May 2000 – album reviews – Porcupine Tree’s ‘Lightbulb Sun’ (“the late flowering of Steve Wilson’s pure songwriting”)

24 May

Porcupine Tree: 'Lightbulb Sun'

Porcupine Tree: ‘Lightbulb Sun’

Porcupine Tree have had a funny time of it in their decade of existence. Maybe they asked for it: psych-rock underground heroes with a pipeline to rave, then prog hopefuls loudly damning the prog scene, then heading determinedly towards an indie sector that’s unprepared (to put it mildly) for music and musicians of their ilk. But their journey’s maintained its upward curve free of busts and inner bust-ups; and the sidelines and brother projects thronging round them – No-Man and Jansen Barbieri Karn’s art-pop, Bass Communion‘s ambient electronic gubbins, Ex-Wise-Heads’ world music, even IEM’s scraggly Krautrock and plunderphonic cut-ups – show that Porcupine Tree are no stick-in-the-mud rockers, and that between them they’ve got a mind that flies far and wide across the musical landscape.

 
I reckon, though, that were you to cut the Porkies’ headman Steve Wilson open right down to the core and take a look at his heart, you’d find “songs” written on it in flowing, joined-up writing. And for ‘Lightbulb Sun’ (as with its equally song-heavy predecessor ‘Stupid Dream’), Wilson’s made a pronounced effort to finally yank his band clear of that neo-Pink Floyd, instrumental tag that’s dogged them for years. The extended melodic jams of old have taken a back seat to sharply-wrought melodic pop songs; and the rackety Hillage/Khan riffery of that abrasive 4 Chords That Made a Million single sits oddly on an album that’s as distinctively English as cucumber sandwiches. By the river. In Winchester. Plus with Dave Gregory welcomed into the production proceedings (mostly for string arrangements but, one suspects, in general spirit as well) large parts of ‘Lightbulb Sun’ harken towards XTC’s English pastoralism.

 
Although any XTC guile which might’ve adhered to these wistful songs of love and lost summers has been filtered out en route. Last Chance To Evacuate Planet Earth Before It Is Recycled plays at mixing the first stirrings of adolescent love with the grandiose deathwish of the Heaven’s Gate cult, but it gets no more ambitious than that. Directness is the hallmark of ‘Lightbulb Sun’ – perhaps the title track (about a sick schoolboy coddled and recuperating in bed, enthralled with the unreality of fever vision) has a drug subtext with lines like “I’ll only take medicine if it’s followed by sweets”, but it’s just as likely to be no more than it seems.

 
Episodes of childhood that stick in the memory are as much part of the thoughtful nostalgia anchoring the album as the retrospective daydreaming of Where We Would Be (ending on a bewildered-but-wiser note of “strange how you never become / the person you see when you’re young”). Or the lover’s angst in songs like Feel So Low; in which our Steven, playing that “who breaks the wounded silence first?” game, loses outright (although it was probably worth it to hear that string quartet cry with you, Steve).

 
And though it has its dark side, ‘Lightbulb Sun’ is a record that welcomes little gushes of warmth. The sound’s warmer than anything Porcupine Tree have tried before: with a big fresh drum sound plus acoustic guitars, banjos and hammer dulcimers to change the previous clean space-rock to something more homespun. Wilson’s electric guitar heroism’s not as overwhelming as before, though reaching new expressive peaks. There’s room for Turkish and African lutes from bassist Colin Edwin‘s collection, and the infamous Richard Barbieri spends more time on classic keyboards like the Rhodes, Hammond and Mellotron than he does on cooking up his unearthly synth textures. Also, with Wilson’s urges towards futurism and post-rock held back this time, the band concentrate on banging out songs that’ll move people instead of just critics (ahem).

 
The late flowering of Steve Wilson’s pure songwriting (in strong evidence on ‘Stupid Dream’, a hard fact on this follow-up) is producing gentle gems. Like the immaculate acceptance of love’s end on Shesmovedon, an acoustics-driven sigher with a chorus harmony (over which any of our neo-classic British rock bands would bite their fingers off rather than admit they couldn’t do it themselves – hello Ocean Colour Scene! hello Noel!) Or the majestic yet soft-sung healing touch of The Rest Will Flow, sweeping along on a flood of heart-gladdening strings. At the other end, the snakey and resentful undertones of Hatesong (a polite pissed-off English hiss, evil fretless bass and eardrum punches being swung nearby) and the eerie, let’s-pretend-things-are-better fairground tune of How Is Your Life Today?, rotating on carousels of piano and Barbieri calliope effects. On these, Wilson sounds spooked and heartsick – deserted in the yawning void of an empty house and too stricken to even pick up the mail.

 
Songs like these seem far more rewarding than backsliders like the lengthy Russia On Ice, which risks catapulting the band straight back into the “baby Floyd” box: being a bit of a ‘Mope On You Sulky Diamond’, long prog touches and all. Porcupine Tree are beyond this wielding of obvious weightiness now. Singing about houses and failing handholds instead of stars and corrupted sermons often means the songs go deeper, and if this means Wilson and co are domesticated and lost to the cosmic fraternity, so be it. I prefer them like this, under the changing sun rather than swirling in inner space chasing a dubious light up their own navels.

 
Porcupine Tree: ‘Lightbulb Sun’
Snapper Music/K-Scope, SMASCD827 (6 36551 28272 7)
CD-only album
Released:
22nd May 2000
Get it from: Burning Shed
Porcupine Tree online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM Apple Music YouTube Vimeo Deezer Google Play Pandora Spotify Tidal Instagram Amazon Music
 

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