22 May 2000
4 Chords that Made a Million, March 2000
Shesmovedon, July 2000
German tour edition, February 2001
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?
- Failed relationships
- Living in a small town
- 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|
|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|
|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|
|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|
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.
- The Sky Moves Sideways
- Lightbulb Sun
- Up the Downstair
- Stupid Dream
- On the Sunday of Life