It’s been 10 years since Porcupine Tree released their final album, The Incident. Listening to it about a week ago, I realized that it’s become my favorite Porcupine Tree album — a post previously held by In Absentia — by a mile.
Which is surprising, given that the first time I listened to The Incident, I didn’t quite get it. It was the first album to set up the relationship I’ve had with nearly all of Steven Wilson’s work since: his albums grow on me. I don’t experience love at first sound with them anymore, not like I did with In Absentia or Deadwing.
No — the love I have for The Incident and Steven Wilson’s solo work is much deeper and more enduring. Instead of an instant infatuation, I’m usually confused. He changes his sound with every album, and even though I know his influences, the way he synthesizes them with each new release feels alien. The Raven That Refused to Sing is now my favorite album of his, and I found it both underwhelming (in terms of my feelings for it) and overwhelming (in terms of its lofty aesthetic aims and uniqueness) for the first few times I listened to it.
I know now that I have to take a leap of faith with each Steven Wilson album. I know now that he will win me over, eventually, introducing me to sounds I never knew I needed.
Listening to The Incident In Your 30s vs. Your 20s
There’s another reason, though, that I couldn’t have connected with The Incident the way I do now: I was 21 and in college when it came out. I hadn’t been beaten down by the brutal conformity of late-stage capitalism yet. I couldn’t grasp its central conceit — the various ways we use euphemisms to numb ourselves to horror and tragedy — as viscerally as I do in the Year of Our Lord 2019.
Kneel, disconnect and waste another year
Fill the applications, start a new career
In fact, the concept behind The Incident is basically a more grown-up version of the concept behind Fear of a Blank Planet. FoaBP addresses the way we numb children with what he considers to be overpathologizing and overprescribing (“All the apathy/ from the pills in me/ it’s all in me, all in you”), and the ways teenagers might try to fill the resulting void with drugs, sex, video games, television, etc. The Incident addresses the way we numb adults with euphemistic language (describing car crashes, dangerous cults, or personal tragedies/heartbreaks as “incidents”), stiff upper lips, and conformity, and the ways adults might try to fill the void by, for instance, developing sexual fetishes for car crashes.
There’s some Freudian perspective at play: maybe deriving sexual climax from death and horror is the way the id acts out as a result of all the repression and denial adulthood forces us into.
I had a literature professor with a personal conviction that people should wait until their 30s to read Moby Dick — otherwise they just won’t get it. Life experience illuminates its central conflict. I used to teach SAT test prep classes back when the test had a required essay portion, and I would say something similar to my students about Death of a Salesman (after reading one too many otherwise well-written essays that really missed the point of the play). You can’t really empathize with Willy Loman until you’ve experienced the feeling of being made redundant after merging your identity with your job, something we’re all kind of socialized to do in the U.S.
I couldn’t relate to The Incident — at least as well as I do now — until I felt the soul-stripping effects of socially (and economically) enforced numbness, myself.
Why I Think The Incident is Porcupine Tree’s Best Album
The Incident is the only Porcupine Tree album about which I can say I never skip a track. It feels wrong to, first of all, given that the first side of the album is technically one long song — and I love every minute of it. The pacing is perfect, alternating between heavy riffing, dreamy atmosphere, spooky synths, nostalgic acoustic strumming, and nearly every sound Steven Wilson had played with up to that point, with nothing ever wearing its welcome.
If there’s one quality I can say I look for in all art, one quality that separates art I love from art that makes me go “this is fine,” it’s patience. The Incident features some of the most patient, perfectionist composing Steven Wilson ever did for Porcupine Tree. I love the chord progression he introduces in “The Blind House,” and I love how he twists and recontextualizes it in the hauntingly beautiful “Octane Twisted”/”The Seance.”
He uses the same power of transmutation in “Time Flies,” this time by copping somebody else’s riff (“Dogs” by Pink Floyd) but making it his own (and giving it a second, satisfying twist in the bridge). I actually think this kind of sampling makes the song more effective. It’s probably Steven Wilson’s most explicitly person tune — it literally begins with his birth (“I was born in ’67/ the year of Sgt. Pepper/ and Are You Experienced“), and examines the same themes of nostalgia he returns to again and again in his songwriting.
The first two albums Steven Wilson fell in love with were Love to Love You Baby by Donna Summer and Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd, so directly quoting a Pink Floyd in a song about nostalgia packs a poignant punch. (This post needs a pop filter.)
Lyrically, The Incident features some of Steven Wilson’s best work, period.
I admire his penchant for trying new things lyrically with nearly every album, but some efforts I find more successful than others (FoaBP felt more like what someone “born in ’67” thinks a kid in the aughts sounded like than what the actual kids sounded like). In general, I find him to be at his most successful when he uses his talent for tantalizing imagery.
Take the eponymous track. I don’t know if Steven Wilson will ever write lyrics that top these for me — and that’s fine. If I ever write lyrics this dope (unlikely), I’ll probably say to myself, Well, nowhere to go from here but down, but that’s fine because these lines justify my existence as a slinger of verse:
At junction 8 the traffic starts to slow
Artilleries of braking lights and bluish glow
Ascending in a plumage of twisted steel
Shattered glass and confetti dashed upon the wheel
The eloquence that begins “The Incident” eventually gives way to the climax of the song (and of the album, I think) — the simple, naked repetition of “I want to be loved.” The vulnerable motivation — the urge to connect — emerges, buried under the disaffection that leads somebody to develop a fetish for gory car crashes.
That’s some good shit.
And then, you get the other side of the album, playing on similar themes but in a series of vignettes. “Bonnie the Cat” is an especially strong, if terrifying, track. “Remember Me Lover” is quintessentially Porcupine Tree, wrenching sardonic bitterness out of easygoing major key tonality, intermittent heaviness, and dreamy vocal harmony, a la Stupid Dream (but with the maturity of PT’s later sound, which is a fucking treat).
Basically, The Incident is the perfect culmination of everything that I’ve ever loved about Porcupine Tree, with more patience and polish. (Again, this post needs a pop filter badly.)
Why The Incident Is More Relevant Now Than Ever
When The Incident came out, the iPhone was still new, and the attention economy, while burgeoning, didn’t feel nearly as oppressive (granted, after nearly a decade of a digital marketing career, I notice these things a lot more now). The ways we numb ourselves are legion: Netflix binges; addictive smartphone apps; the ravenous, time-devouring maws of Reddit and TVTropes (my preferred mind-melting modalities).
Millennials and zoomers are so aware of this phenomenon that we mock it in absurdist, dadaist memes, lampshading our generational despair in the Doomer persona and suicide memes. (Note: no disrespect intended; I find something oddly beautiful in these collective, if anonymous, paroxysms of gallows humor. In fact, I curate my own stash of dank depression memes.)
The tension between numbness/avoidance and desperation/need for connection (“I want to be loved”) that characterizes The Incident is more relevant today than ever. Its one-of-a-kind composite of heavy, atmospheric, complex, and minimalist soundscapes makes it musically timeless, as well.
So I recommend pulling this album out of your collection, giving it a listen with fresh ears, and seeing if the way you feel about it now has changed in 10 years.