Carnival Of Sorts (Box Cars)

November 24, 2007

“Carnival of Sorts” doesn’t give the listener much in the way of context, but it is very generous in terms of imagery and sensation. Its aura of danger and mystery is seductive, and the chorus has a way of sucking you in despite yourself, as though you’ve suddenly found yourself sucked into a life-threatening adventure against your better judgment. Like a majority of the cuts recorded with Mitch Easter and Don Dixon, “Carnival of Sorts” is stark and clean, and the bright treble notes set against the bass gives the piece a distinct “late night” feeling, which is key to the success of the song overall. Peter Buck’s notes play out like bits of man-made light in the darkness of night — street lamps, carousel lights, neon signage, and headlights pass by, blurred by speed and panic.

30 Responses to “Carnival Of Sorts (Box Cars)”

  1. maclure Says:

    I first heard this as the first track on the Best of REM comp. The spooky carousel music, in come Bill’s clicks and we’re off. I was blown away! Good write up, by the way, Matthew… captured something of the essence.

  2. protimoi Says:

    Two in one day, nice work Matthew! I was wondering when we’d get another Chronic Town entry. I love the R.E.M. songs like this one that have a strange little intro to them (Radio Free Europe and World Leader Pretend are two other examples). I was excited to hear they had dusted this off back in 2003 for the summer tour, and the performance this summer in Dublin wasn’t bad either!

    You should write about I’m Gonna DJ soon! or are you waiting for the album release to pass final judgement?

  3. ScottMalobisky Says:

    yeah right. especially love the very begining of this
    “gentlemen don’t get caught”…….Balzac once said, “Behind every great fortune there is a crime.”….Even REM’s??

  4. 2fs Says:

    Regarding the line Scott M quotes: for some reason its ambiguity never struck me until now. Is it “gentlemen, don’t get caught” (a warning) or “gentlemen don’t get caught” (an assertion, a statement about character…or even what, cynically, makes a “gentleman”)?

    Like most such R.E.M. lyrical conundrums, the correct answer is nes. I mean, yo.

  5. ScottMalobisky Says:

    2fs, I never thought about that either—until now !–and I actually meant to put a comma in there after gentlemen , making it the former meaning (that’s the way I always thought of it, that’s the way it’s sung really..sounds to me anyway)…..the lyrics to the right do not include the comma.

    I’m no English history expert–correct me if I’m wrong–but I believe that originally the word “gentleman” referred to a man of wealth and high social standing (no matter what nasty means or accident of birth might have gotten him there or what a crass jackass he may have been ), but nowadays it refers to refined behavior, manners, and social graces. You could be dirt poor and a perfect gentleman today but not back in 19th century England.

  6. theholygoof Says:

    Hooboy. One of my all-timers, that’s fo’ sho’. I think there’s an argument that could be made that this song captures the essence of a train perhaps even more so than Driver 8. And how can you not love the creepy organ at the start, the urgency of the guitars, and fade out at the end: “…chronic tow-ow-owwwn…”

    Lord have mercy, I love this song.

  7. jft Says:

    a great song with great obscure lyrics.

    a friend of mine once wanted to know my opinion what this song was all about, lyrically. back then, I haven’t had any thoughts on that as I never really looked closely at those lyrics, so I spent the night in front of my computer screen, thinking about those verses. I suppose I’m not that bad in text interpretation and after having read some modern poems in my german a-level-course (german is my mother tongue, btw), I had some ideas how to work with it. what came out was a very complex interpretation which just connected some words into some kind of senseful meaning. the final quintessence was a “fear of modernisation”, but included many other dubious assumptions. but I have to add, it was a lot of fun, even if the meaning was probably nothing what jms wanted to say, if he even wanted to say sth with this.
    what I want to say, early r.e.m. lyrics are so great for their perfect mysteriousness, for that they’re open to everyone’s interpretation. love it…

  8. milesy Says:

    For ages I heard ‘Boxcars are pulling, I look down’; nonsensical really, but it worked for me (after all, who would want to remove the nonsensical from early REM..?)

    Gentlemen (comma) don’t get caught, definately- fits the tone of the song perfectly.

    My favourite song on a great EP.

  9. narcizo Says:

    Anoter great 1-2-3 sequence-the first one.
    I like the end of the song, where it fades out but it actually ends.
    Isn’t it great the fact that you don’t actually understand fully the lyrics, but it makes sense for you anyway?

  10. 2d Says:

    i love this one. the guitar line in “hyena” is very much reminiscent of the one in this song me thinks.

  11. Dark Bob Says:

    Definetly in the top 5 of my favorite REM songs. The best on Chronic Town. I always turn up the volume at the end of the song to hear that last “Out of Towwwwwnnnnnnnnn!!!!!!!!” I just love the Twang in Stipe’s voice. I never get tired of listening to this one. I hope this makes it back into their live set list.

  12. Andy Says:

    I always thought it was “gentlemen, don’t get clawed” –as if there’s a tiger or something in those cages…

  13. Paul Alferink Says:

    Bill hates this one. Bill is wrong. Not deep, but fun.

  14. Kirsten Says:

    Maclure stole my thunder on this one – he said exactly what I wanted to say! I also first heard it on the Best Of REM album and I was also completly blown away! I’d never heard anything like this before. It was strange, Michael’s voice is just unbelievable, the lyrics (whatever they may mean) are amazing, Bill’s druming is superb, Peter’s guitar give it that creepy, urgent feeling and Mike’s backing vocals (as always) complete the song.

    I thought it was “Gentlemen, don’t get caught” – adds to the paranoia in the song.

    Perfect, pure REM. More songs like this please!!

  15. jim jos Says:

    this is the good stuff, love, love, love this song. Very good write up too, Matthew.

  16. Clive Says:

    Didn’t Michael Stipe say during the Dublin rehearsals that this song is about the 1980 film ‘Elephant Man’ ?

    Also, has anyone seen the Livewire (Kids Show) peformance from 1983 in which they play this song to a load of dancing teenagers before being asked questions by a load of kids, some of which grew up to be the Beastie Boys?

  17. David T. Says:

    Paul – by “Bill,” do you mean Bill Berry? If so, that’s interesting to me, since I always really liked his drumming on this one…

  18. Paul Alferink Says:

    Yep. Bill Berry hates this song.
    And I have seen the REM livewire preformance. It’s impressive that they sound so tight.

  19. adam Says:

    one of the greats – one of the most REM of REM achievements!

  20. jim jos Says:

    are the beastie boys really in the audience? If its 1983 they were very soon to be recording their own stuff. They couldn’t have been, too, too young.

  21. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    I am a little surprised at the passion here in favor of this song. Don’t get me wrong, I like it quite well, but have never felt it was overly powerful. My third favorite of the five from Chronic Town – I’d put 1,000,000 and Wolves, Lower ahead of it. That said, I’ll admit 1,000,000 probabaly is not really a better song technically but I love the punk attitude and sneer that REM takes and makes their own in 1,000,000 and never really does so again in that way on any other song.

    “…Not only deadlier, but smarter too!”

  22. Kirsten Says:

    I’d agree BWD that this is not the best song on CT. But it is such an outstanding album that 1,000,000 is my least favourite song – believe it or not. But please keep in mind that I absolutely love 1,000,000. My favourite is probably Stumble or Wolves, Lower. But like I said, all 5 songs are perfect so it’s hard to say! It’s also a perfect lead in to Murmur.

  23. huub Says:

    great songs. Nobody has a clue what it’s aboput, but still so powerfull. I always like to sing along both first & second vocals, which gives you an even more exhausted feeling then singing along with ITEOTWAWKI

  24. Bandwagon03 Says:

    For some reason i always think of a obscure Ray Bradbury short story when I hear this song, (I have to look that up) I always envisioned the Gentlemen (that werent getting caught) sneaking out of town on the railcar.

  25. Bandwagon03 Says:

    Ok, after a little digging maybe I was thinking about “Something wicked this way comes” by Bradbury.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Something_Wicked_This_Way_Comes_%28novel%29

  26. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    I actually have always made the connection between this song and Bradbury’s story as well.

  27. Mr Dark Says:

    Blondes have more fun.

    Gentlemen don’t get caught.

  28. ScottMalobisky Says:

    what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas

  29. bob zeisler Says:

    One of rem’s first songs and one of their best. To me it is about the band itself, foreshadowing it’s journey out of Athens. The “strangers to these parts” are the music industry people who are using their “reaping wheel” to harvest the emerging talent in Athens (B-52’s, Pylon, etc.) Stipe urges his brethren not to get caged and taken out of town through the promises of these carny barkers. (The “poster torn” lyric is said to refer to the bands’ local concert postings, which were often removed by competing bands). Beautiful rock song with transcendent lyrics that satisfy me on many levels. B.O.B in apple valley mn


  30. […] — some of you may recall that I have a similar though somewhat more literal interpretation of “Carnival Of Sorts” — but it’s in there, and it’s probably never going […]


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