Oddfellows Local 151
March 11, 2008
Lifes Rich Pageant, Document, and Green were composed and recorded in the span of four years, which is interesting mainly because in retrospect, it gives us the opportunity to hear the band work out how to integrate politics into their music in a fairly brief period of time. Lifes Rich Pageant masks its earnest hopefulness in obscure language; a strategy that strikes me as somewhat defensive, and a holdover of the shyness that characterized the group’s earliest work. The pendulum swings a year later on Document — the tone darkens considerably, and attitude is far more cynical, as if Michael Stipe had somehow suddenly lost the optimism apparent on “Cuyahoga,” “Begin The Begin,” and “I Believe.” And then, bam, the pendulum swings hard in the other direction, and much of Green revises the themes of Lifes Rich Pageant, with an eye towards clarity and accessibility. I certainly believe that the bookends of this little trilogy are the closest to the general spirit of the band, but you’ve got to wonder: What pushed them towards the bleakness and the cynicism on Document?
I don’t think it was any one thing so much as it was an expression of a stage most anyone goes through when developing their political awareness. You jump into things believing “Hey, we can do this! We can change the world if we want to! Let’s put our heads together and start a new government!,” and then comes some inevitable moment of disillusionment, and suddenly all the world looks grim. This phase can last a very long time, you can go for years thinking the worst of everyone, but then the reality sets in — yes, corruption and despair are constants in this world, and even the best institutions are a rigged game, but there’s ample opportunity to give put something positive in the world if you manage your expectations, get up, and put in the work. And there you have it — Green. It’s a pretty tidy, sensible arc, and I’m sure a lot of people went through it with the band in real time.
Document is labeled “File Under Fire,” and for good reason. The element comes up again and again throughout the record, an overt symbol of destruction and purification. Even the album’s sunniest tunes have an undercurrent of apocalyptic dread, this feeling that all of modern society could crumble and burn at any moment. “Oddfellows Local 151,” the record’s grim conclusion, starts off with a hum of feedback that evokes a haze of thick black smoke before progressing to a tense, solemn dirge that climaxes in Michael Stipe howling “fiiiiiiiiiiiire house,” as if he’s half-heartedly calling for rescue as the world is engulfed in flames. It’s a bitter and ironic, and the perfect way to end the song cycle.