Prog’s Only Stupid Dream: Porcupine Tree - “Stupid Dream/Pure Narcotic”
This installment of Between the Grooves looks at the beginning of Stupid Dream's "Unrequited Love Trilogy", the whimsical "Pure Narcotic". The unnamed narrator's first glimpse of unreturned love is the calm before the storm that inevitably follows.
The twenty-nine second interlude that is Stupid Dream’s title track may seem insignificant. Why devote the whole space of a track to an ephemeral bit of orchestral tuning and operatic singing? Musically speaking the song (if you can call it that) isn’t memorable in its own right. But what it does is effectively segue into the tripartite cycle that forms the midsection of Stupid Dream. Brief though this musical vignette is, it serves as the conductor readying the baton for this masterpiece of the album.
The three cuts that follow -- “Pure Narcotic”, “Slave Called Shiver”, and “Don’t Hate Me” -- collectively form what I like to call the “Unrequited Love Trilogy”. Though not officially designated as a trilogy, the theme of each song’s lyrics is consistent, presenting the emotional rollercoaster that is being in love with someone who doesn’t return that love. Each has a mood that captures the specific state the unidentified narrator occupies in his journey into the hazards of romance. And though Porcupine Tree has come to be known for its dark atmospherics, "Pure Narcotic" remains one of the band's most genial-sounding songs. Despite the pleading and begging in the apologetic chorus, the music sounds uncharacteristically cheery.
Musically, "Pure Narcotic" is quite straightforward. A simple D-C-G chord progression backs most of the song, played primarily on the guitar and piano. After the second chorus, a theremin-like solo punctuates the superficially happy mood, adding an almost eerie unrest to the narrator's doe-eyed love. The solo here is the musical equivalent of a forced smile; the narrator is beginning to realize how his love doesn't match up with reality, but doesn't want to display any signs of weakness. High-pitched and sunny as the solo may sound, it foreshadows a darkness made plainly evident in "Slave Called Shiver". The song's juxtaposition of melancholy lyrics with a optimistic musical mood depicts the nascent stage of unrequited love, wherein the narrator simultaneously sees that the one he pines for doesn't share his feelings and still holds on to hope for things to go somewhere. "You keep me alone in a room full of friends", he sings, "You keep me hating". For all of the negative things he sees this unnamed love doing to him, it doesn't sound like he's giving up.
The chorus is particularly indicative of this tension: "I'm sorry that I'm not like you / I worry that I don't act the way you want me to". Steven Wilson's vocal here is especially effective; he delivers it both as an insult and as an apology. He truly is sorry that he can't live up to his love's expectations; what person in love wouldn't be? But at the same time he begins to, as many do in cases of unrequited love, sense some injustice. Why can't she love him? Or why at least can't she see his love for her as something worth exploring? This song foreshadows the desperation that becomes full-blown over the course of the next two tracks; its title comes from the pre-chorus line "No narcotics in my brain / Can make this go away". This seemingly simple case of unreciprocated adoration has already begun to push the narrator into dark territory; not only has he started taking drugs, but he's also become addicted to Radiohead ("You keep me listening to The Bends"). It's not hard to imagine the narrator sitting in a musky, dimly lit corner listening to "Just" in a cloud of angst.
With "Pure Narcotic", all of the emotions to be displayed in the Unrequited Love Trilogy are present; some are at the forefront, while others lay bubbling underneath. As pretty of a song as it is, it's amazing how much darkness and tension lies underneath. By the time this track comes to its conclusion, it won't be long before this love detours into some terrifying places.