Prog’s Only Stupid Dream: Porcupine Tree – “Stop Swimming”

Porcupine Tree
Stupid Dream

After 11 songs of progressive rock, psychedelic pop, jazz interplay, and not to mention some of the heaviest music Porcupine Tree had written at the time, it’s fitting that Stupid Dream ends the way that it does. The calm, introspective jazz that is the musical backbone of this track is exactly what is necessary to cap the narrative that’s unfolded before it. Fittingly, the theme of alienation in the modern music industry is where everything comes back to, although this time around there’s a weakness in Wilson’s voice. The jaded child of “Piano Lessons” has grown up into a man unsure of those early convictions; it’s easy to make fun of the greedy, shallow musicians who sell out for a buck, but when drowning while swimming against the stream you set to defeat, a sense of defeat is not far off.

The subdued rhythm of “Stop Swimming” sounds like the result of someone being beaten and downtrodden. The heavy guitar riffs Wilson strummed just a few songs earlier have faded, leaving only sparse instrumentation. The interplay between Chris Maitland’s drumming and Richard Barbieri’s lonely, echoey piano chords is a spiritual predecessor of the chamber jazz later explored on Wilson’s oldest musical project No-Man, on its 2001 masterpiece Returning Jesus. (“Outside the Machine” comes to mind in particular.) Together these two form the core musical background to Wilson’s plaintive vocal, perhaps the saddest performance one is ever likely to hear from him. Yet despite this melancholy, Wilson dubbed “Stop Swimming” one of his favorite Porcupine Tree compositions, arguing that sad songs are often the most beautiful. (This can be heard in the introduction to the track on the Warszawa live album.)

Though to many this will appear too glum for a songwriter to find comfort in, for Wilson it makes perfect sense. First, there’s the simple reason that the overwhelming majority of his lyrics are somber, melancholy, and at times crushingly depressing. Second, and more specifically, this mood is the logical conclusion of the events of Stupid Dream. Wilson may have wanted the music industry to change, but even he recognizes the dangers of contrarianism, or as it is known in its newest form, hipsterism. Porcupine Tree, No-Man, Blackfield, and Bass Communion may have achieved admirable cult success that continues to grow, but even knowing Wilson’s integrity I don’t doubt he or any of his fellow bandmates have been tempted by big-ticket grabs. This would especially be the case with Stupid Dream (as well as its followup, Lightbulb Sun), since a lot of the music here is pretty accessible. In a more just universe, “Piano Lessons” would have been a radio smash, and everyone would have gotten the joke. But it wasn’t, and except to Porcupine Tree’s fans that song’s satire is lost on most. Porcupine Tree has swum admirably against the force of the mainstream, but there is bound to come a time where the current begins to push too hard. Conflict is bound to rise, which this cut recognizes: “The more I fake it and pretend I don’t care / The more you read into what isn’t there”.

“Stop Swimming” is, at its core, an act of honesty and humility. There have been accusations of laziness and greediness throughout Stupid Dream, but the finger of blame can only be pointed for so long. Being able to make it big with challenging progressive songwriting may be a stupid dream, but there are other choices. One doesn’t have to, as the piano instructor of “Piano Lessons” chided, “give up hoping” and “end up in bed”. One could let go. How easy and momentarily refreshing it would be; suddenly, with the trappings of fame coming nearer and nearer, fulfillment must be on the horizon . . . right?

We can look to Porcupine Tree’s growing popularity while remaining fairly underrated for the answer, but in the context of the song we aren’t provided with one. “Maybe it’s time to stop swimming”, Wilson ponders, “Maybe it’s time to find out where I’m at”. This hesitation may seem unfulfilling, but given how strongly the band railed against “big music” early on in the record, they’ve actually arrived at quite a change.

But changed though the band may be, choosing to stop swimming isn’t as easy as submitting oneself to the river. If one has become comfortable in his alternative lifestyle, the signposts of mainstream life will be unfamiliar, perhaps even threatening. Even though Wilson here begins to “leave”, to surrender, he finds that the path ahead of him isn’t neatly paved. “I forget which door I came through / And I know the lift can be painfully slow / So I’m happy to leave by the window”, he observes, wondering how this new environment is all going to work.

So it is with a beautiful bit of uncertainty that this Between the Grooves series finds its end. There’s been much to learn from Stupid Dream, as its lessons about the dangers of unrequited love, the ever-profit driven music industry, and even everyday life ring true long after its 1999 release. Both Porcupine Tree and progressive rock have since evolved, adapting to the shifting music scenes both find their inspiration in. Looking back on Stupid Dream and the turn of the millennium, it’s hard not to see why these British proggers have become as prominent as they are. Stupid Dream remains one of Porcupine Tree’s best achievements, as well as one of the best albums, progressive or otherwise, of the 1990s. It may have arrived late to the decade, but given its trenchant criticisms it came just at the right time.

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”

*”Stranger by the Minute”

*”A Smart Kid”

*”Tinto Brass”

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