April 25, 2007

“Harborcoat” does a fine job of setting the sunny, breezy tone of Reckoning, but unlike the opening tracks of most other R.E.M. releases, the song casually drops us into the album without much drama or fanfare. It’s an up-tempo number, but despite Bill Berry’s brisk beat and Peter Buck’s pleasantly bopping guitar parts, it can’t help but feel a bit mellow and relaxed due to the relatively sedate lead vocals of both Michael Stipe and Mike Mills. Their voices run parallel to each other throughout the piece; both of them essentially singing a different song that overlaps and collides in strange and beautiful ways.

Even compared to other early R.E.M. songs, the lyrics of “Harborcoat” are especially dense and difficult to parse. Mills’ words are almost impossible to discern, and so the relationship between the two vocal parts is left maddeningly ambiguous. Meanwhile, Stipe is busy planting intriguing images — “they crowded up to Lenin with their noses worn off,” “then we danced the dance til the menace got out” — that do their best to invite the listener’s interest with specific language, but nevertheless stubbornly resist any sort of literal interpretation. (This doesn’t mean many people have not tried.)

The most memorable line in the song — “there’s a splinter in your eye and it reads ‘REACT'” — is a sideways reference to the Gospel of Luke, but it’s just as likely a nod to an aphorism from the Theodor Adorno‘s book Minima Moralia: “The splinter in your eye is the best magnifying glass.” That quote is a bit hard to paraphrase out of context, but the gist of it seems to be that the misuse of reason has led to suffering, but by working through that suffering instead of ignoring it you can get back to reason again.

That concept seems to tie in with the apparent subject matter of the song — ie, the day-to-day struggles of life in Russia following the Bolshevik Revolution — but as much as the song triggers rewarding intellectual tangents, there’s really not enough in its text to support even the most fascinating theories. Like much of the band’s early ’80s material, “Harborcoat” is not overly deterministic about its message, and seems as though it was specifically designed to arouse curiosity and stimulate creative extrapolation of its words.

(Thanks to Mike and Eric.)

27 Responses to “Harborcoat”

  1. karen Says:

    i might be crazy, but i always kind of thought bill was singing on that one too.

  2. Bill does sing on it, but not as much as Mills, whose part is prominent to be considered a dual lead vocal in spite of the fact that Stipe is mixed MUCH higher in the studio recording. Bill’s vocal parts tend to be kinda subtle.

  3. David Says:

    I have always loved this song. This is one of a handful that really sums up early REM to me….I know that Buck is fond of saying he could write this kind of stuff in his sleep but man I sure wish he would from time to time!

  4. ozon Says:

    I love how it starts with the chorus (without vocals), then goes into the first verse, then fakes going into the chorus, then 2nd verse and then finally the rewarding and beautiful chorus arrives. If you know what I mean.

    Bill’s drumming is also great here, he’s got a disco beat kinda thing going on.

  5. what a great introduction to your fantastic site. harborcoat has always been one of my favorite REM songs. I’ve always heard the chorus as: “Can’t buy my harborcoat/can’t go outside w/o it.” I know others have said, it’s “can’t find my harborcoat.” but somehow the distinction for me is significant. it’s like, you can take/buy anything else, but this i need.

    anyway. thanks for a great site.


  6. satisfied75 Says:

    my college girlfriend would always skip to this song immediately whenever we had the album on. was more endearing than annoying. great post.

  7. Michael Says:

    “Their voices run parallel to each other throughout the piece; both of them essentially singing a different song that overlaps and collides in strange and beautiful ways.”

    this seems to happen in more than a couple of R.E.M. songs–maybe not throughout entire songs like this, but during verses or choruses or whatever.
    I guess the chorus of “Fall On Me” is one of the more obvious examples. I’m not even sure if Mills and Stipe, and Berry, understand the relationship b/w what they’re each singing all the time.
    I remember when MTV was following them during rehearsals for the Monster tour, and Stipe explained quite simply why he had to have lyric sheets printed out–“because they don’t make any sense”. He smiled, but I’m pretty sure he was only half joking. Bill Berry said there were some times where they had to buy an R.E.M. song book.

  8. Evan Says:

    To me Reckoning is R.E.M.’s “walking around” album, the one with the most sense of place and particularly, I guess, of Athens. For this reason, “Harborcoat” is a perfect opener, since it seems to describe some (slightly sinister) activity on the streets which the speaker wants to join but can’t because he doesn’t have his harborcoat.

    I realize this isn’t exactly an interpretation, more of a “vibe.” I just picture Michael Stipe, wrapped up and emotionally guarded, walking the streets of Athens in the winter.

  9. 2fs Says:

    Evan: Or summer – I remember seeing R.E.M. on the Fables tour, at the Stock Pavilion in Madison, Wisconsin, a big old barn (literally: that’s “stock” as in livestock) sweltering in the unseasonably warm May heat, with Stipe in layers, including an old, grubby overcoat. And Michael (above – not Stipe): yes…and that’s something of theirs I dearly miss.

  10. ozon Says:

    Satisfied75, how exactly do you “skip to” the first song on the album? Just wondering…

  11. bryan charles Says:

    i’m with ozon, my favorite moment in the song is where it drops from those bright opening chords down into the somewhat sinister verse.

  12. wally bangs Says:

    Trivia: WRVU 91 Rock, Vanderbilt’s student radio station, used the opening chords of “Harborcoat” as bumper music for a station ID in the mid-80’s. There’s a mysterious yearning quality in much of R.E.M.’s work from that period and “Harborcoat” is one of the more rocking examples.

  13. Mary Alice Says:

    I read somewhere this was inspired by the Diary of Anne Frank…as in she couldn’t leave because she wasn’t safe and a harborcoat would be something that would keep her safe if she had it.

  14. Jared Says:

    This has always been a personal favorite. I especially love the way the bass and guitar interact.

    Reminds me that I still have to check out that wirligig farm in Gainesville, been meaning to for a long time.

  15. David2 Says:

    Holy crap, that song analysis you linked to is insane! Can’t people just dig it because it’s a pretty song?

  16. chinese brother Says:

    “Yearning” almost sums it up. Possibly my favourite song from one of my favourite albums by anybody, ever. I got into it in the late nineties on a second hand vinyl copy. It now only plays properly on one side – but at least it’s that side.

    Thank you for your blog, it is special.

  17. no2j Says:

    I wish someone would work out what Michael is singing on the line that for some reason has gone down on all the lyric sites as “then we danced the dance till the menace got out,” and is quoted again here. He sings “danced the dance until” as much as he does “I’m bald and happy but Second Guessing’s crappy”.

  18. MoL Says:

    Here is a question that I’ve never found an answer to: what is Mike Mills singing on this song? Anyone? Bueller?

  19. Dan23 Says:

    Thanks for this! I like reading what others think. Harborcoat has always been one of my top songs, and I always cross my fingers that they will play it in concert when I see them… One can only hope!


  20. 2d Says:

    i must admit i am a bit envious on your blog idea (in a gentleman’s envy sort of way of course), but then again if i ever took up something like this i’m sure i’d lose interest after some time and that wouldn’y be nice for anyone, so i think it’s very refreshing to see something like this. you are doing a great job, keep it up!!! 🙂

    (back to the song) i can’t believe nobody’s mentioned the wonderful “tshhh tshhh tshhh” that michael improvises before the last chorus (and always before every chorus in the early years) – that bit is just genius and original, only goes to show that sometimes creativity comes hand in hand with playfulness, and i that is what i think they have somewhat lost gradually along the way (a part of growing up i guess, but a shame nonetheless). anyway, those noises are pure bliss to me and i always love to “sing along” to them even before the other choruses.

    pure gold.

  21. John Micek Says:

    This record was my introduction to R.E.M., and a part of my introduction to pop music generally. I was 14 years old when it came out, and it still remains one of the critical moments in my musical development.
    Matthew’s right, as an opener, it’s unlikely, but it’s also a perfect invitation to get to know the band.

  22. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    “Harborcoat” for a long time was not one of my favorite REM songs, then one day it was like I had heard it for the first time and I suddenly learned to appreciate it. Its like it took me a thousand listens before its beauty and power really hit me and then I just got it. A very strange experience. I have kind of always thought that “Harborcoat” was more like Murmur than Reckoning, and therefore, a strange choice for first track on Reckoning. Just thought I’d mention that since there has been a discussion here of this song being the lead track.

  23. Scott Malobisky Says:

    I enjoy this song sooo much more and get sooo much more out of this song as a direct result of this post, very very cool. This album was actually the last REM album that I heard (not counting ATS since it wasn’t released yet) and got into ;I have a bit of a convoluted history of getting into REM , was into the Green and beyond stuff for about eight years before ever really hearing the stuff that came before , except for just a few tunes..kinda weird how that happened when I think about it now, seems almost preposterous that that scenario could play itself out but it did (just like other preposterous seemingly impossible things in my life)

  24. no2j Says:

    The live performance in Dublin a few weeks ago (July ’07) shed a bit of light on the song.

    1. The song is about American playwright Lillian Hellman.

    2. The line that irked me is:

    “Then we ditched the book except the menace got out”.

  25. no2j Says:

    Actually, just hearing that line again..

    “when we ditched the book(s) with the middles cut out”

  26. Gerard Says:

    This was the first REM song I’d ever heard. Went to the record store to buy Murmur because Rolling Stone had named it their album of the year. The store didn’t have it but Reckoning had just been released. Despite mainly being into classic rock this song and album grabbed me right away. This song was the consumate REM song for me for the longest time (the entire album, really). That swampy, rootsy, southern American feel. If there was one album I could erase from my memory and listen to for the first time, I think it would be this one.

  27. […] the verse, Malkmus seems awed by the songs, and so when I finally heard “Camera,” “Harborcoat” and “Pretty Persuasion” for myself, I was acutely aware of their legendary status, at […]

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