In the first entry of this Between the Grooves series, I pointed out a certain Darwinian aspect to the lyrics of Stupid Dream. In the context of that first piece, I was referring to the lyric in “Even Less” where Steven Wilson sings, “Some kids are best left to fend for themselves / And others were born to stack shelves”. This harkening to youth is something done frequently on Stupid Dream; recall how “Piano Lessons” reminisced about the destruction of childhood dreams, pointing out the biopower-like mechanisms by which children are stripped of musical creativity. If they grow up to be musicians, they’re likely to just end up as carbon copies of all the other generic music that plagues the airwaves. Anything else, as the album’s title suggests, is a stupid dream.
With “This Is No Rehearsal”, one of Stupid Dream‘s most radio-friendly moments, Porcupine Tree again explore the dark side of youth in the contemporary age (or, at least how it was understood in 1999). Despite sounding almost cheery in relation to the tracks that come before it (especially the gloom of “Don’t Hate Me”), “This Is No Rehearsal” is the most lyrically dark of the material on Stupid Dream. Though the song’s three stanzas aren’t too specific, Wilson has stated that this song is about the tragic murder of James Bulger, a two-year-old boy, by two ten-year-olds. Putting the fairly upbeat music against the extreme darkness of the subject matter may seem like a depraved bit of black humor, but in reality the song isn’t meant to comment specifically on the Bulger case, nor is it a specific indictment of Bulger’s mother. (Bulger was taken while at a shopping center with his mother). Instead, it can be seen as a criticism of the cruel nature of the modern world, wherein small trips to the shopping mall can end in a tragic and brutal murder.
This criticism is one that would fully blossom in Porcupine Tree’s 2007 masterpiece Fear of a Blank Planet. In an unfortunate (and unanticipated) moment of dark irony, the music video to the title track, depicting groups of blank-faced teenagers wielding guns, was released the same day as the Virginia Tech shootings. (The video was later removed temporarily.) Like “Fear of a Blank Planet”, “This Is No Rehearsal” chronicles how even the most mundane parts of everyday life are now vulnerable to human nature’s darkest impulses. But while the former depicts this through the eyes of a catatonic teenager, the latter does it through the voice of a helpless mother. “Still I remember how I dressed him this morning / And then he was gone”, she sings, “Stolen / My only one”.
But while the song’s infectious groove isn’t quite level with the dark lyrical material, it does mirror the ways in which tragic events are often handled. Here we have a snippet of a mother losing her son in a graphic murder by two young boys; yet, knowing the contemporary news media cycle, her story would be overshadowed the next day by some manufactured controversy. We’re just supposed to move on and keep a sunny disposition, lest we get caught up in the horrific events that ruin lives. This further explains why the lyrics here are so sparse; all we often hear from victims in cases like these are sound bites, fragments of much larger woes. Any of these lyrics could have easily been taken directly from a newspaper article about the Bulger case at the time.
Though a perfunctory listen to “This Is No Rehearsal” might suggest a straightforward rock song, in its three-minute and twenty-seven-second length it says quite a lot. Come for the hummable chorus and the thrashy post-chorus riff, stay for the larger criticism about the humanity-corroding nature of the modern world. Moreover, it demands your input: as the chorus asks, “Somebody interpret this for me.”