March 27, 2007
I bought Reckoning when I was fourteen years old, and even then I had trouble relating to the opening line of this song: “I can’t see myself at thirty.” I mean, half of my problem is probably that it’s always been too easy for me to imagine that my life would be sorted out by that age, and figuring that I can just put off lots of fun things til then. When I hear “Little America” at the advanced (though maybe not “lacquered”) age of 27, I feel a strange mix of nostalgia for the fun I have experienced, and envy for even the most unremarkable joys of other people’s lives.
Like most early R.E.M. compositions, the lyrics of “Little America” are nonlinear, obscure, and impressionistic, and only come close to making sense when you hear them in the context of the music and Michael Stipe’s voice. It’s impossible for me to hear the guitar in this song without thinking of blues skies on hot days, and driving around in cars without air conditioning. It sometimes seems as though we’re missing half the words because we’re stuck in the backseat, and we can’t make out everything Michael is saying on account of the windows being rolled down and the radio on full blast.
The words seem much more cynical in print than they do on record, and some of that is surely a result of the irrepressible humanity of Stipe’s voice, but it’s mainly a side-effect of the arrangement, which can’t help but sound totally exciting. This is one of my favorite performances by Bill Berry — his percussion is nimble and dynamic, lending Peter Buck’s riffs an incredible sense of forward momentum, like a car zooming off into the unknown. When Michael sings “another Greenville, another Magic Mart,” it could’ve just seemed bratty, but in context, it comes off like another detail in their sorta-mundane road trip adventure. They might be noticing the increasing homogeneity of the United States, but the thrill of exploration is still there.