Pilgrimage

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.

14 Responses to “Pilgrimage”

  1. Justin Says:

    The fact that this recording is a demo speaks volumes to R.E.M.’s naive genius in the beginning.


  2. Well, it’s not a demo, per se — it’s a full, detailed studio recording with the producers of the album, and they were wise to realize that they didn’t have to re-record it as some kind of formality.

  3. Gary Smith Says:

    This is the song that got me hooked in 83. Like many life long fans the words were initially secondary. The sentiment and the prevailing emotion synched with my life. To this day the song still moves me.

    Thanks for your work Matthew. I know I will be checking in often.

  4. Justin Says:

    Mills claimed it was a demo in the liner notes of the Best of IRS Years.


  5. In a strict technical sense, that is true — it was recorded as a demonstration for IRS, to show what the band sounded like as recorded by Easter and Dixon. But “demo” usually implies an unfinished or tossed-off recording, and “Pilgrimage” is definitely not like that at all. It’s just as much of a finished work as anything else on Murmur.

  6. Kirsten Says:

    He may be hoping for the best (rest assured this will not last), but I don’t think he is expecting it. The following line “take a turn for the worst” to me indicates pure hopelessness. A longing, perhaps, for a possitive change, but is all too aware that it isn’t likely. He’s tired of fighting a losing battle, but the battle is far too significant to give up on. The line “Pilgramage has gained momentum” also sounds to me like a man trying to fool himself into believing he’s getting closer to where he’s heading, but well aware that it’s not true. A last desperate plea for hope…..

    Listened to in the right mood, it can certainly give you a lot of inner strength to fight your own losing battle. One of my all-time favourites.

  7. Justin Says:

    “Demo” usually means less tracks used on a recording than a typical studio version. Bands typically demo on four tracks, whereas studios have many, many more. “Pilgrimage” is cited in the Best of the IRS Years as being recorded to two track, which is absolutely astounding considering how full and layered the recording sounds. I listen to it and it boggles my mind. I mean, sure, it’s been remastered, but even on vinyl – my God! – I just don’t know how they did that.

  8. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    To me “Pilgrimage” is an archetypal REM sound. It sort of serves a simialr role as The Cure’s “A Forest” – it lays a blueprint for a sound that would be expanded but still be an underpinning for many songs over the years. “Pilgrimage” showcases varied dynamics and tempo; a mystical, hazy tone; quirky bass lines (long before that was normal); cryptic lyrics; and that trademark REM “southern gothic” feel.

  9. Eclipse Says:

    One of my favorite REM songs…

    In an odd confession, I have to say, I discovered Murmur when I was a young teenager, and at the time I had also discovered the “Elfquest” graphic novels, and devoured them while listening to Murmur, so the two are forever linked in my mind. This song specifically brings those books to mind for me, particularly because I drew some parallels between the story and this song: the characters were on a pilgrimage of sorts, and to me, the song has a very vast, wide-open feel, reminiscent of the world of the story. Beautiful song, and the chorus rings very deep and spiritually, for me.

  10. transformerdog Says:

    “Allah Akbar Baby..on the way to Mecca on our PILGRIMAGE , My God’s better than your God , My God’s better than your God,nah nah nah nah nah , nah nah nah nah nah….And if you don’t believe me I’ll stick a bomb up your ass to prove it.. That’s if I survive the imminent stampede when some clown yells , ‘Suicide bomber !!’ …..And then the next stampede wherein us lowly humans stomp and crush each other in our rush to touch the garment of the holy prophet–the one with all the answers, says so in the book. We’re just so refined, you know…”…. Extra-ordinary superfantabulicious song –remarkably unique–fits hand in hand with Laughing.

  11. transformerdog Says:

    Wave upon wave of demented avengers march cheerfully out of obscurity into the dream. Allah Akbar. God is great!

  12. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    Eclipse, I have that same experience with the Lord of the Rings novels and the music of Roy Orbison. For some reason they are connected in my mind – especially the song “Only The Lonely” with Frodo’s struggling with the power of the Ring.

  13. pggtips Says:

    This song has always screamed out The Beach Boys to me due to the intense harmony element and for me is probably the first recorded song in the R.E.M. catalogue to have its influence.

    Still one of my favourites, look forward to the new record in 2008.


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