Prog's Only Stupid Dream: Porcupine Tree - "Stranger by the Minute"

The second single off of Stupid Dream, "Stranger by the Minute" is one of the album's most endearing songs, a tongue-in-cheek mash of psychedelic lyrics and radio-friendly rock. It's also unusually chipper for these usually melancholy proggers.

Porcupine Tree

Stupid Dream

Artist Website:
Label: K-Scope/Snapper
US Release Date: 1999-04-06
UK Release Date: 1999-03-08

Steven Wilson's lyricism, especially in Porcupine Tree, is no stranger to bizarre imagery. Consider this stanza from one of the few classic tracks from the debut LP, the ballad "Nine Cats": "A minstrel bought a crooked spoon / And gave it to a blue baboon / Who filled it full of virgin snow / And wandered in the afterglow".

Though that would not be the last of Wilson’s psychedelic lyrics in Porcupine Tree’s career, the charm and humor of those early experiments (when the band was basically just Wilson working by himself) would later resurge on some of the group's rock-heavy albums. The psychedelic material of Up the Downstair (1993) and The Sky Moves Sideways (1995) was, while displaying traits of the genre's inherent absurdity, comparatively serious. You laugh when hearing about a toad in ballet shoes in "Nine Cats", but you're left pondering existence itself upon hearing the chorus lyric of The Sky Moves Sideways' title track: "Sometimes it's only afterwards, I find that I'm not there".

And while Porcupine Tree's lyrics took a dark turn in the 21st century (the serial killer narratives on In Absentia, the drug-laden societal downfall of Fear of a Blank Planet), there are still traces of that early psychedelic humor even on the groups releases that focused on progressive rock and metal. Despite Stupid Dream's emphasis on song-based material rather than the long-form progressive experimentation of previous albums, "Stranger by the Minute" is an excellent continuation of the psychedelic songwriting that so dominated the band's early years. Like the track before it, "Baby Dream in Cellophane", its lyrics are bizarre and whimsical, though unlike that song, it has a cheery mood to it, a mood present on no other track from Stupid Dream. I can count on both hands the amount of songs in Porcupine Tree's discography that are "happy", and this is one of them.

"Stranger by the Minute" was chosen as the second single for this LP (following "Piano Lessons"), and rightly so. This is one of Stupid Dream's most accessible tracks in terms of genre; save for the Dave Gilmour-esque slide guitar, this is a pretty straightforward bit of alternative rock. However, it's never generic, as it bears many of the requisite Porcupine Tree stylistics, such as the vocal harmonies in the chorus and quirky lyrics.

The chorus makes it clear that Wilson is singing about a dream state. The first few lines make it sound rather terrifying, singing of ghosts and killers walking through a park alongside children. However, it's the second stanza that gives a peculiar, though insightful, perspective ("Under floorboards, it's hard to fly a kite / Underwater, my cigarette won't light / Standing in the shade, I'm getting frostbite").

In a dream, especially a psychedelic one, there'd be no absurdity in smoking underwater or flying a kite without air. Here Wilson highlights how paradox cuts both ways, and in doing so he shows how irony is integral to all of our lives. Often times we expect to be able to do whatever we want in our imaginations or in our dreams; however, there are some things out of our control. In a rather oblique way this could be seen as a Y2K commentary given Stupid Dream's 1999 release; with the world rapidly changing for any number of reasons, whether it be globalization or the proliferation of new technology, no doubt existence seemed fraught with contradictions back then. Ideas that were once thought to be the inventions of science fiction, such as the Internet, became a reality, thanks to Al Gore's incredible work. (I jest.) After listening to this track many, many times, I've come to feel there might just be something more to this than I first suspected.

The band must have thought so too, as evidenced by the song's reappearance at the two "special shows" performed at Radio City Music Hall in New York and the Royal Albert Hall in London. Both concerts opened with an acoustic opening set, with "Stranger by the Minute" being the first offering. Even in that intimate setting, all of what made it such a great song the first time around was still present. Though most Porcupine Tree fans wouldn't call "Stranger by the Minute" a "classic" (the tracks from Stupid Dream with that designation are usually "Even Less" and "Don't Hate Me"), upon hearing this acoustic version it felt like Porcupine Tree was greeting an old friend. The myriad of "classic" tracks that have emerged since Stupid Dream haven't prevented "Stranger by the Minute" from feeling like a truly special part of the band's oeuvre.

Previous Entries

*"Even Less"

*"Piano Lessons"

*"Stupid Dream/Pure Narcotic"

*"Slave Called Shiver"

*"Don't Hate Me"

*"This Is No Rehearsal"

*"Baby Dream in Cellophane"

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.