May 1, 2007
“Pilgrimage” is the first in a series of songs throughout R.E.M.’s discography that express a distrust of authority and a feeling that people — or the people — are being led astray by charlatans and crooks. The language in “Pilgrimage” is oblique in terms of who or what Michael Stipe is addressing, but his skepticism is rather obvious. The tone of the song is very dark and moody, but I would stop short of characterizing it as being pessimistic. After all, given what we can extrapolate from the lyrics, it’s difficult not to conclude that the “pilgrimage” is a questionable, malign , or futile pursuit, and so when Stipe assures us that “this will not last,” I’m assuming that he’s hoping for the best.
The track begins with a brief, disorienting snippet of the chorus that is filtered to sound — in the words of the song — “clipped and distant” before the song’s vaguely creepy fugal bass motif kicks in at the 11 second mark. The verses seem to crawl along the floor before rising up dramatically on the choruses, but rather than achieve the soft-to-loud dynamics of 90s alt-rock, the effect is more akin to cutting a string tethering a helium balloon to a brick.