can thank the anarchists for that. You know the slogan: no gods, no masters. But it is an anarchistic atheism, an atheism that includes within it critiques of not just religion but also racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic power structures and of capitalism, authoritarianism, and authority in general. Give me an atheism whose denial of God is based on rejecting the divine right of kings any day over a monosyllabic atheism that sits in its own drool saying “invisible sky fairy” over and over. And this is just as important as rejecting God, because an atheism that rejects the worst impulses of Christianity only replicates them when it fails to interrogate anything else. Just ask Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, or their intellectual forebear H. L. Mencken.
But, really, this is a level of intellectual complexity that’s beyond Western atheism, whose avatar is the cisgender heterosexual white guy who’s never quite gotten past that zeal of the deconverted phase where he constantly gets himself off over how he’s outgrown such silly superstitions. And, really, if there’s one thing Western atheists need to not do, it’s be impressed with themselves for learning there’s no God or afterlife and we’re only a cosmic dust mite winking briefly in and out of existence and life has no inherent meaning beyond what we invest in it from our own experiences and desires. Like, it may seem like it is in whatever one-horse cult you’ve managed to escape from, but this is not esoteric, revealed knowledge. So you think you’re special? Coming down from the mountain with the new Ten Commandments from The God Delusion etched in stone tablets? Well, good job in learning what the rest of us did a long time ago.
Thus, to Signify, the album that more or less describes that moment when you’ve joined the rest of the human race and wondering what to do now. It’s also the only Porcupine Tree record I don’t like.
She’s Not As Pretty As She Thinks She Is
I mentioned in the Up the Downstair review that Porcupine Tree records generally come in pairs, where the first album changes the band’s sound and the second refines it. This schema comes the closest to breaking entirely with The Sky Moves Sideways and Signify, because both albums represent a pretty substantial sonic shift, and in completely different directions: The Sky Moves Sideways expands the music’s psychedelic elements to territories not seen since Voyage 34, whereas Signify is the point at which we start putting the Space Era to bed.
The Space Era’s far from over, mind. Most of the tracks on this album retain the sensibilities that Porcupine Tree is known for, most notably The Sleep of No Dreaming, Sever, Every Home is Wired, Intermediate Jesus, and Dark Matter. Moving into the Alternative Era will ultimately be a three-year process involving the Insignificance demos and a final orgasmic explosion of pure psychedelia in Metanoia, but it’s pretty clear from what we have here that we’ve reached the limit of what we can do with our currently-established sound and we have to try something different. That and we’re gelling more and more as a studio band, so we’re creating more band-oriented tracks, and those will be a bit shorter and less spaced-out than what we’re known for. Also our frontman’s still listening to loads of krautrock and that’s gonna bleed over, too. (Check out that spectacular motorik in the title track.)
The problem is Signify hit at basically the worst possible time in the bands evolution: the point where it’s pretty clear that the current sound is netting them diminishing returns, but the new sound is still very much under construction. The title track is nice enough, but it grew out of a cover of Hallogallo and it shows. Probably the only song that reaches the heights we’re used to from Porcupine Tree is Dark Matter. All the other spacey songs are pretty clearly the band returning to the same wells they’ve plumbed before, only this time with samples of some unhinged preacher types thrown in for thematic flavour.
Speaking of lyrics and sonic elements that’re still under construction, this is the first time Wilson’s actually consistently had lyrics that were something besides mouth noises or random words pulled from a hat Kid A-style. (Usually. Sever still has some of that old bad-trip magic.) And, well…
He’s Not As Clever As He Likes To Think
Okay, I’m going to be polite here, and then I won’t. I’m generally neutral-to-positive on Wilson’s lyrics. He’s pretty good at putting words in a particular order (“as the world in my TV leaked on to my shoes” is a killer line, for instance), but in my book his style has consistently been better than his substance. What’s more, there are very few subjects less fruitful for Babby’s First Stab At Comprehensibility than the first time it fully sinks in that you’re gonna die.
I don’t know how much of this is me writing from my temporal vantage point. I don’t know how picked-over this topic actually was in 1996. But really…there just are not very many places to go with this particular subject. So, life is finite. You will one day cease to exist. All signs point to this life being all there is. Now what.
You might, if we use a godawful New Atheist line, stick your head in the sand and say there really is something after death. Only way to survive is on your knees, after all. You might instead turn to the hedonism of drugs or sex, or this weird new thing called the Internet wiring every home. Or you might try and create something that you hope and pray (“pray”) will outlast you, and if the drudgery of schlepping from no-name English town to no-name English town on a bus while playing to fifty people in miserable, dank, sweaty bar basements is what we need to do to get the job done, then so bloody be it.
Here’s where the anxiety over leaving a legacy comes from. You might say that religious people who long for a heaven are denying the finitude of existence, but if you’re concerned that a chunk of you will somehow remain after you’re gone…you’re worrying about the same thing, mate. It may not be a literal afterlife you seek, but it’s an afterlife nonetheless.
If you’re a creative person, and you define your legacy as something you make that lives on after you die, the pitfalls are everywhere. If the path to an afterlife is popularity, there’s more pressure to appeal to what’s popular (which rarely if ever works). If the path to an afterlife is making something that sticks out, then it’s a crapshoot because it might not reach enough people. Ultimately, the people who become immortal are the people who get lucky. Either they have connections through family or friends, someone powerful noticed them at exactly the right time and liked what they heard, or what they were doing resonated with the contemporary musical zeitgeist. And even if you manage to Get Big, records and CDs scratch. Tapes warp. Storage media decay. Some works have somehow managed to last hundreds of years but ultimately no catalog is permanent. The product is sold, the memory fades. There’s no escape hatch forthcoming here.
I’m Not As Awesome As This Song Makes Out
At least not yet. There’s another English bloke wot’s good at the wordsmithing who twelve years later short-circuited this entire conversation without even realizing it. In 2008, ex-Million Dead boy Frank Turner released folk-punk masterpiece Love, Ire & Song, whose second track, Reasons Not To Be An Idiot, is a cheery dope-slap for everyone caught Wilsonly within their own thoughts.
In the song, Turner surveys a series of people (including himself and the listener) who’ve become neurotically obsessed over themselves, their appearance, their intellect, whatever, and shakes them around a bit to remind them that they (and, by extension, we) are not freighted with any uniquely insurmountable woes and that “deep down, you’re just like everybody else.” The last person he addresses is someone called Amy, who’s gotten sucked into all sorts of superficial faux-spiritual gobbledygook because “she’s scared that life won’t leave any traces.” Sound familiar?
His prescription is simple. Right after describing Amy’s situation he cuts the entire Gordian knot both she and Signify got themselves stuck in with five little words: “That’s not the point anyway.” All you really need in life is right there in the album’s title–love, ire, and song–and notice that immortality and leaving a legacy are conspicuously not mentioned among them. It’s nice out. Enjoy some fresh air. Go for a pint. See some friends. For once in your life, get your head out of your ass and relax.
(It’s probably also worth pointing out that Wilson and Turner are both cisgender white men from solidly middle-class English backgrounds—Wilson’s father was an electronic engineer at Philips, Turner’s father was an investment banker—which itself speaks volumes about who has the wherewithal to tie themselves into knots like this, thinking about whether they’ll leave behind anything that will last.)
Which brings us back around to, what do you do upon discovering that life is finite and has no inherent meaning? If you’re western, and don’t have an actual degree in philosophy, there are two ways this conversation can go: a simplistic nihilism, or a corny be-excellent-to-each-other pop platitudinism. Both these routes invite nothing in the way of nuance or complexity, and are just flat boring. This is not a conversation in which anyone comes away enlightened. Instead, realize that worrying about this crap is bourgeois faux-intellectual masturbation, and get up, get down, and get outside.
- The Sky Moves Sideways
- Up the Downstair
- On the Sunday of Life