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.