“A light snow is falling on London / All sign of the living has gone”. What a journey our narrator has taken. The Unrequited Trilogy began with some optimism. That then segued into a dark, seething desperation. And now, with “Don’t Hate Me”, the trilogy concludes with depression amidst a solitary winter. The cheery chord progression of “Pure Narcotic” has now been replaced with a bluesy, somber riff in B minor. Hope is now out of the equation. And while this turn may be depressing, it’s also the most powerful moment on Stupid Dream; years later, it remains in the upper echelons of Porcupine Tree’s finest songwriting.
We left off last week with “Slave Called Shiver”, which depicted the narrator’s chaotic descent into irrational, attention-starving displays of love. The mood was a funky sort of anger; the traces of expectation lingering in “Pure Narcotic’s” wake were now smeared with an overpowering determination to do anything to win his love over. When “Don’t Hate Me” begins, however, it’s clear he’s far beyond both stages. The song opens with a silent bit of white noise, after which the sound of a cord being plugged into a guitar can be heard. The narrator is pacing himself now; he realizes that rushing into over-the-top displays of love won’t win her over, nor will standing in the corner hoping that she’ll notice him. His life has slowed down. Left in the sparse London winter, the weight of rejection has now crushed our narrator, leaving his pleas to be heard by an audience of no one.
“All sign of the living has gone”, he notices. He watches as the last train arrives at the station, where no one gets off. He is completely alone, which finally gives him room to realize the situation at hand. Beforehand, the narrator surrounded himself with people; in doing so, he still allotted himself grounds for hope. As long as people are around to notice him, he likely thinks that he can exert some influence so he can attain the love he so desires. But now that the only voice he hears is his own, he realizes the futility of his endeavors.
The chorus in particular stands as the culmination of the narrator’s defeat: “Don’t hate me/I’m not special like you / I’m tired / And I’m so alone”. This mirrors the chorus line of “Pure Narcotic”. the half insult/half apology “I’m sorry that I’m not like you”, although here there are no more apologies. One common element running throughout all three of the songs in the Unrequited Love Trilogy is the narrator’s inability to understand why his crush won’t return his love. In his eyes, he’s done nothing but show entire devotion and admiration for her. This is still evident on “Don’t Hate Me” in that he doesn’t understand what it means to be “special” like her. Even as he realizes the tatters his love has been torn into, there’s still a longing he can’t push past.
In the final chorus before the long instrumental section, he asks, “Can I call you on the telephone / Now and again?” And though this sounds like he hasn’t let go, this is probably as close to contrition he’s going to get. He has, in many ways, moved beyond this bout of unrequited love, but he still wants to be reminded of all that he’s gone through. People in love tend to do things that hurt themselves, and this is one such example.
I could write much more about the end of the narrator’s emotional journey, but what makes “Don’t Hate Me” one of Porcupine Tree’s best songs is not its lyrics but its instrumentation. The first three minutes of this eight-minute song are where the majority of the singing happens; the remainder of the time is devoted to an instrumental repartee that demonstrates all of these musicians’ chops.
The first bit of brilliance is in the interplay of Colin Edwin’s smooth bassline and Chris Maitland’s drumming. Together these two create a rhythm pattern that’s both subtle and complex; if one was focusing solely on the solos atop the rhythm section, the song would flow perfectly, but upon listening closely to the drum/bass interplay many intricate rhythms become evident. The drums and bass seam to weave in and out of each other, doing some individually impressive stuff while nevertheless providing the necessary rhythmic background for the song’s two primary solos. Maitland would later go on to leave Porcupine Tree after the studio recording following this one (2000’s Lightbulb Sun) but in his stead he left some truly memorable tracks, this one being perhaps his greatest.
These solos, one for the flute and the other for the saxophone, are performed by frequent Steven Wilson collaborator Theo Travis. Both are jaw-dropping in their own right, though each has its own mood; the flute solo is subdued, whereas the saxophone solo is fiery and passionate. The performance between Edwin, Maitland, and Travis marks some of the best musical interplay Porcupine Tree has ever seen; some jazz bands I’ve heard haven’t matched what is going on here.
However, in Porcupine Tree’s live performances, the band lacks Travis’ flute and saxophone, so some changes were made in order to facilitate the two solos. In the 2005 live DVD Arriving Somewhere . . ., shot in Chicago’s Park West venue, the flute solo is played on a synthesizer by Richard Barbieri, and Wilson plays the saxophone solo on his guitar. Naturally, neither can quite match up to the brilliance of the studio recording, but both do a good job of remaining true to the initial work. Wilson’s guitar solo is especially something to behold; though he has repeatedly stated that he is by no means a “guitar hero” or a shredder, solos like this one reveal a much more sophisticated portrait of Wilson as a guitarist.