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.

11 Responses to “Disturbance At The Heron House”

  1. […] There’s even room for some lyricism of Perpetua’s own. Check out this evocative opening paragraph from the post on “Disturbance At The Heron House”: […]

  2. Mary Alice Says:

    where did you hear it was about Animal Farm?

  3. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    This is my second favorite song off of “Document” (after “King of Birds”). I always thought that it was incredibly catchy mostly due to the amazing guitar riff that just gets lodged in your head and won’t go away. The lyrics are amazing and always held an Orwellian feel for me as well, even if the connection to “Animal Farm” is not obvious. If the songs lyrics had been more straitforward this song could have been a huge hit. As it is “Disturbance At The Heron House” is a masterpiece that mostly has only been appreciated by the fans, although I would have loved this one to have been a single. The only inconsistency for me is that Orwell’s books are critiques of the rise of totalitarian/communist governments while Stipe & Co. seem to be describing the American government in those terms. Certainly, they are critical of American political policy on other songs throughout Document and other albums of this era, so I have to believe the intention here is to connect the Reagan years to Orwell’s warnings, which seems a bit of a stretch, especially in light of the failure of communism and totalitarianism. Still, a great song (and I may be reading too much into it! 🙂 )

  4. fact checking cuz Says:

    i greatly prefer the “mtv unplugged” version, on which stipe really opened up the melody. it’s almost a different song.

  5. Mr Cup Says:

    Love the intro (and therefore the rest of it)!
    Finest Worksong, Welcome To The Occupation, Exhuming McCarthy, Disturbance at The Heron House…now there’s a batting order.

    This album is a masterpiece of economy. Can’t be more than 5 chords used on the whole thing…surely?

  6. Young Parisians Says:

    I know the band likes this song and it was featured extensively on the Work Tour but it represents Document as the problem child for me. Lyrically and musically it’s a natural extension of FOTR and LRP. But the band’s sound became “apparent” and somehow “thinner”. I always hoped they’d use Don Gehman one more time and hold off on Scott Litt until Green. The band wanted to move forward with production but from Document on I knew I had to start listening to REM differently. I wasnt ready to do that after being captivated by the first 4 albums.

  7. Scott Malobisky Says:

    I discovered REM in reverse , wasn’t really familiar with the first five albums [6CT] for the longest time after being into Green on for almost ten years….Stipe once stated that this song is the most overtly politcial that he has ever written….hmnn(?)

  8. John Duncan Says:

    Scott I read that quote somewhere and that’s why I came on here: I’m listening to the song just now (REM are extensively represented in my Nano loop!) and it reminded me that I never looked into that.

    To my mind the most overtly political song is Inside Out – but that’s only because I once saw a tape of Stipe introducing it with the line:

    ‘This song goes out to the Exxon corporation’.

    Which I loved!

  9. […] 2nd, 2007 “Belong” can be considered a sequel of sorts of “Disturbance at the Heron House,” at least in the sense that one can interpret the sudden insurrection of the “creatures” […]

  10. ScottMalobisky Says:

    no REM song should languish in the single digits, therefore …….I promote you

  11. Urban Runoff Says:

    Try to tell us something we don’t know 🙂

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