I’ve always been a fan of the sound of trains. The roar of the engine, the whine of the whistle. These sounds represent a sense of freedom to go anywhere. I sometimes hear the whistle of a train from my bedroom and I try and imagine what part of the country that train is headed towards as I drift into sleep. It’s a form of escapism linked with the feeling of sometimes wanting to escape somewhere new and start over.
Those feelings of wanting to escape were at their greatest when I was in high school. I remember talking with a friend of mine around that time about this modern progressive rock group Porcupine Tree, specifically their song “Way Out of Here.” My friend was describing to me how much he related with that song, specifically the opening lyrics “Out at the train tracks/I dream of escape/But a song comes on my iPod/and I realize it’s getting late.” He told me about how much he was bullied as a kid and how he would sit near the train tracks of his house wishing he could hop on the train and run away from everything. This song captured those feelings of longing for my friend and transported him back to a time in his life when he was at his most vulnerable.
I feel much the same way about Porcupine Tree’s song “Trains,” released on their most popular album, 2002’s In Absentia. In an interview, Steven Wilson (the head writer and vocalist for Porcupine Tree) described the song as being a metaphor for a nostalgic childhood. Wilson grew up near a train station and would hear the trains come and go as he would fall asleep so anytime he hears a train now it sets off a chain of memories for him that takes him back to that point. Similar feelings are ignited in me when I listen to this song again. Porcupine Tree were one of those bands I would listen to when I was in high school to help drown out the feelings of dread and self-loathing I would feel late at night before I had to go to school again in the morning. I would stay up late wandering my basement listening to “Trains” on my iPod while imagining myself traveling to different cities and places.
As a song, divorced from personal feelings of nostalgia, it is one of the band’s most tightly crafted. From the strum patterns of the opening acoustic guitar, to the point where the full band kicks in and especially the bridge with the banjo which leads to one of Wilson’s most emotive vocal performances, it’s no wonder why it consistently ranks in the top of the band’s songs. “Trains” is one of those songs that while it may sound technically pretty, it still has a strong emotional core that pulls the listener in which can’t be said for all of their songs. That emotional core is the reason I still put the song on even after I’ve stopped listening to most of their music.
Whether it’s through the feelings of nostalgia it elicits or the craftsmanship of the music, “Trains” is a song I still find myself listening to in my room late at night waiting for the sound of the next train to pass by.