West Of The Fields

June 13, 2008

As the final song on Murmur, “West Of The Fields” revisits the core themes of the record — dreams, mythology, difficulty with communication, synesthesia — bringing the album full circle, while ending on what feels more like a set of ellipses rather than a declarative full stop. This is very appropriate to the general aesthetic of Murmur — it’s enigmatic, off-kilter, and aloof; it makes perfect sense that it’d just mumble some cryptic words and sprint off into the distance in its final moments.

In the broadest sense, “West Of The Fields” appears to be a song about the significance of the dreamscape and its connection to our understanding of the waking world and the collective unconscious. Michael Stipe describes a “dream of living jungle” as if it were a distant memory of a primal state, and that thought overlaps with a dream of the Elysian fields — the final resting place of the heroic in Greek mythology. It’s hard to tell what Stipe is implying, or if he’s really trying to make a statement at all, but there seems to be some line drawn from the notions of religion and mythology to the uncivilized, untamed nature of animals in the wild. Either scene would seem to take place in some idealized past, and the tone of the song suggests a feeling of dread, particularly when the chorus hits. (Mike Mills’ backing vocals in the call-and-response seem especially panicked in contrast with Stipe’s more defiant tone.)

Of all the songs on Murmur, “West Of The Fields” has the greatest feeling of urgency, to the point that it feels vaguely like a horror movie. This is due largely to Bill Berry’s brisk tempo, and the range of textures in Peter Buck’s uncharacteristically complicated chord progression. Amid many intriguing chords and flourishes, the most memorable bit is arguably Mills’ vaguely funky descending bass line at the end of each verse.

24 Responses to “West Of The Fields”

  1. Dark Bob Says:

    Congrats on finishing Murmur. This is a decent song. Not sure if I would have chosen it as the closing track(Perfect Circle would be my choice). It’s amazing how great Murmur sounds 25 years later. It has a real timeless quality. It’s hard to believe it was released in ’83.

  2. milesy Says:

    The whole song sounds like a dream. You know it’s there but you can’t quite picture it. It took me a long time to really notice this song, but it probably works best by gradually taking root in the subconscious.
    What an awesome album.

  3. Mr Cup Says:

    It’s always felt like an annexed song to me. It’s invited to hang out and party with the other Murmurs songs but no-one really feels comfortable around it. The bridge seems to be channeling another song altogether, like a pirate station momentarily wrestling control before resuming regular broadcast. I like it and it’s a good closer, but it always feels like ‘the song at the end’.

    Jung anecdote:
    At art school I had a lecturer from London (strong accent). We were talking about the collective unconscious, dreams etc and he says “The only Jung I like is Neil Jung.”

    It’s a phonetic joke that may not translate well – but I liked him a lot more after that.

  4. Dark Bob Says:

    I can understand what Mr. Cup means by it feels like “the song at the end”. To me, Radio free Europe feels like “the song at the beginning” It seems somewhat outside of the rest of the album. I guess the real essence of Murmur lies between the two.

  5. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    Amen brethren, I have ALWAYS felt that both Radio Free Europe and West of the Fields did not really fit the tone of Murmur and seemed almost tacked on, and of the two West of the Fields seems the more guilty party. While I like this song fairly well it seems tacked on the end like an afterthought, code, or P.S. I have always felt West of the Fields would have fit in much better on either Reckoning or Chronic Town.

    As to its meaning, of course MP is correct that it is quite obscure, but I have always made a connection between this song and ancient Egypt. In ancient Egypt the people lived and worked on the east side of the Nile River, the west side was where the dead went – so “west of the fields” could be across the Nile in the land of the dead, the place where dreams go on forever. Not all the lyrics bear this out (if they bear out anything at all)but I think it makes sense to a point.

  6. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    That should be coda, not code, above.

  7. 2fs Says:

    Seems sort of like a dream of some sort of afterlife – I admit that in my mind, the backing vocals along with the singing of the title phrase have always sounded like “who was this?”: this body, this spirit, this person now gone.

  8. Paul Alferink Says:

    I like this song. Mostly the call-answer chorus and the bass line. I refuse to even speculate as to meaning.

    Part of the reason it may sound so different is the extra name in the writing credits, a feature which I think only occurs twice more in the REM catalog. I have no idea who this Mr. Ayers is, by the by.

  9. LP Says:

    Hey, Paul-

    Jerry Ayers was/is an Athens based musician who has co-credit on “Old Man Kensey” and “Wind Out”. Fields is credited to the band and Neil Bogan. A fourth song would be “Photograph”, credited to the band and Natalie Merchant. And I’m not sure if you count this, but another example would be the song “Airliner” credited to the band and Scott McCaughey.

  10. David T. Says:

    > The bridge seems to be channeling another song altogether, like a pirate station momentarily wrestling control before resuming regular broadcast.

    I’ve always kinda thought that, too. And while I also hear Reckoning and Chronic Town all over parts of this song, the bridge evokes certain passages in Life and How To Live It.

    All that said, the bridge may be my favorite part of Fields, both for the emotional urgency conveyed (especially via the vocals) and the odd little sound effect (sort of a “whoosh” sound that always made me think of a cloth being torn) on alternating downbeats.

  11. Paul Alferink Says:

    I didn’t know about Wind-out. West of the Fields and Old Man Kensey I knew about. I didn’t count Airliner because it was a non-album track, same with Photograph. The last is the writing credit they gave Leonard Cohen for Hope.

  12. Paul Alferink Says:

    Also, I think it was discussed elsewhere, Murmur was done in order, so doing Perfect Circle last would have pretty much ruined the motif.

  13. adam Says:

    Bill Berry composition, no?

  14. ScottMalobisky Says:

    very mysterious. fitting conclusion to the treasure trove of titillation theory that is Murmur, one more murky conundrum to enthrall you, then we saunter off across the moors…

    guitar is kind of Bowie-Panic In Detroit-like

    In some ways, to me, this song is the most non-REM sounding song in the canon. It really doesn’t sound like them (and I might live a thousand years before I know what that means)….

    Paul, I think DarkBob meant Perfect Circle as a closer to the record, not as MP’s closer post on this album.

  15. Ignis Sol Says:

    The only time I listen to this one is to properly end the wonderful Murmur. I don’t seek it out like “Sitting Still” or “Shaking Through.”

    I met someone at a prohibition-themed night at my hang-out/watering hole (The Rosebud). His name is Yuri and we talked about music. He told me of his love of Murmur and how he thinks it is one of the best albums ever. Murmur has impact and staying power. We talked about that and the Pylons. He then went to dance some twenties dance with some girl in a flapper outfit. 22-skidoo….

  16. Dark Bob Says:

    Yes that is what I meant. I personally think PERFECT CIRCLE would have been a good song to end the Murmur “album”.

  17. Oh, I strongly disagree with that. I think “West of the Fields” is the ideal conclusion to the record, and “Perfect Circle” is suited for exactly where it is in the running order — end of side a on tape and vinyl, and the centerpiece of the cd.

  18. Dark Bob Says:

    You know it’s easy to get picky with these songs on this blog, and that’s part of the fun of it. I guess I was just thinking about this song feeling somewhat out of place, but to be completely honest with you, I can’t see changing anything about Murmur. It is what it is – an early REM masterpiece.

  19. Jerad Says:

    I just returned from seeing R.E.M. in Mansfield, MA tonight and they played “West of the Fields.” The urgency of this song really comes across live, even in 2008, and especially in the call-and-response chorus. At that point Michael seems to be singing something like “Westa!” and Mike is replying quickly with “fields!” It was a great one to hear tonight.

  20. Ignis Sol Says:

    I guess I should clarify that no matter what song ended Murmur, I would listen to it. I am not sure what the proper ending for this album would be, but I feel compelled to listen to every song (maybe because I am kinda neurotic). It’s that great of an album.

  21. jim jos Says:

    Long live Murmur.

    Long live Murmur.

    Dreams of Elysian.

  22. Kirsten Says:

    I love this song and I love Murmur. I never knew what this song was about, and after reading this blog, I still don’t know! But that’s the beauty of early REM, the SOUND is what makes it so wonderful. To me, half of Murmur doesn’t make much sense, but it’s still my favourite album.

  23. Aaron Says:

    This weekend Mr. Stipe mentioned that he wrote this song after living terrified and homeless of off Elysian Fields Ave in New Orleans. This certainly adds a whole other element (namely an objective reality) to its already deep themes. Has anyone ever heard of this story? I’m quite intrigued by it. I seriously doubt that this is something that MS would say just to rally a crowd in New Orleans. I figured that this would be the best place to find some who may have some details on this topic. I’d greatly appreciate any information.

  24. Heather Says:

    I saw R.E.M. at Voodoo Fest in New Orleans last night (amazing for sure) and Michael revealed a tip about this song that is interesting when it comes to the interpretation. He said it was a song Peter wrote about a time when Michael was about 20 and went and lived on the streets of New Orleans for a week. Michael said it was pretty rough and some stuff happened that wouldn’t be good to repeat from the stage. Elysian Fields is a pretty long street and it runs through a rough part of town. I’m not sure about when Michael was there, but now a lot of homeless gather there (especially at the end bordering the river) and drug use is common. They said the allusion to the fields meant “Elysian Fields Avenue.” The French Quarter is one area west of Elysian Fields Avenue, so he could have been there.

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