Interpretations:I Can't Remember The Dream
Just wanting to find one source of joy to alleviate depression
We've all been there. We've dealt with a period of time where we've felt absolutely despondent and we wanted to cling on to one comforting object, no matter how insignificant it is (in this case, a forgotten dream) Alas, nothing seems to work. AnaNgInASpaceSuit (talk) 11:34, 20 March 2021 (EDT)
Adults suck and then you become one
I think that it really opens up this song to interpretation if you say they're singing about dreams in the second sense of the word: hopes and aspirations, rather than your brain's all-night entertainment. The narrator was once full of dreams and creativity. The world was still an exciting place for them. Then they grew up, got lost in the adult world, tried to achieve success, and one day woke up to realize that they can no longer reach that joy or creativity that was their reason for striving in the first place. They gave up on all their childhood dreams, and now they can't even remember what they were. They realize their life is devoid of happiness, that they've lost their way, but that they don't know how to find it again. They can't be creative anymore, because they forgot what makes life worth living.
It does seem like people often get less creative as they get older. I wonder if this song expresses any anxieties of the Johns themselves, or if I'm just projecting.
The Malaise of Lockdown
This interpretation fits into a more general impression I have from I Lost Thursday and I Broke My Own Rule that Book is rich in themes about the experience of the coronavirus pandemic, particularly from the perspective of people forced to work (or not work) at home in the early months, as John and John no doubt were, but I won't get any deeper into that here. This impression is confirmed if you take the lyrics mostly at face value; they simply capture the sad feeling of finding a dream more enjoyable than an everyday life troubled by unpleasant thoughts and memories. The isolation and anxiety caused by the pandemic could certainly inspire a more negative view of life like the speaker has, though any number of other things could do that as well, meaning the song will still be able to strike a chord with listeners well into the future. But I Can't Remember the Dream goes beyond simply articulating a feeling with four lines that stand out from the rest of the song for being uniquely hopeful:
"I can’t remember the dream that I had last night
But the simple fact that my mind could concoct such a thing
As the incredible dream that I had last night
Is a clue to the key to a door to a world like that"
The act of dreaming is not inherently enjoyable. It is the mind that takes the neutral reality of sleeping and makes it pleasant. Going about daily life is later described as a "waking nightmare," so by analogy, the mind takes the neutral reality of providing for your continued existence and makes it unpleasant. The key is that the power rests in your mind to make your life something you'd be happy to live, if only you can bring yourself to believe it. The problem is even more directly identified with unpleasant thoughts rather than the facts of life earlier, when the former are said to "cover all the flowerbeds" like weeds; there is certainly nothing offensive about the flowerbeds, symbolic of one's experience of life before it is filtered by the brain.
I think that's the main takeaway of the song itself, but there is another fine point made in the third stanza:
"I can’t remember the dream that I had last night
If I could I would write it out, underline the highlight of the dream
That would now redefine my life
Be a new road map, affirmation, and guiding light"
That is, the dream is a sort of example of how to live a happy life. Then the content of the dream is an encouragement to embrace waking life. Ironically, in fixating on the dream and placing less value on his waking life, the speaker destroys the dream he so cherishes.
I make this point because it is the main focus of the music video, rich in meaning in its own right. The person in the video is drained by a series of chores that, at their best, could be simple tasks that offer a sense of accomplishment from keeping a tidy house. They also shut the blinds, indicating a similar distaste for the outside world, and stare at a blank television in a sort of waking dream taking time that could be spent doing more enjoyable things. All the while, black-gloved hands (the influence of the person's own disengagement) grope around instruments with which they might more enjoyably spend their time. A few shots associate the "Best Rock Video" trophy with the speaker's dream. With a clap of black hands and the offer of a hammer, the person is induced to destroy the trophy while the black hands destroy the rest - instruments, music, heart, and fingers. Translating the symbolism, by disengaging with and devaluing their life in favor of dreaming, the person makes their life miserable, makes their dream unachievable in reality, leaving only the illusory dream to fuel the vicious cycle.
Trying to Recapture the Magic
This is definitely based pretty heavily off the music video, but it seems like the song is about grasping at the past. The narrator had an experience (the dream) and is now trying more and more desperately to go back to that time. Their attempts to recapture the dream comes at the cost of their day-to-day life. Eventually, the narrator's life becomes a "waking nightmare," wishing only to go back and "live in the dream that [they] had."
The music video definitely jibes with this. The music video contains plenty of references to their older material (references to Birdhouse, John Henry, Put your Hand inside the Puppet Head, etc.). I certainly don't think that the newer stuff is bad (I would go so far to say that I Like Fun is one of their best albums), but it's probably uncontroversial to say they receive more praise for their older material. The "Best Rock Video" trophy seems to be representative of that praise. The climax of the song sees the main character destroy the trophy, rebelling against the limits that the past was putting on them. By doing this, the main character avoids the fate of the narrator of the song. If either of these is representative of the Giants, the music video definitely feels like the one.
Your brain can create the feeling but you can’t make it
The crux of this one really is (to me) “the simple fact that my mind could concoct such a thing/as the incredible dream that I had last night/is a clue to the key to a door to a world like that”. Narrator wakes with delight and excitement. You can feel delight and excitement. It’s possible. But how? Where did it go? What could have caused it? You know from experience how meaningless dreams can be, and also how startlingly suddenly and unexpectedly meaningful they can seem to be (even later on observation). But just the feeling you have coming off the dream, it must’ve been something. I would want to know even if I learned it was something meaningless. It could be a clue to the key to a door to a world like that.
Makes me think of the epiphanic mind trip dropping a psychedelic drug can sometimes be too— what seems to be immediate, overwhelming clarity at the peak of euphoria, really mainly confirming things you already knew to be true but with a deep resounding chemically-induced acceptance. Where does this go when the experience ends? Why can’t it be generated on command without the euphoric drug? Weed’s not as intense as some drugs but Paul McCartney supposedly smoked some for the first time and became certain of a theory of understanding the world that he could later only remember and communicate with the meaningless phrase “there are seven levels”. He could not remember any of the rest of the context of this thought.
Just a bit of nerdy rhythm stuff
The verses are a three-chord loop with two beats per chord. However, every other chord is delayed by an eighth note. So it takes 3 bars of 4/4 OR 2 bars of 6/4 for the I chord to land satisfyingly on a downbeat.
The melody, meanwhile, is 18 beats long, 4½ bars of 4/4 OR 3 bars of 6/4.
So, if you're thinking about this verse as 9 bars of 4/4, the vocal melody consists of a 4½-bar phrase sung twice, while the rhythm guitar part consists of a 3-bar phrase played 3 times. OR, if you're thinking about it as 6 bars of 6/4, the vocal melody consists of a 3-bar phrase sung twice, while the rhythm guitar part consists of a 2-bar phrase played 3 times. Either way, it goes through one complete cycle of an 18:12 (3:2) polymeter and the second iteration of the vocal melody is sung over the exact same chords as the first, but every chord that was previously off the beat is now on and vice versa.
Any way you slice it, it's cool! It sounds extremely repetitive and yet it never quite repeats itself because all its repetitious constituents are out of sync with each other. This reflects the repetition in the lyrics, as well as the general mood of monomania and frustration. The inability to reconcile a waking and a dreaming life is mirrored in the song's apparent failure to synchronize its chords and melody. A clever bit of word painting!
tl;dr The chord progression in the verse is 12 beats long and the vocal melody is 18 beats long. It makes a big 3:2 polymeter that takes a while to repeat. It feels out of sync with itself, which reflects the inability to reconcile a waking and a dreaming life.