There comes a time after being rejected by a love interest when, all of a sudden, the most melancholy, bitter, and angry music begins to fill up the spurned individual’s mixtapes. Adele’s 21 will likely play a prominent role. If you’re into hip-hop you might go with Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreak. For those like myself who prefer their sadness communicated as heavily as possible, the doom and gloom of Katatonia will no doubt hit the spot. And, if you’re not into subtlety, you can just throw J. Geils Band’s “Love Stinks” into the CD player. Over the course of popular music’s history, there’s been no shortage of music to fill the hours we find ourselves wondering why the hell it is we even love in the first place.
With “Slave Called Shiver”, Stupid Dream’s fifth track and the second in the Unrequited Love Trilogy, our narrator finds himself in this exact spot, although his mood may be a little bit more obsessive than most people’s.
We left off last week with the opener of the Unrequited Love Trilogy, the sunny-sounding “Pure Narcotic”. At that point, the narrator knew that his crush didn’t feel the same way, but the realization hadn’t quite kicked in yet, made by the cheery glockenspiels garnishing the pleasant chord progression. But when the funky, brooding bassline of “Slave Called Shiver” enters, it’s clear the mood has changed, and not for the better.
“Slave Called Shiver”, like “Don’t Hate Me” right after it, is a showcase for the rhythmic interplay of bassist Colin Edwin and then-drummer Chris Maitland. (Maitland has since been replaced by Gavin Harrison, who picked up the sticks for the band with 2002’s In Absentia.) An unfortunate consequence of Steven Wilson’s immense popularity is that Porcupine Tree is often seen by many as “Steven Wilson and a bunch of other really good musicians”; while this was true for the band’s first few albums (1991’s On the Sunday of Life . . . was exclusively Wilson), with records like Signify and this one there’s little substance to that view. Porcupine Tree would be nothing without the sum of its parts, despite Wilson’s prominence in the songwriting role. There are a few tracks in the band’s discography that stand as a true testament to its genius, progressive interplay, and this is one of them for sure. The fact that this is both one of Stupid Dream’s strongest pieces and a composition written by all members of the group proves more than aptly that Porcupine Tree aren’t a one-man show.
Edwin’s bassline is the forefront of the song musically. Maitland’s incredible drum work and keyboardist Richard Barbieri’s six-note keyboard riff weave in and out of it, creating a mood that mixes a near danceable funkiness and a sinister desperation, highlighting the narrator’s beginning descent into madness. Wilson’s guitar is less present, though he does contribute an absolutely monster riff after the second chorus. The song becomes something of a precursor to the music we would hear on David Holmes’ soundtracks to Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s trilogy, although with an added menace.
In this funky, menacing state, our narrator has pushed past any of the hints of optimism heard on “Pure Narcotic”, and has decided to pursue his love with a relentless, unstoppable power. The song begins with the terror-inducing line, “I need you more / Than you can know / And if I hurt myself / It’s just for show”. Attention-grabbing is the name of the game now; the narrator feels that he must turn to extreme displays of self-mutilation in order to gain his love’s notice. “I found a better way to cut the pain”, he assures her, “You put a trigger here inside my brain.” By making her a cerebral opiate of sorts, he tries to pressure her into being his only mechanism for staying sane. Whereas in the last song he lamented, “No narcotics in my brain / Will make this go away”, he now has found a narcotic to cure his loneliness: the object of his affection herself. Here his desperation begins to bloom into the full-blown insanity that will take place before the song’s conclusion.
Meanwhile, it’s not long before his obsession gives way to delusion. In a dark echo of John Lennon’s famous quip about the Beatles’ popularity, the narrator sneers, “I may be nothing now / But I will rise / I’ll have more followers than Jesus Christ”. Despite the force of the claim, it only reinforces how alone he is in his determination.
The song’s final lyric depicts the chaotic state the narrator has made for himself: “Through all the smashing things and crashing cars / I love the ground you walk with all my heart”. There’s a hint of the doe-eyed love that was present on “Pure Narcotic”, but now it’s so imbedded in the narrator’s obstinate, paranoid resolve that he has reached the point of no return. He will either win her over and finally reach the thing he so desires, or he will crash and burn, destroying any hope he ever had for love. When we look at “Don’t Hate Me” next week, we will see the result of the narrator’s scheme.
As the adage goes, “The things we do for love . . .”