[14 May 2012]
PopMatters Assistant Editor
Porcupine Tree’s 1991 debut, On the Sunday of Life . . ., is rather odd to look back on after hearing the group’s newest outings. There’s not a lick of metal to be heard, and its absurd psychedelic humor has long since faded. (example: the initials of “Linton Samuel Dawson” are . . .). The majority of the album’s 75-minute length is made up of bizarre experiments, including a brief snippet of a suicidal turnip’s final moments and an eerie monologue by a man trapped in outer space. However, as devout Porcupine Tree fans know, that first record was in many ways something of a joke; the band, after all, started out as a side project for frontman Steven Wilson, whose primary musical group at the time was No-Man, a duo featuring Wilson on instruments and singer/songwriter Tim Bowness on vocals. Over time, as Porcupine Tree’s music became less humorous and more progressive, its fame rose to a level above No-Man, who despite a rabid cult following remain largely underrated. (For my money, No-Man’s Together We’re Stranger is the closest thing to a perfect record Wilson has ever participated in). The off-kiler psychedelia of On the Sunday of Life . . . would later become more serious, particularly on the sophomore LP Up the Downstair.
But despite Porcupine Tree’s growth into a bona fide progressive rock act that began with 1996’s Signify, there remain elements of those goofball songs from On the Sunday of Life . . .. Stupid Dream has one such track: “Baby Dream in Cellophane”. Though there are a few psychedelic numbers on Stupid Dream (“Piano Lessons” and “Stranger by the Minute”), this song is remarkable in how strongly reminiscent it is of the band’s earliest work. The majority of the songwriting on this album is song-based and largely devoid of the devil-may-care experimenting of Porcupine Tree’s earliest work; psychedelia is not the primary sonic but rather one of the many influences shaping the record. “Baby Dream in Cellophane”, however, easily sounds like it could have been a leftover cut from the beginnings of Porcupine Tree, though it does also display Wilson’s love of Beach Boys-styled vocal harmonies, which appear multiple times throughout Stupid Dream. In the grand scheme of the record this is a minor cut, but in its own way it’s a truly unique song.
Lyrically, “Baby Dream in Cellophane” is all psychedelic pastiche. There’s talk of being in limousines, raining dreams, along with “pale gods and demigods”. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it doesn’t have to: the music is what’s compelling here. The verses are fairly low-key; a single guitar riff matches Wilson’s vocal, and some light synth textures provide a light background. They’re rather sleep-inducing, really. But the song really shines in the chorus, wherein the moody verses blossom into a shimmering cascade of strummed chords and layered vocals. Like “Heartattack in a Lay By” and “Mellotron Scratch” after it, “Baby Dream in Cellophane” beautifully captures Wilson’s skill with multi-layered vocal arrangements; he has the capability to make his single voice sound like a choir. (And what lengths he goes to; “Every Home Is Wired” on Signify took 37 vocal tracks to make.)
Nevertheless, as pretty as it is, “Baby Dream in Cellophane” is one of the few tracks on Stupid Dream that isn’t wholly memorable. It’s captivating while you’re listening to it, but after digesting the whole album it’s clear that, comparatively, it’s really an interlude. Still, it is notable for bringing in the old Porcupine Tree sonic aesthetic with the new one, and it says something about the band that an interlude can be so damn pretty.