Porcupine Tree – Coma:Coda (Rome 1997)

Recorded 26 March 1997
Released 7 May 2020

So Porcupine Tree got a Bandcamp recently, and they’ve been using it to release a whole bunch of rarities and other goodies. With the exception of the Nag’s Head performance previously featured on Spiral Circus, though, thus far they’ve all dated from the late Alternative and Metal Eras, the parts of Porcupine Tree’s career the blog hasn’t reached yet. Until now.

While most of Coma Divine comes from the third night at the Frontiera, this release largely pulls from the second night. Therefore, the setlist is a little different. Most significantly, Cryogenics finally, finally gets an official release. I still don’t care for it–although it doesn’t feel quite as self-indulgently difficult to listen to as it did the first time I heard it, it’s still a track that never really quite locks in–but it still feels as though a great wrong in the universe has been corrected. Here, it functions as an extended intro for Dark Matter, whose introductory soothing hum feels like being bathed in a column of light after three and a half minutes of thundering tension.

What else. The version of Nine Cats here is closest to the stripped-down, unplugged version on Insignificance, but it’s probably worth noting that this live version is much more practiced and effortless than the studio version, with an instinctive understanding of where the song should ebb and flow so it has the most impact. It’s kind of fun that the audience doesn’t twig that Wilson and Maitland are singing a similarly unplugged version of Every Home Is Wired until they actually drop the title. That impromptu drum solo at the end of Dislocated Day is the precise correct use of your Chris Maitland. That showboating that would in a few years start driving Wilson up the wall is what you want him to do live. It was really nice to see them perform Voyage 34 Phase II live, because it’s usually Phase I that gets all the love, and sometimes we need a little reminder that other parts can deliver the goods just as well as the first part can. This is, in general, a fun little companion piece to the main Coma record, and it’s nice that it exists as a way of sort of filling in the details and providing a bit more color to the experience of seeing those three shows in the flesh.

Speaking of which, it’s somewhat well-known that the recording of Coma Divine was riddled with technical problems, and truly herculean amounts of editing and post-production were needed to salvage anything, to the point where a lot of the vox were overdubbed in studio because the recording sounded just that terrible live. With all that in mind, the Bandcamp description for Coma:Coda cautions that what we’re hearing here is basically ripped straight from the soundboard, preemptively apologizes if it sounds wonky, and just generally hangs its head in shame that it’s not up to Porcupine Tree’s usual exacting standards.

It sounds fine.

Maybe it’s just because watching a lot of iPhone live recordings on YouTube means I usually have pretty low standards for what a live recording should sound like, but…whoever wrote that description doth protest too much. The only serious technical goof I picked up on was the very obvious one, that we only got the back half of Dislocated Day, but even then it’s okay because you don’t listen to Coma:Coda!Dislocated Day to listen to Dislocated Day. That’s what the version of the song on the original Coma Divine is there for, and with pristine sound quality, no less. You listen to Coma:Coda!Dislocated Day for Maitland’s awesome drum solo at the end, which is there, in all its glory, in its entirety. That we lost the song’s first half just means we cut out some chaff at the front.

Other than that…yeah, there’s some slightly weird mixing (the spoken word samples are almost inaudible) and Wilson hits a flat note here and there, but those are the occupational hazards of live performance. Big deal. I suspect the only people who’d get hot and bothered about this record’s imperfections are the same people who only spring for the fancypants 5.1 surround sound mixes of Wilson’s albums because if it’s anything else they may as well just pour battery acid into their ears. In a lot of respects, Coma:Coda feels more accurate to what listening to Porcupine Tree perform at the actual Frontiera in actual 1997 probably sounded like.

This says something about the potential value of live recordings. The studio recording as a concept, irrespective of the actual music and how it was influenced by the world around it, exists pretty much in a vacuum, suspended outside of time and space, only having time and space imposed on it through the experiences of the listener. The live recording, meanwhile, is a documentation of an event, anchored to a specific time and place. Therefore, one could argue that when releasing the thing to the world, there’s an incentive to preserve, as much as possible, this event as it actually happened, screwups and all. And there will be screwups. You’re gonna flub a line, or break a guitar string, or hit a wrong note. It’s gonna be mixed oddly. The venue’s acoustics are gonna have their own effects. When the time comes to actually edit the live album together, all those little things are gonna drive you nuts, but it’s unreasonable to demand perfection from a live performance, and in fact, the imperfections can be what make live performance interesting.

Put it to you this way. With Coma Divine your perspective is omniscient and impartial, like this was a professionally-recorded studio album that just happens to have been laid down in front of a live audience. With Coma:Coda the listening experience is more subjective and immersive, like we’ve been placed in the shoes of someone who was there. This means that between these two albums we have the two success modes of the live album: the recording that reflects how we wanted the show to sound, and the recording that reflects how the show actually sounded. Usually we have to rely on fan recordings for the latter, so it’s nice for the band to acknowledge this reality once in a while. In other words, Coma:Coda is a good album entirely because it’s basically an officially-released bootleg.

Porcupine Tree – Stars Die: The Delerium Years

25 March 2002
1994-1997 box set, February 2016
1991-1993 box set, January 2017

This post comes in two unrelated parts.

A Side

Potentially unpopular opinion time: the worst critics are the ones with opinions that you agree with. You go to a critic for one of two things: to determine if you ought to spend money on a piece of media, or for a perspective on that media that is perpendicular to your own, that offers fresh insights or picks out interesting nuances that you may have missed. No one ever goes to a music critic for the first thing anymore, or at least I don’t. If I want to do something like that, I deliberately seek out the positive reviews, so I’m then motivated to listen to the thing on Spotify, and then if I like what I hear, I’ll go out and buy the record. Although this is how I got into pretty much every musical artist I listened to of my own volition for the past ten years, it’s still based on a fractured understanding of what the critic is doing versus what I want the critic to do.

The second thing is an altogether different beast, and does a better job of justifying the music critic’s existence. The thing that makes a blog like, say, Pushing Ahead of the Dame interesting is not Chris O’Leary’s audacity in covering David Bowie’s discography song by song. It’s that O’Leary has unpopular opinions. The first indication that his blog was gonna be great was the moment where (a) he declared that The Laughing Gnome was actually a good song, and, critically, (b) justified this declaration by appealing to multiple elements of the song’s composition that made it work.

I disagree, of course. I still maintain The Laughing Gnome is a cringefest. But I still learned more about how that song was pulled together than I would have from a million critical reviews going LOL CHIPMUNK VOICES BOWIE CORPSING ISN’T THIS AN EMBARRASSING EPHEMERUM, to which I would have nodded placidly along as they went in one ear and out the other. The point is that the value of a critic is directly tied to their willingness to go against conventional wisdom once in a while.

Tying this back to the blog, I am on record as saying that the worst Porcupine Tree album rankings are the ones that have In Absentia and Stupid Dream and Fear of a Blank Planet on top and On the Sunday of Life and The Incident on bottom, because that’s solid proof that the people responsible for those rankings have never had an original thought about Porcupine Tree in their entire lives. Which then got me wondering what the Ultimate Iconoclastic Porcupine Tree Hot Take would be.

A good starting point would be the contention that an album thought of as Good is actually Bad, or that a Bad album is actually Good. I’ve already done Stupid Dream, so that’s out, and I can’t with a straight face say that In Absentia and Fear of a Blank Planet are bad. (Well, you can with the latter, the lyrics are clearly Steven Wilson yelling at the kids to get off his lawn, but that’s not something I can sell to anyone when that’s the album that got me into Wilson’s music in the first place.) On the flip side, saying The Incident is good is properly incendiary, given its general reputation amongst the faithful, but it’s just enough of a piece with the rest of Porcupine Tree’s discography that such a take wouldn’t be very interesting. We need a true oddball.

This leaves On the Sunday of Life. The first Porcupine Tree album, stitched together from stuff released when we still kept up the fiction that this was an actual band who went gallivanting about Europe on drug-fueled exploits so scandalous and offensive to polite society they’d be near-indistinguishable from Situationist culture-jamming. That weird old thing. In his unauthorized biography of Porcupine Tree, Rick Wilson politely describes it as scattershot, but with potential; the conventional wisdom. It’s long and silly and bizarre, a greatest hits of psychedelic lunacy. Let’s see what we can cough up.

On the Sunday of Life is startlingly unique amongst Porcupine Tree’s discography. It’s the lone studio album in the Space Era that was clearly more influenced by psychedelic rock than space rock (by the time we hit Up the Downstair, Wilson was already deep in The Orb and Ozric Tentacles, and it shows). It’s structured like a Boards of Canada album, with full-length songs like Jupiter Island and Linton Samuel Dawson separated by instrumental interludes like Hymn or Music for the Head. The lyrics are nonsense Alan Duffy-isms. The album has a particular surreal humor about it, from the pitched-up chipmunk voices on Jupiter Island to Wilson’s off-the-rails Geddy Lee impression on Linton Samuel Dawson to the infamous, terminally aggrieved “I want you to put Felix’s penis on me” from And the Swallows Dance Above the Sun. This is Wilson’s own Laughing Gnome, refracted through the sensory-overload uncanny valley fog of a bad LSD trip.

It’s not hard to cast these elements of Porcupine Tree’s sound as essential. If you’re going to have a Porcupine Tree album, it should be unfiltered, overstuffed, trippy, incomprehensible, and subtly funny. So then we get to Up the Downstair and excuse me what’s this trance crap doing in my psychedelia? Hopping on trends, are you, like you’re doing with your other band? This feels so workmanlike, too. The last album crackled with so much energy and life; this one feels like they dragged Wilson to the studio at gunpoint. He’s even managed to ruin his own songs, no less; this version of Small Fish feels like it was recorded while he was doped up on Xanax. The only good part of this album is the first track’s transition from the spooky ambient noises to the dryly snarky voiceover, everything else is garbage.

Don’t even get me started on The Sky Moves Sideways or [shudder] Stupid Dream.

Thus do we arrive at the ultimate Porcupine Tree hot take: not only is On the Sunday of Life a good Porcupine Tree album, it’s the only good Porcupine Tree album.

This is not a good take for a blog to adopt for a few reasons. First, it precipitates a conceptual collapse. The blog blows its load early and spends the rest of its meager existence whining. It’s an extreme variant of whenever someone complains about a band not having produced anything good for however many-odd decades. (Also why, going back to Chris O’Leary, why we’re all very grateful he didn’t go with his original choice of blog subject and do Pete Townshend song by song.) Slogging through so many years of mediocrity is taxing on the author and taxing on the reader and just isn’t a worthwhile endeavor for anyone.

There are exceptions to the rule, of course. Todd in the Shadows’ retrospective of Madonna’s filmography and Seb Patrick’s posts on Weezer come immediately to mind. However, Cinemadonna is working with a medium primed to pick apart terrible bodies of work, and Weezerology would be considerably less pleasant to read if Everything Will Be Alright in the End didn’t exist. The lessons from those projects can’t be ported to one about Porcupine Tree, who would dive back into the Sunday aesthetic well extremely rarely.

The second reason that take ruins a blog is it reveals something troubling about the tastes of the blogger. Porcupine Tree, and Wilson’s post-PT solo work more broadly, had a diverse and eclectic sound that evolved along with Wilson’s tastes and influences. There’s something to appreciate in every era, and which period of their discography you prefer says more about you than it does them. A blogger who straight-up declares that Sunday is the only good Porcupine Tree album clearly demands that Steven Wilson rerecord Sunday again and again till he dies of excessive coerced jollity.

B Side

The Space Era may be properly dead and buried, but that doesn’t mean we can’t reminisce and memorialize. Stars Die: the Delirium Years, Porcupine Tree’s only strict compilation album, is a fairly straightforward record: a double album that is meant to serve as an introduction to Porcupine Tree’s 90s work.

The album is arranged in strict chronological order, with the first disc covering 1991-1993 and the second covering 1994-1997. Disc One is self-evidently stronger, with a good balance between short and long songs and material from Sunday and Up the Downstair. Disc Two is much less so, with only three songs from The Sky Moves Sideways era and the rest coming from the Signify era. This might have something to do with how the former is, of all Porcupine Tree’s albums, the one most hostile to being split up into its constituent parts. There just aren’t very many songs on that album that wouldn’t ruin a compilation album. Disc Two’s unevenness might also have something to do with how the Signify era is the band’s weakest, and about half of those songs are from the Waiting single, itself the weakest portion of that era. Right up until it hits Signify, though, Stars Die is an excellent survey of Porcupine Tree’s Space-Era work, clearly showcasing the band’s evolution throughout the nineties. I’d unreservedly recommend it to anyone whose knowledge of Porcupine Tree’s discography goes back to the seeming hard-reset of Stupid Dream and no further.

But anyway, the new stuff. Stars Die features a couple of songs (and alternate remixes) that were previously only available through file-sharing or a seriously rare deluxe edition pressing or something. Disc One has Phantoms and the extended version of Synesthesia, while Disc Two has Men of Wood and Signify II. First, Phantoms. This song is an outtake from Up the Downstair, available only through metaphorical tape-circulation before it showed up here. It’s basically a very trippy unplugged song, with Wilson’s vox and mainly lethargic acoustic guitar serving as an anchor as creepy tape loop noises and fuzzed-out electric guitars swirl around him. Of the previously-unreleased songs on this compilation, this one’s probably the worst. Wilson strums his guitar like it’s strictly out of contractual obligation. About a minute and a half in, right when most of the instrumentation drops out as Wilson sings “I’m sorry I treat you this way,” the song hits a brick wall and has to spend a few excruciating seconds recovering. It’s an early, half-formed attempt at something more songwriterly, and it’s obvious why (a) he eventually moved more organically into this more personal lyrical mode, and (b) it took him until the late 90s to actually do it. Whatever fruits came out of Phantoms were not immediately obvious at the time of writing, whereas The Sky Moves Sideways was right there, ready to be born. (And thank God, because The Sky Moves Sideways is much more interesting.) Basically, it gave him something to work with once the space well ran dry around the time of Signify. For all that Phantoms itself is unremarkable, it allows Disappear and the Alternative Era to exist.

The extended version of Synesthesia is generally similar to the studio version, but the goofy What You Are Listening To intro switched out for something more contextually appropriate where the main riff eases its way in as opposed to bursting onstage after cutting off the guy describing psychedelic music played while on LSD. I can sort of understand why this decision was made, the What You Are Listening To intro works best when opening an album, and that’s what Synesthesia isn’t doing anymore. But at the same time, literally the only representative of Porcupine Tree’s goofy early work on Stars Die is And The Swallows Put Felix’s Penis On Me, so replacing What You Are Listening To with something more in-character, especially in a world with Have Come For Your Children in it, feels like they’re treating that part of themselves the way a millennial thinks of their embarrassing scene kid phase.

Speaking of which, Men of Wood. Of all of Porcupine Tree’s songs featuring Alan Duffy’s lyrics in some capacity (he’s credited as a co-writer along with Wilson), this one is chronologically the latest. Like Disappear, this is one of those songs that knocked around the studio across multiple album cycles but was always too different from the atmosphere of the albums themselves to see a major studio release. In this song’s case, it almost made it on The Sky Moves Sideways, showing up on promo cassettes but not on the final release. It’s an interesting holdover from when Wilson was edging out of Sunday weirdness and into Downstair trancery. Between it and stuff like Linton Samuel Dawson, Access Denied, Escalator to Christmas, and How Big the Space, there might be enough material for a separate compilation for all the light, goofy songs Wilson’s done throughout his career. The normies who want him to be a brooding emo boy would hate it, of course, wondering why we’re celebrating what they feel are Wilson’s mediocrities, but there’s still artistry here, and more importantly, anything that irritates the normies is inherently worth doing.

This leaves Signify II. It’s a fairly standard krautrock song, yet more proof that the direction Porcupine Tree were attempting to go in for Signify was a dead end. My immediate reaction toward this song (and OG Signify, for that matter) was that it wasn’t good because it didn’t sound like Porcupine Tree. But that couldn’t be it; they’ve released lots of songs where they’re trying to be something they’re not (e.g. Access Denied) and they sound great. Nor is the issue that other bands have done straight-no-chaser krautrock better than they have; Wilson himself submitted a masterful entry in that genre with the self-titled I.E.M. album.

And then we reach Signify II’s religious mix, available on the expanded version of this compilation. If it made it onto Signify it would have been another anti-religious song in the same vein as Sever and Intermediate Jesus, but for whatever reason it didn’t. Years later, Wilson offered the possibility that the religious mix was left off Signify because it was just a bit too heavy-handed. There’s certainly some truth to that; the samples in this case came from a young hotshot televangelist who, when he’s not celebrating his flock of suckers’ destruction of their old Satanic secular music, gleefully tells anyone who calls in they’re insufficiently Christian and God hates them and they’re going to Hell.

I’m actually kind of glad it was left off; it would have ended the album, and Dark Matter honestly makes a perfect closer on its own. Signify II would have been superfluous. If it went anywhere on Signify, it should have replaced the title track, because Signify II works much better as a statement of the album’s themes instead of as a summation. It would have also made a pretty good segue into The Sleep Of No Dreaming, which focuses on Wilson’s rejection of all that garbage.

However. Those samples are what make Signify II unique. They’re what elevate the song from a transparent Hallogallo ripoff to something truly special. The samples and the instrumentation play off each other perfectly, with each one reinforcing the other. Of particular note here is the moment after the preacher asks if a caller really wants to accept Jesus into their life, and the music drops out completely for him to ask, “Why,” on some level inviting the listener to wonder why they should do the same, if this is what mainstream Christianity has to offer. The secular mix of Signify II is transparently bog-standard, but the religious mix is one of the best songs Porcupine Tree released during the Signify era. (Not exactly high praise coming from me, yes, but I’ll take what I can get from this point in their history.)

It is genuinely irritating whenever mainstream people talk about Porcupine Tree but either don’t talk about the Space Era or discount it for whatever reason. I’d typically chalk this up to the normies just wanting Steve to be this mopey depressed dude, but it’s slightly deeper than that. It probably has more to do with them, and we’ve talked about this before, putting him into a box. Not only is it an incomplete understanding of what Steven Wilson is about, but a demand that Wilson spend his life solely writing emo anthems for people who were too cool for actual emo.

Furthermore, Porcupine Tree were doing space rock longer than they did anything else. The Space Era is full of masterpieces, from Voyage 34 to all the funny stuff on Sunday to the title tracks of Up the Downstair and The Sky Moves Sideways. It’s a chunk of Porcupine Tree’s history that’s every bit as varied and multiplicitous as what they’d do later, and it’s done a great disservice when it’s treated as a footnote. The Stars Die compilation is essential largely because it’s a reminder that it isn’t, even as it’s radically different to what they’re doing now. What you think of the Space Era, ultimately, says more about you than it does about it, and if you believe the Space Era has little to offer compared to the other half of Porcupine Tree’s discography, then maybe Stars Die can change that a little.

Porcupine Tree – Live at Nearfest

green day 100% pure uncut rock23 June 2001

“The boy bands have won.” –Chumbawamaba

The third annual North East Art Rock Festival was held at its usual location in the Zoellner Arts Center, on the campus of Lehigh University in Bethlehem. Nearfest was a progressive rock festival that ran from 1999 to 2012, mostly in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania. Porcupine Tree performed on the first day. These are all mundane details, but together they make my head explode because I live pretty close to the Lehigh Valley, and was up there fairly often as a kid, so I’m retroactively wondering why Porcupine Tree did a show near where I live and no one thought to tell nine-year-old me, who was listening mostly to boy bands and 1970s classic rock, and wouldn’t have known what a Porcupine Tree was, and wouldn’t have appreciated anything they were playing anyway.

As for what it was they were playing, it is surprising to learn that Porcupine Tree occasionally made extremely boneheaded decisions about how to adapt some of their songs to a live setting. We’ve encountered this before; Up the Downstair’s bass, for instance, is done no favors when Edwin’s playing it. It’s not quite synthetic enough; it feels like it should be something Barbieri constructs and then throws on a loop so he can focus on more involved soundscapes. (Nice that it gives Edwin something to do, though.) At Nearfest, the main victim is Even Less, a song that Wilson has only ever barely managed to get a handle on playing live. Here, the song plunges into that weird uncanny valley that live performances can occasionally fall into where it’s tremendously faithful to the studio version but the differences are just prominent enough that the whole performance sounds off, somehow. In this case, it’s the guitar’s odd tuning and the way it doesn’t sound quite crisp enough, although that might be flaws in the recording itself. Combined with that weird warble thing Wilson’s voice occasionally did at the time where he sounded twice his age, the intervention is toxic.

(The one really good live version of Even Less was performed during soundcheck in Los Angeles during the Incident tour (and possibly elsewhere; but the LA performance is what we have video evidence of). There, we had Wilson on vox and acoustic backing guitar, with Jordan Rudess playing the main guitar part on the piano, in that full grand Steinway mode he’s really good at, with the pastoral, flowery flourishes and bone-shattering low end and everything. It sounds amazing. This was then butchered into what appears on Home Invasion, where Wilson essentially is trying to play an acoustic arrangement of the song on an electric guitar, and the result sounds like it should be a discarded demo more than anything else…doubly frustrating because Adam Holzman could have replicated Rudess’ piano without too much trouble.)

Most of the time, though, the Nearfest gig doesn’t do that. The performance is pretty decent, if you’re into generally note-perfect renditions souped up here and there by the slightly looser dynamics of the live setting, Barbieri’s correctly rated and Maitland’s criminally underrated ability to bring space and atmosphere to a song, Edwin’s unflappable island time energy, and Wilson’s prowess at busting out some killer solos when called upon to do so. It’s not their best, but at this stage in their career “their best” is something they’re still working toward.

That said, there are some interesting facets of the band dynamics at the time that the Nearfest performance brings out. Toward the end of Shesmovedon, for instance, the camera lingers on Maitland and Edwin for a bit, marveling at the contrast between the two musicians. Maitland is improvising a spectacular drum solo and is going at it like a maniac, while Edwin picks at his bass the same way a middle-class office worker picks at a cocktail while sprawled out on a lounge chair at a Bahamas all-inclusive resort, and just looks happy to be there. Wilson, meanwhile, is still trying to construct a stage presence, and 2001 finds him wearing crop tops, cargo pants, and little hippie sunglasses, looking for all the world like a teenager for whom this is an after-school side gig. He’s still not fully comfortable onstage; whenever he has to speak to the audience he sounds like he’s about to die of stage fright.

This leads us neatly into what everything up there was a preamble for: before the band dives into Hatesong, Wilson steps up to the microphone and says the following:

“I don’t know how closely you guys follow the news, what’s going on in the United Kingdom at the moment, or in fact recently. We’ve had a pretty terrible disease sweeping the country, sweeping the nation, you know about that?”

Muted “yeah!” response from an audience conditioned Pavlovly to respond that way to any question posed by a musician onstage.

“Yeah, I am of course talking about boy bands and girl bands.”

Applause.

“It is a fucking disease. And showing no signs of slowing up, either. The infection keeps spreading. And I know you have a particular problem with this disease in the United States as well, and in fact, you’ve sent your disease over to us as well! Thanks!”

Laughter.

“So, what we’re gonna do for you now is a song which is kind of our antidote to the likes of Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, ‘N-Sync, Christine Agwilera [sic], &c. &c. &c. And the thing about all these…musicians…”

Wilson highlights the word “musicians” with giant air quotes.

“…about these ‘artists,’ is that they purport to perform ‘love’ ‘songs,’ and they don’t make me feel very romantic somehow. So this is Porcupine Tree’s antidote to all of those pointless love songs, and this is called HATEsong.”

So obviously there’s a lot going on here. On the kneejerk surface-text level, Wilson is grossly overgeneralizing. Boy bands like Backstreet Boys and “girl bands” (WTF?) like Britney Spears don’t make “love songs” (although they do make those) as much as they do “songs about love.” Something like Oops I Did It Again isn’t meant to make the listener feel romantic because it’s a much more cynical (yet simultaneously empowering!) approach to the whole business of romance, an approach that works entirely because it trades on the song’s (and genre’s) sense of artifice and Spears’ own image as a (not that–) innocent teenybopper pop princess.

(I would, of course, be remiss if I didn’t mention here that “songs about love” is a spectacularly broad label and includes not just what was on the pop charts in 2001 but over half of Lightbulb Sun–including, in its own sick, twisted way, Hatesong. Pot, kettle, &c.)

Speaking of artifice, we’ve gone briefly over the issue with authenticity in pop music w/r/t popularity and the ethics of “selling out” and participating in the exploitative meat grinder that is the recording industry back in the Stupid Dream post, but Wilson’s roast of boy bands here introduces a new wrinkle: the trouble with pop music is that it’s shallow and manufactured lovey-dovey fluff. This implies there’s a music that serves as a counterpoint in its depth and authenticity. Music like, say, Porcupine Tree, who proudly write not love songs but Hatesongs. Never mind that he’s currently wearing a crop top and touring his most obviously please-make-me-famous record to date and the fandom tore him a new asshole for apparently selling out with the last album two years ago, Steven Wilson is the real deal. Honest.

Here’s the issue, though: if we take it as a truth that any artist sells out the instant they’re able to have complete strangers listen to their music, then artists who claim to value authenticity don’t actually value authenticity but the appearance of authenticity. They’re saying “we’re not trying to sell you something, man” while shamelessly trying to sell us something, and the people who get huffy about authenticity in music (aka “suckers”) bought the lie look line and sinker. Any music that claims it’s “real” is lying to you. Pop music is fake, too, of course, but it doesn’t care, and so is more preoccupied with other things. The true value of pop music, and music in general, lies elsewhere, in the meaning it creates for the listener.

This is, in microcosm, the deeper engagement with the boy band rant, which hits one of the defining fault lines in music criticism: rockism versus poptimism. Kieron Gillen has an excellent (and charitable) definition of the former, stating that “Rockism is the belief that some forms of music are more authentic and real than other forms of music and authenticity and realness are virtues in and of themselves,” leaving pregnantly unspoken the implication that the more “authentic” and “real” forms of music happen to feature white men with electric guitars. Poptimism, meanwhile, is a celebration of music in all its forms, deemphasizing concerns about authenticity through recognizing that music is an expansive, multifaceted thing, containing within it all sorts of multitudes and innovations and dynamisms…even the stuff that appears on the pop charts. There are nuances, contradictions, and fuzzy borders, of course, but in broad strokes that’s where the lines are drawn.

It should be pretty obvious where I stand. Rockism is fundamentally a regressive, reactionary position because treating that old time rock ‘n roll as the pinnacle of what music can offer completely ignores the other musical currents that were brewing in the 60s, 70s, and 80s: stuff like synthpop and punk and funk and soul and hip hop. These genres all had just as much youthful energy and innovative spirit as anything that would become standards on classic rock radio in the following decades. In addition…let’s be honest. Rockism also ignores that most classic rock is unlistenable dreck. Rockist snobbery is the only possible explanation for why artists like Lynyrd Skynyrd and Bad Company and Steve Miller and the Allman Brothers still have cachet in this year of our Lord 2020. It is a celebration of bland white mediocrity as the peak of the musical art form, and a disparagement of anything that fails to worship at its feet. It’s Morrissey saying reggae is vile. It’s Bohemian Rhapsody’s Best Picture nomination. It is a school of thought that has no business existing in contemporary music criticism.

Steven Wilson, meanwhile, isn’t quite either a rockist or a poptimist. He’s absolutely without question a rock musician, and those are the traditions he holds in highest esteem…but he also has an appreciation for pop music healthy enough that it resulted in Blackfield and To the Bone and Billie Eilish showing up on last year’s year-end recommendations list. His attitude toward music criticism could best be illustrated through his onstage banter during the To The Bone Tour, where on one hand we get the rant about how millennials don’t know what an electric guitar is, while on the other hand we get the rant about how people who turn their nose up at pop music should really get over themselves. We could probably describe Wilson’s attitudes toward music as a particular synthesis of rockism and poptimism, where the snobbery is largely displaced away from rock music (although not gone away entirely, see his withering comments about Greta Van Fleet, for instance) and toward pop music. When he’s criticising boy bands, he’s not using boy bands as a synecdoche for all pop music and saying pop music sucks, he’s saying boy bands make bad pop music.

Though I staunchly disagree, that’s at least a defensible position. Here, though, is where his approach runs into trouble: Steven Wilson may have grown up with both Pink Floyd and Donna Summer, and he may be musically omnivorous and take inspiration from all sorts of genres, but he is not a pop musician. He’s a rock musician. Therefore, any criticisms of pop music he makes will be perceived as coming from an outsider…and all the troubling dynamics that implies when Wilson is a white man, working in a genre dominated by white men, casting aspersions on a genre that’s considerably less dominated by white men and typically looked down upon by white men. It is perfectly reasonable to listen to Wilson ranting about boy bands and think he’s a rockist snob saying all pop music is terrible. This means that when Steven Wilson goes onstage and says Backstreet Boys suck, whatever nuances are lent to this argument from his particular relationship with pop music will sail right over the heads of everyone in the audience, generally rockist snobs themselves, and anything he says will register as “durr pop music bad.” Oopsie.

(This is a broader issue than one would think. When Todd Nathanson started reviewing pop songs we automatically assumed that, like most Internet Males of a Certain Age, he came out of the rockist tradition and bashed pop songs because he hated pop songs, even after we had annual best-of lists and his repeated protests, in detail, that he loved pop music. It was only after One-Hit Wonderland started and he got to regularly show off his knowledge of pop history that the idea of Todd Nathanson, Pop Music Lover finally landed.)

As an unfortunate consequence, every rockist snob at Nearfest now thinks of Wilson as one of their own, even when he isn’t. This wasn’t a perception Wilson would seriously push back on for over a decade and a half, instead choosing to yammer on about iPods and music streaming and other such things that record store owners in Rush t-shirts could nod dumbly along to. Thus does the Wilson-as-rockist-snob meme grow and metastasize until 2017, when Permanating is released and half his audience starts screaming betrayal at the top of their lungs. The backlash was a self-own, yes, but if they were to think a little bit about Wilson’s musical background, they would have at least seen it coming and recognized Wilson for who he is: a man with better and wider taste in music than they will ever have.

Porcupine Tree – Recordings

May 2001

I’m mildly irritated by people who regard Recordings as a studio album in spirit, the way Lightbulb Sun and In Absentia are. It clearly isn’t, not just because it’s obviously a castoff album, pulled together from early Alt-era stuff that didn’t make it on Stupid Dream or Lightbulb Sun for whatever reason. The trouble is that when people say Recordings is a studio album, they mean Recordings is good enough to be a studio album, and there’s a particular odd not-quite-chauvinism inherent in that statement.

It’s like there’s a hierarchy. The good songs are on the studio records, and the okay songs go on the singles and the castoff-compilations like this one. So we expect Recordings will just be a bunch of songs that weren’t good enough for any of the big albums, but instead we get Buying New Soul and that slow, heavenly organ riff, a song that’s clearly every bit as good as anything they’ve put on a studio album, and compilation albums can’t have really good songs like Buying New Soul on them, so that must mean it’s not a compilation album after all.

This logic is how you get reviews that praise the quality of the songs but also point out that it’s not as well-put-together as their other albums, which, well, duh. It’s a castoff album. It’s not meant to flow the same way Lightbulb Sun flows. This is still Porcupine Tree cleaning out their collective mental attic before In Absentia and preserving whatever they found up there that was salvageable. Here’s the thing, though, a thing that feels like it’s overlooked more often than it probably should be: when a band doesn’t release a song as an album cut, kicks it off the album entirely, or whatever, it’s not always because the song is bad. It could be, and this is especially true of Porcupine Tree, that the song doesn’t mesh with how they want the album as a whole to sound. Porcupine Tree recorded a lot of good songs around the time of Stupid Dream and Lightbulb Sun, but not all of them sounded like something that belongs on Stupid Dream or Lightbulb Sun, so they were cut. This means that when the time came to dust the best ones off and string them together into one big compilation, they had a bunch of songs that all sounded very different from each other. There is no universe in which an album that has both Buying New Soul and Access Denied on it could ever be described as coherent. Nor, honestly, do I think Recordings even wants to be coherent. Better to pick at the album on its own terms instead of the terms imposed upon it.

The songs themselves, from worst to best:

In Formaldehyde: Let’s just say there’s a pretty good reason this was left off Lightbulb Sun. It’s a bit too slow and a bit too unremarkable, and it would have struggled to distinguish itself amongst the other songs on that album.

Oceans Have No Memory: Recordings suffers from the same thing Stupid Dream had where most of the good songs are in the front and the meh songs are in the back, and that’s an issue that afflicts Oceans Have No Memory as well. It’s a decent little acoustic thing that’s pleasant enough on its own and as an album closer meant to ease the listener back to earth. But beyond that, it struggles to stick in the memory in any capacity, and I mostly know it now as the source of that koan-ish thing the Hand Cannot Erase protagonist’s foster sister liked so much.

Ambulance Chasing: Of the three full instrumentals on Recordings, this one stands out the most…at first. This is mostly thanks to the booming drums, the eerie synth riff in the background early on, and Theo Travis’ unbelievable doctored saxophone solo, still more proof of how central he is to basically anything he and Wilson work together on. Trouble is, after repeated listens it becomes clear that the whole is lesser than the sum of its parts.

Untitled: Here’s the point where we hit songs that I’ll still listen to of my own volition after I’m done writing this post. This was recorded during the same improvisation that produced Buying New Soul, and it shows. In contrast to Ambulance Chasing, this one steadily reveals new facets of itself on repeated listens, as over the course of its nine-minute unfolding it steadily branches in different, more abstract directions than its more structured counterpart, concerning itself entirely with the sense of atmosphere that Buying New Soul was only partially interested in. Untitled creates a universe for Buying New Soul to exist in, and although that song is still the better of the two, this song remains important for that reason. I want–and I want to emphasize this is a feeling I haven’t had in a while–to hear the whole improvisation this sprung out of.

Disappear: Here it is in its almost-final form, I guess. The song that charted an immediate path forward for Porcupine Tree post-Signify but otherwise spent a little too much time in the oven, and so the band could never quite figure out what to do with it. The version that shows up here is has a first half that feels more like a demo than a finished song (with “I erase myself again” in the chorus feeling particularly like a placeholder), but the back half with the full band is inspired, particularly the “I’m here, you’re never standing still” backing vocals. Ultimately, though, it’s probably for the best that the song’s ultimate fate was as raw material for Last Chance to Evacuate Planet Earth Before It Is Recycled. The February 1997 version remains definitive.

Cure For Optimism: I’ve pretty much said everything I have to say about this one in the Tonefloating entry. It’s a good song, but switching it out for Four Chords That Made A Million was a good idea.

Even Less: It probably says something about the respective quality of the songs on Stupid Dream and Recordings that the full version of Even Less would have been by a substantial margin the best song on the former but only cracks the top three on the latter. This is the Stupid Dream opener in its complete form, featuring a long textured instrumental section that leads into some thundering drums, squealing guitars, and one of the greatest F-bomb drops in music history, a gloriously profane singsong mockery of people who think their faith will save them from the inevitability of death.

Hearing the whole thing also clarifies why it didn’t make it on Stupid Dream uncut. The back half has the narrator admit that his dream was stupid, which is a bit shocking when the front half trades on its arrogance. It’s the trajectory of the album in miniature, and if it was featured in full on Stupid Dream then everything from Piano Lessons onward would have been recast as How We Got Here, which clearly isn’t what they were going for.

I swore I wouldn’t complain too much about track placement on Recordings, but it is kind of strange that a song that so clearly demands to open an album finds itself instead as the penultimate track. However, it is nice the album has a really good song to anchor its second half, and what Wilson did have planned for the album’s beginning was much more interesting anyway. Speaking of which…

Buying New Soul: I think we can all agree that this is one of the best songs that Porcupine Tree ever made. And I mean Porcupine Tree the band; the haunting organ riff that Barbieri bookends the song with, along with the way Edwin plays his double bass like a cello and Maitland accentuates the rest of the instrumentation with his simple, yet jazzy percussion, simply define the song. We also get some of Wilson’s most intriguing and enigmatic lyrics, with lines like “I still wave at the dots on the shore” and “Woke up and I had a big idea: to buy a new soul at the start of every year,” rendered in melancholy, contemplative tones.

Thematically, this song bridges the themes of Signify and Stupid Dream through grappling with the potential impact selling out (or not!) might have on his livelihood and ability to leave behind something that’ll be remembered. It’s the same double-bind he’s still trapped in: stay true to your artistic integrity and toil in obscurity, or sell out and become filthy rich and immortal, but at a steep cost. Ultimately, he had a stupid dream that he could change things, but he’s a martyr to even less.

This meant, of course, that although Buying New Soul was recorded in 2000, it had no business being on an album that was recorded in 2000. This sounds like something that should belong on Stupid Dream, not Lightbulb Sun or whatever the new album’s going to be. Put this song on a new record and it’ll sound like Steven Wilson’s beating a dead horse. This would always be destined for a castoff album, but in the process would redefine what a castoff album could really do, even if no one realized it.

Access Denied: …and nowhere do we get a clearer picture of what Recordings specifically is about than when Buying New Soul crashes into this, a jaunty, upbeat, vaguely psychedelic bop depicting Golders Green as this quaint idyllic little world with subtle Mod touches, where everything’s in its right place and everyone gets on and there aren’t any serious structural problems…at least not on the surface. When you have these two songs right up next to each other as the first two songs on your album, it’s a very clear sign that you’re much more interested in showing off your range as a musician than any sort of thematic cohesion.

Wilson wanted this song on Lightbulb Sun, but the rest of the band vetoed him. On the one hand, I get it. I can’t think of anywhere for this song to go where it wouldn’t be wildly out of place. On the other hand…fuck you, this song is awesome. Just listen to it: the way he pounds on the piano on the intro like he can’t contain his excitement, the WOWIE WOWIE WOW noises the guitar makes once the singer greets the lucky man who’s just returned from wondrous, exotic adventures in East Asia, the not-quite-out-of-nowhere reference to the Railway Series of all things when he says Sir Topham Hatt doesn’t realize he’s Wilson’s biggest fan. So much of Access Denied radiates a joy and exuberance that’s just downright infectious, and anyone who hates this song really needs to get over themselves. It may be a piece of fluff, but it’s still the best song on the album, and a reminder that maybe, just maybe, Steven Wilson isn’t the mopey, depressed mall goth you think he is…or want him to be.

Porcupine Tree – Warszawa

Recorded 6 April 2001
Released January 2004

The period from 2000 to 2002 was for Steven Wilson a tangle of beginnings and endings rivaled in density only by the period surrounding the birth of his solo career. We’ve talked some about the beginnings already: of No-Man settling into the sound that would define its later career, and of the start of Wilson’s long-running partnerships with Mikael Åkerfeldt and Aviv Geffen. Now it’s time to hash out an ending.

Warszawa was recorded in April 2001 for a radio program in the eponymous Polish capital, mixed two months later in the home studio at Wilson’s folks’ house, but wouldn’t be released until 2004 due to contractual issues and a label change. It’s a nice little show, and although it’s a full-band performance, the fact that they’re playing in front of a small studio audience still gives the show a certain intimacy that’s deeply, deeply appealing, helped in no small part through the comparative intimacy of Lightbulb Sun itself. Its focus on shorter, more organic songs make it a perfect album for small shows.

This performance is roughly typical of shows during the Lightbulb Sun tour. We’re far enough into the Alternative Era that many of the songs are from this album and Stupid Dream, with the occasional jarring Space-Era throwback. This isn’t exactly a lament for the Space Era, the stuff they’re making now is just as good as the stuff they made then, but by this time it’s so far removed from what they’re playing now that it’s hard to believe they’re even the same band. That’s how completely they’ve moved on from the Space Era by this point. By now, playing a Space Era song evokes a feeling of nostalgia more than anything else. (And throwing in Signify at the end just emphasizes how much that album was in some respects an awkward false start.)

In addition, the little cosmetic changes that happen to each song when it’s performed live are taking shape. Some of them are pretty good, like the way Wilson shouts “MOTHER I NEED HER” during Slave Called Shiver and “MY HEAD BEATS A BETTER WAY” during Lightbulb Sun. There’s also the squealing, swirling guitar solos in Hatesong and Signify, equal parts heavy and psychedelic. Other changes aren’t quite so beneficial. For instance, at this point, the only major differences to Even Less are the way he draws out “others…were born to stack ssssshhhhhelves” in the second verse and the way the one line is already changed to “I’m a martyr to even less,” reflecting the song’s missing final verse. These don’t exactly add anything, and are oddly distracting given how the rest of the song is pretty much note-perfect. Even this early, it became clear that Even Less was a song that required a certain finesse to pull off live. Some of the permutations of this song on offer in the coming decades are truly horrifying. For right now, though, it still works.

The most important change for our purposes, however, is vital and necessary. Whenever Wilson needed to record backing vocals in studio, he largely preferred to just record them himself and layer them on top of each other. This obviously isn’t workable live, so instead Chris Maitland was commissioned to sing backing vocals when needed. The Alternative Era, meanwhile, brought with it an increased interest in vocal harmonies, so Maitland’s backing vox here, in the Alternative Era’s chronologically earliest live album, are more prominent than they were on previous live releases. John Wesley he isn’t, but he still puts in a very good effort.

Here’s why the drummer’s increased presence on this record is noteworthy: Chris Maitland left Porcupine Tree acrimoniously in early 2002. By this time, Wilson was secure enough financially to devote himself to music full-time, while Maitland still had to support himself through stage acting gigs and drumming classes. This, naturally, led to recurring and frustrating availability issues, which came to a head at the start of the In Absentia recording sessions. There, an argument led to a fight where, the legend goes, Maitland knocked Wilson around the recording studio like a ping-pong ball. There is, in fact, video.

Maitland and Wilson would patch things up relatively quickly afterwards, but the fact of the matter is the drummer’s time in the band is almost up. Although he’ll show up in later things like the Nearfest bootleg and Recordings and Blackfield and a few other compilations, Warszawa remains the chronologically last official thing Chris Maitland would record with Porcupine Tree.

But that’s all in the future. Right now, it’s April 2001, and the band is still whole, and despite whatever tensions that may exist, Maitland is still here pounding away at his drums and singing backing vox and making his presence felt. Let’s enjoy the moment.

Porcupine Tree – Lightbulb Sun

22 May 2000

4 Chords that Made a Million, March 2000
Shesmovedon, July 2000
German tour edition, February 2001
Orchidia, 2003
2003 Intro Music, 2003
2CD remaster, April 2008
2LP edition, 8 July 2008
Clear edition, 2017

[And we’re back. This is a guest post by Emily Nejako, who has more to say about this album than I do.]

Considering its distinctly British aesthetics, if Lightbulb Sun had come out five years earlier, it probably would have been a significantly more popular record. Song-by-song, it gets a lot of praise in fan circles, but it’s considered to have the loosest structure and no coherent theme. Except it totally does have a theme.

What is Lightbulb Sun about?

  1. Failed relationships
  2. Nostalgia
  3. Living in a small town
  4. Being real fucking depressed about all of the above

Does any of this sound familiar to you?

At the turn of the millennium, Steven seemed explosively bitter that he wouldn’t be able to break through into the mainstream, expressing these feelings all throughout the 2000s. If it weren’t for his lack of awareness of it in the future, Steven almost could have won the emo crowd over if he kept going on the same tangents from this album. They could have just put Richard in a too-tall shirt and a beanie like Crazy Town did to their drummer. It’s not like Steven was about to be upset about looking too pop — it is very ironic to listen to Steven rant about the evils of shiny, shallow pretty pop stars knowing that he would immediately go out on the road preaching those ideals in low-rise jeans, painted nails, and a crop-top shirt, at his skinniest and squeakiest-clean. I see you, Avril.

If you wanted to draw a direct line from this album to something in the emo canon it’d pretty obviously be From Under The Cork Tree, what with its simultaneous concern about love and failure. Stupid Dream is centered around Steven’s raw desire to be remembered, and the pitfalls therein, but Lightbulb Sun marks when he becomes the most conflicted about specifically wanting to be a famous musician, even if it packs all of that rage into Four Chords That Made A Million.

And maybe it’s that misplaced specificity that knocks the wind out of Lightbulb Sun’s ambitions. In Hatesong, Steven clearly wants to be pointed — it’s one of the angriest songs he’s written, because it has a rollicking solo and a chugging groove that gets you in the brooding mood, but the lyrics are fairly skimpy. Get Busy Living Or Get Busy Dying, on the other hand, is a song that would actually make someone want to sue. Pete is dancing circles around the person he hates, and Patrick sings it in one of the most effective performances of his life. They know it hurts, and it was meant to.

Out of the three extended songs on the album, it’s really Last Chance to Evacuate Earth Before It’s Recycled that fails to stay in people’s minds these days. It’s very good at evoking the sweet, pastoral atmosphere of Winding Shot (its opening passage) but when it leads into the Marshall Applewhite passage…it just falls apart! The sample kind of feels like the sort of Hail Mary someone would try if they were trying to rip off Porcupine Tree without really understanding why Steven references murderers and cults and stuff.

In contrast, Where We Would Be is an all killer no filler approach to the nostalgic concept. It’s just that instead of writing a Fall Out Boy-style title, Steven wrote an Oasis-style song, complete with extravagant guitar noodling and a body-slamming wall of sound mix. It sounds kind of weird that Steven would start the album out picking on Oasis and his other emptier contemporaries and then start totally aping them. Perhaps you could interpret it as him trying to show off how it’s done.

It’s interesting noting that themes are repeated fairly closely within the album with very slight changes in perspective to distinguish them — not quite something Steve would always do, but certainly something From Under The Cork Tree does. Here is a fun table!

Nostalgia/this town Breakups Depression/suicide Angry or catty Being famous Beatles or Britpop pastiche Very long title
Lightbulb Sun X
Our Lawyer Made Us… X X X X
How Is Your Life Today? X X X
Of All The Gin Joints In All The World X X
Four Chords That Made A Million X X X
Dance, Dance X X X
Shesmovedon X X
Sugar, We’re Going Down X X
Last Chance to Evacuate… X Well, I GUESS. X X
Nobody Puts Baby In The Corner X X X
The Rest Will Flow X
I’ve Got A Dark Alley… X X X X X
Hatesong X X X
7 Minutes In Heaven (Ativan Halen) X X
Where We Would Be X X X X
Sophomore Slump Or Comeback Of The Year X X X
Russia On Ice X X X
Champagne For My Real Friends… X X X X
Feel So Low X X
I Slept With Someone In Fall Out Boy… X X X
A Little Less Sixteen Candles… X X X X X
Get Busy Living Or Get Busy Dying X X X X X
XO X X

Note The Rest Will Flow. Put a pin in that.

So, instead of “the” Lightbulb Sun coming out five years earlier and sliding in alongside Oasis, “a” Lightbulb Sun five years later would have done gangbusters if it had been made by much younger (here is where Steven would add “more beautiful”) American guys.

Even though most people usually chalk Lightbulb Sun up as one of the least dark Porcupine Tree albums, its negativity hits a lot harder than say, Signify or In Absentia because its aesthetics skew a little more towards what was popular at the time. A lot of the choices made to appeal to the mainstream that Steven’s ever made are related to Lightbulb Sun, like including Four Chords That Made A Million exclusively so it could be put out as a single, or re-recording Shesmovedon as an American single for Deadwing. Lightbulb Sun is, so to speak, Porcupine Tree flying the closest to the sun, trying its hardest, and falling anyway because they’re trying to put Beatles pastiches and aggressive grooves in the middle of Robert Riding Lawnmower’s Jethro Tull marathon.

Obviously all this fussing puts Steve’s rep in a weird place for the next, oh, twenty years.

There are a lot of angry comments about how Steven’s behavior in the past year or two flies in the face of everything he stood for — which, perhaps it does. The boy band rant Steven anxiously recited over and over during the Lightbulb Sun tour rang in the ears of Porcupine Tree fans for decades, so that’s what people remembered and told others to expect. Predictably, Steven seemingly doing a 180 about pop music and happily playing Permanating pissed people off. But being angry about Steven well and truly falling in love with another human being crosses a line, doesn’t it? Is that really okay to bitch about incessantly on Facebook?

A lot of people have attached their feelings to sad songs, and Steven’s ability to tap into sadness with accuracy is one of his biggest strengths. Therefore we think he’s just as depressed as we are. That assumption has a kernel of truth in that his work at the turn of the millennium, including Lightbulb Sun, feels the most like they were based on his real feelings. There’s almost no artifice to these songs the way there is for In Absentia or Fear Of A Blank Planet. There’s no Porcupine Tree album where Steven’s lyrics are as consistently direct, cutting, and specifically about himself.

Steven Wilson, the Prince of Prog, prime dopamine inhibitor, wet blanket supreme, loving pop music and a beautiful woman and cute little kids, pisses us off because we don’t see an ability to find that happiness within ourselves. It is our depression telling us we could never be that happy, and we thought he couldn’t be that happy either because he’s like us.

A lot of fans will focus on Routine and Raven now, and ignore how his talent in writing about other people’s suffering comes from his talent at expressing his own despair, heartbreak, and anger — as well as his own happiness. The important thing about Steven Wilson isn’t that he’s completely depressed, or even as chipper as he asserts he is in interviews. He is just empathetic, almost to a fault, and his writing understands human feelings in a way that few artists really get to attain. That’s because he understands every facet of himself, and can stretch those attributes out to make art that other people can relate to, whether they’re doing as well as him or not.

This isn’t meant to be another cold “Steve only writes sadboi shit” take. The automatic assumption that Steven’s writing has no depth beyond melancholy and suffering is a serious annoyance that clouds up even his own perception of his work.

Like how he kept saying that The Rest Will Flow is his only happy song, when it’s not even really that happy. It’s actually the most poignant song on the album, specifically because it’s placed in the middle of a shit sandwich, acting as a moment of clarity in a depressive fog. I think somewhere deep down, Steven was able to perceive that, and he always thought to bring it up because it sounds happy in the midst of a sad catalogue. It’s not a happiness-ever-after that provides closure to the album’s story. It is fleeting. Just like any happiness.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t any hope. After many years of proclaiming himself single, childless, and focused on making music in solitude forever, Steven Wilson is finally married to a beautiful woman he isn’t afraid to call the love of his life: Rotem Rom, credited in the liner notes of Lightbulb Sun.

All of the rest will flow.

Ted’s ranking:

  1. The Sky Moves Sideways
  2. Lightbulb Sun
  3. Up the Downstair
  4. Stupid Dream
  5. On the Sunday of Life
  6. Signify

Porcupine Tree – Stupid Dream

March 1999

Piano Lessons, April 1999
Stranger by the Minute, October 1999
Pure Narcotic, November 1999
London, September 2000
Expanded 2CD edition, 15 May 2006

A body is washed up on a Norfolk beach…”

Kaboom.

To understand Stupid Dream, we have to return to the unfortunate misfire that was Porcupine Tree’s previous album. Signify is an odd duck in Porcupine Tree’s back catalogue, one that is clearly tired of the conventions of the Space Era, but as the conventions of the Alternative Era were just barely sketched out, instead finds itself struggling for something, anything, to build a sound on. Unfortunately, straight Neu-esque krautrock, heretofore the most promising candidate, didn’t get them very far; it barely sustained them for one song. Nevertheless, the futile grasping at a new sound did inspire some more fruitful experiments as 1996 crashed into 1997 and the future slowly but dispassionately advanced.

Of those early demos, the one that holds the most in the way of any mystical significance was Disappear, endlessly recorded and rerecorded amidst the white swirling heat coalescing around the Italy tour and Coma Divine. We’ve talked about it in that entry mostly in terms of its position in history and what it prefigured, how it was the Alternative Era sound in its most unpolished form. But we neglected to touch on something more salient: yes, the lyrics are the usual stuff about alienation and isolation, a well Wilson’d return to again and again as the decades wear on, but let’s look at the way this song interprets those themes. They’re sung to a lover, a poet, an individual more extroverted and more willing to take chances than the narrator. The narrator’s wish is that she grow and blossom and take on the world, while he fades into the background and, yes, disappears. One thing retreats, while at the same time another advances. Likewise, the Space and Alternative Eras.

It could be argued that the power of this song directly comes from the band’s inability to figure out how to make the song work, as many of the other demos are significant primarily in relation to what they would (or wouldn’t) mutate into later. I Fail, for instance, the very very first demo recorded for the Stupid Dream sessions, has no significance to the ritual whatsoever because this whole three-year process technically kicked off with Signify. We’re already in the thick of it when I Fail first appears, and so its role in this thing is to be the source from which Wilson could gank some of the lyrics for Buying New Soul. Likewise, London, which is just an extremely early version of Don’t Hate Me. The 1997 version of Even Less is essentially yet another attack on religion (“and Jesus was crucified for doing nothing, and God is worshipped for even less”), which after an album that was partially about bashing religion would have just been beating a dead horse. The more oblique and thematically complex versions we find on Stupid Dream and Recordings are vastly superior. All of these songs are primarily defined in relation to something else, so there’s not much of interest to be found here for our purposes beyond the start of a new sound.

Moving deeper into 1997, we find Sunsets on Empire, the Alternative Era’s midwife. This is a record that has not benefited from hindsight, as its strengths are quiet and subtle and its missteps (the first few lines of The Perception of Johnny Punter, the entire concept of Brother 52) are massive and glaring. But it did serve two very important purposes in Fish and Wilson’s respective careers. First, it gave Derek Dick a general aesthetic that he could settle into and build on for his masterpiece of a follow-up. And second, it conclusively demonstrated that a sound similar to what would define the Alternative Era could indeed be sustained across an entire album, that the demos Wilson and the band were kicking around at the time could indeed become something polished and complete.

And so here we are, the building blocks of the Alternative Era in place, and how we just have to spend 1998 assembling them into something worth calling a big-A Album. We sign a record deal at the end of that year, and in March of 1999, as the cultural zeitgeist of the decade ossifies, curdles, and ultimately flames out in ways both constructive (The Matrix) and destructive (Columbine), we get Stupid Dream, a sell-out album about the horrors of selling out.

This is a provocative way of putting it, yes, but lest we forget how obsessed we were in the 90s about authenticity, man. Even the big iconoclastic, stridently anticapitalist band of the decade, Rage Against the Machine, got flak because they belonged to a major label. This was stupid. It was stupid then, it’s extremely stupid now. As Wilson will tell you, and has told interviewers during the press rigmarole surrounding the release of Stupid Dream, the role of the musician in the record industry is to be exploited. It’s to have your singular vision twisted into something commercial and marketable. Even if the people Steve Albini once memorably described as “front office bulletheads” don’t touch a single note of what you’ve created, they’re still working overtime to figure out how to extract as much money from your product—and it is a product—as possible. This is their job. This is their role in the structures of capitalism. This is how your label is going to operate. Forget your own agenda, get ready to be sold.

The point is, the people who pitched a fit at the supposed inauthenticity of major-label stars Rage Against the Machine shouldn’t have got pissy at Zack and Tom for signing with Sony. They should have instead directed their anger at Sony for existing.

(Tangent the first: I’d be remiss here if I didn’t mention the packaging for Godspeed’s Yanqui U.X.O., which featured a chart showing the various connections between the Big Four record labels and various arms manufacturers.)

(Tangent the second: Zack is legit, by the way. Just wanted to make that clear.)

But it was the 90s. A breather decade between Cold War lunacy on one end and War on Terror lunacy on the other. (That this was also the decade that gave us such happy fun times as Rodney King, welfare reform, the DMCA, the Yugoslav Wars, and the Rwandan Genocide should give you an idea of just how absolutely insane the 1980s and the 2000s were.) The general narrative was that We Had It Good in the 90s. We are, of course, aware that implicit in this recollection is the “We” here refers to, all together now, middle-class cisgender heterosexual white men, but we’ll leave the truly ghastly implications of that to one side for now. We have a privileged class who were sitting particularly pretty this decade, buffeted by an economic situation that benefited them, and since the Cold War and the sense of Purpose that naturally sprung from it was over, they’re now left with something missing and are cast adrift. So how do we fill that hole?

With stuff. Thanks, Reagan.

Consumerism, then. A culture and society built entirely around spending all your money on things you don’t need under the false promise that all this fancy stuff will make you happy. Your life revolves not around self-growth or building relationships with other humans, but your stuff. That’s what keeps the economy going, after all. This is a philosophy that, in our understanding of the word, could best be described with that famously pithy line from Fight Club: “the things you own end up owning you.”

We are exceptionally close to arriving at a decent critique of capitalism here. We need only decenter the consumer in this whole system and focus instead on the worker. Who’s making all that stuff you don’t need? What are their working conditions? Bringing it closer to home, what about your working conditions? You, presumably, if you can afford all this stuff, are an anonymous white-collar drone working in an anonymous cube in an anonymous edge-city office building. You’re no longer human, but a number plugged into the system, defined entirely by your value to your bosses. Extrapolate this to every worker in every industry and boom. Instant radicalization.

Here’s the problem: we are trapped in our own myopia. Although we are alienated and exploited workers, we still have a decent house in a decent neighborhood, and, well…look at all this stuff we have! We are benefiting from capitalism in some small way, so that can’t possibly be the problem. Surely my experience as a worker isn’t in some way applicable to every worker in every industry. The thing that’s hollowing out our society and our experience of the world and reducing everything to dollar signs isn’t something so overarching as capitalism. That would mean the alternative is living under Stalin’s bootheel, and look how that turned out. No, this is a wart that we need to freeze off, and once that’s done everything will be A-OK.

Thus does the main critique of consumerism become not that it perpetuates the capitalist meat grinder but that it’s inauthentic. We are not a “woke” people in the 90s, far from it, but we have enough sense rattling around in our coddled skulls that corporations primarily exist to make money. Anything produced by a corporation primarily exists to make money, and any warmth and personal connection offered by that thing is what David Foster Wallace would describe as a “professional smile,” the insincere, plastered-on rictus people give you when they want something from you.

Let’s slowly circle back and narrow this down to music. Record labels, like any other corporation, primarily exist to make money. So with that in mind, what sort of music was big in the late 90s? Tons and tons of manufactured, plastic pop music. Think the Spice Girls or the Backstreet Boys: music that’s catchy, accessible, and ultimately disposable. Made to sell units, not to communicate any genuine emotions. (And, tangentially, a clearly unworthy inheritor of the throne vacated by grunge and britpop.) This was the sort of thing we were absolutely terrified of our faves settling into. And what could be a more perfect first step down the slippery slope than signing to a major label or releasing music that dared to be a little more accessible. Because accessible = commercial, and commercial = bad.

Hence, the knives come out for Rage Against the Machine since they signed to a major label. And while Stupid Dream was extremely well received, one can very easily imagine a certain contingent of the fandom faithful bringing out knives of their own because the band released a record considerably less psychedelic and abstract and more songwriter-oriented than what they were known for. Here, though, is the catch: just as there is no ethical consumption under capitalism, there is no authentic consumption under capitalism, either. It’s not just the major-label records that are fundamentally inauthentic. Every record ever released exists on some level to make money. Even if it was pushed out by some ramshackle indie vanity label run out of somebody’s bedroom, where the budget is so shoestring that no one can cough up the money for color packaging or a pressing greater than 100 units and the greatest business expenses are weed and cheap alcohol. Even if it’s released for free or pay-what-you-want. Even if 100% of the proceeds are donated to charity. An album like Stupid Dream couldn’t be evidence of Wilson selling out because he sold out the instant people he didn’t personally know started listening to his music. What’s more, at around this time, our precious, ostensibly commercially untainted psychedelic prog god literally had a side job making music meant to be used in advertisements. In other words: he sold his soul to make a record, dipshit, and you bought one.

But what about that record? Well…it’s fine.

This isn’t me turning around and being a massive hypocrite about accessible music. My favorite of Wilson’s solo albums is To the Bone, for God’s sake. The issue here is twofold. First, pacing. We start off with a solid run of great songs: Even Less, Piano Lessons, Pure Narcotic. But then we hit Slave Called Shiver and the album starts to sputter. After that the album is distractingly uneven, with what seems like an eternity between Don’t Hate Me and A Smart Kid, the two best songs after that point. And we close out with Stop Swimming, which, Wilson likes to say that the saddest songs are the most beautiful, but like all statements about quality that privilege substance over style, he’s only occasionally correct. Good sad songs can be transcendently beautiful (Feel So Low, for example), but Stop Swimming is not one of those.

Second: Stupid Dream is only almost a concept album. It’s probably worth picking at what is and isn’t a concept album here. The Wall is self-evidently a concept album, a self-exorcism in which a Roger Waters stand-in mentally isolates himself from the world and thus becomes a monster. Thick as a Brick is a concept album, albeit one lampooning concept albums, and like any great parody, it managed to anticipate the genre becoming a parody of itself. Sergeant Pepper’s, meanwhile, only pretends to be a concept album, as the pretense that the whole album is a performance by the eponymous fictional band is effectively abandoned around the third track. OK Computer is accidentally a concept album. Yorke and the band have always sworn up and down it isn’t one—largely because anyone who made a concept album in 1997 would be a pretentious git—but thanks to the way the tracks collectively paint an eschatologically nightmarish picture of what really awaited Britain at the dawn of New Labour, that’s how things shook loose anyway.

This level of thematic and narrative unity is largely absent from Stupid Dream. For all that the album is ostensibly about the music industry, only Piano Lessons and Stop Swimming unequivocally have the titular stupid dream as a subject; everything else has to be bent to fit the theme. Sometimes it doesn’t take a lot of work. Even Less may originally have been yet another broadside against religion, but in the end the narrator believes himself to be wasting his life pursuing stardom as much as the believers he sneers at. (This comes through better in the extended version that shows up on Recordings, whose essential final verse features the line “and I had a stupid dream that I could change things, but I’m a martyr to even less.”) You could take A Smart Kid, on the surface a quasi-sequel and resolution to Radioactive Toy, and turn it into another metaphor about alienation and isolation. But good luck trying to do the same with This Is No Rehearsal (about the murder of James Bulger) or Stranger by the Minute (which sounds like it belongs on In Absentia). Folding Slave Called Shiver (despite the “I’ll have more followers than Jesus Christ” line) and Don’t Hate Me into the album concept requires treating the frankly creepy and entitled narrator of those songs as the same as the one singing Even Less and Piano Lessons…and that’s an approach that runs into trouble when we hit Baby Dream in Cellophane, which is 90s rebellion taken to a natural conclusion: a song about a rebellious baby.

The point is, this album doesn’t quite cohere. It often seems like there are multiple concept albums jostling for space in here—one about the music industry, one about twisted, fractured relationships, and one about modern society in general—with none fully winning out and giving the album a sense of purpose.

This was, and occasionally still is, an issue with Steven Wilson “concept albums.” Very often it feels as though there just aren’t enough songs to fully flesh out the concept, and thus we have songs thrown in almost as filler. In fact, for as much as Wilson attempts to create fully realized concept albums, he wouldn’t actually be successful in that endeavor until Fear of a Blank Planet. This is far from the sole metric of how good a Steven Wilson album is—Lightbulb Sun, which has no concept as such, is the best Porcupine Tree album of the Alternative Era—but a complete concept does have the potential to rescue an album that’s meh in other respects. Usually.

In the case of Stupid Dream, this is a consequence of Wilson’s newly-rearranged songwriting process. Where much of Porcupine Tree’s Space Era work focused more on the album as a whole, and thus emphasized sounds and textures, here was Wilson’s first serious stab at writing actual songs. With a shift that massive, it’s only natural that there’s an overcorrection, and thus we have an album with quite a few great individual songs that don’t quite string together properly.

But on the flip side, we got quite a few great songs out of it. Even Less, even in its current form, cruelly hacked in half with numbers station footage stapled on to cover up the wound, remains a deliciously arrogant statement of purpose, the cocky spring from which the rest of the Alternative Era flows. Piano Lessons is an effective salvo for a reason, weaponizing the conventions of the four-minute pop song and turning an industry focused on profit, packaging, and disposability above artistic expression against itself (and that video!). Pure Narcotic has that lovely pastoral piano and Edwin’s modest yet booming bass kicking in after the first chorus. Don’t Hate Me has Theo Travis’ unbelievable saxophone. A Smart Kid was and is a fan favorite for a reason, thanks especially to the desolate instrumentation and the muted two-note chime accentuating certain verses and piano parts. The live version from ’03 with Mikael Akerfeldt singing the first verse is particularly interesting, especially because it’s the first halting instance of that recurring thing with PT/SW covers where having someone else sing the verses complicates the meaning of the song.

All of this pushes Stupid Dream slightly higher in the ranking than that extended slagging off up there would suggest. It may not fully work as an album, but of Porcupine Tree’s 90s material it’s still one of the ones I come back to the most, which is in some respects a better suggestion of how good the album actually is than an objective assessment of its positives and negatives. It won’t save it from sinking in the rankings as Porcupine Tree finds more of a balance between songwriting and conceptual unity, but it’s not a bad start.

  1. The Sky Moves Sideways
  2. Up the Downstair
  3. Stupid Dream
  4. On the Sunday of Life
  5. Signify