Disturbance At The Heron House
March 27, 2007
Back when I was in high school I had a very vivid dream in which I saw Michael Stipe sing “Disturbance At The Heron House” with Nirvana on MTV Unplugged. Clearly I was just conflating their respective performances for the program, but thirteen years later I still can vaguely recall a beatific Kurt Cobain playing guitar and humming along with Michael Stipe every time I hear the song. It’s too bad that it didn’t happen; you just know it would’ve been wonderful.
“Disturbance At The Heron House” may be the quintessential late-’80s R.E.M. song, neatly displaying all the hallmarks of that era — obscure yet overtly political lyrics, a clean and cheery guitar tone, big gated drums, and a sense of epic scale applied to otherwise simple melodic pop tunes. There was a clear effort to write material suited to increasingly larger concert venues, but also to apply their aesthetic to the pumped-up arena rock template.
Though they would eventually display an alternately playful and cutting self-awareness about the power of performance on the Green album and its corresponding tour, “Disturbance At The Heron House” is a fine example of the band completely bypassing the expectations of a huge rock song. It’s essentially a folky protest ballad loosely based on George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and though its message is garbled and somewhat cynical (“try to tell us something we don’t know”), the tune emanates kindness and generosity, and the implied hugeness of the song just amplifies that feeling until it’s almost overwhelming. Whereas most stadium rock communicates horniness, dread, aggression, and self-aggrandizement, R.E.M. were using that musical language to emphasize a profound empathy.