I hope that if I am alive and present for the End Of Days or the Apocalypse or Ragnarok or the Final Crisis Of Man or whatever you want to call it, that no matter how awful and gruesome it gets, it would at least be heralded by the four opening drum rolls of “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” 

True to its title, “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” feels simultaneously frantic and carefree, with its rapid-fire vocals and brisk tempo offset by some exceptionally crisp guitar parts, and a fairly relaxed harmony vocal that confronts what seems to be an imminent global catastrophe with a cool, deapan remark: “It’s time I had some time alone.” Maybe it’s best to take the song as a sort of default state of mind for living in a world that seems to be in a state of perpetual crisis, and from any number of perspectives always seems to be moving in the wrong direction. Crucially, the band are not singing about The End of the World, but rather the end of the world that we know, which is much more accurate and reflective of the shifting contexts that shape our understanding of the overwhelming number of things that happen on the planet every moment of every day. You can blame the media for “information overload,” but if anything, the media pares down what we could see and know into something more manageable. The song takes in just a bit of what is going on around the singer and what is inside the singer’s head, and the result is a bit of panic, a bit of resignation, and a bit of contentment. There’s a sense of scale in the lyrics, in which the significance and relative insignificance of things are weighed against one another, and it all comes out feeling equal. Everything matters, and nothing matters. It’s fine.

In the final verse, Michael Stipe describes a dream that he’s had about being at a party where everyone in the room is a famous person with the initials L.B. It’s silly and weird, and it’s a non sequitur in a song full of non sequiturs, but it’s perhaps the most memorable part, and provides its best shout-along moment: “Leonard Bernstein!” In the context of the song, it’s a colorful moment that captures the imagination with extremely specific language, but in the context of the band’s career, it’s one more example of Stipe delving into his unconscious mind for an impression of the world skewed by the imperfect way the human brain processes and categorizes information. In an old interview, Stipe expressed a bit of concern about why some corner of his mind could automatically offer up a list of famous men with the same initials, or why that sort of scenario could come up at all, but really, that’s just part of the beauty of the mind, and of dreaming. I reckon that if there’s any reason he has written about dreams on every record of his career, it’s because they provide our only direct path to the mysterious workings of our own minds, and the baffling pile-up of information, memories, traumas, received wisdom, and images that somehow add up to inform our perspective on the world, and form the basis of our identities.

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.

Exhuming McCarthy

January 10, 2008

Musically, “Exhuming McCarthy” is a peppy pastiche of proven Motown moves — stomping beats, scratching and stabbing chords, fluid bass lines that shimmy and groove inside a tight rhythmic pocket. Despite lifting from some pretty major hits — I definitely hear Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” and Smokey Robinson’s “Tears Of A Clown” in there — the song doesn’t come off as a straight-ahead retro R&B number, mainly due to the fact that Michael Stipe and Mike Mills wisely avoid soul affectations and stick to their typical nasal-white-guy vocalizations. It’s a great effect — you get the immediacy and energy of Motown, but there’s also no attempt to distract us from the band’s background. If anything, they own their respective persona fully on this track — it certainly ranks among the most confident vocal performances by either of them in the R.E.M. catalog.

Just as the music connects the dots between several Motown classics, the lyrics of “Exhuming McCarthy” draw a line from mindless jingoism and reckless capitalistic excess to repression and censorship. It’s not the most coherent bit of agitprop ever composed, but the cheeriness of the track is more than enough to compensate for the lyrics’ somewhat vague thesis.

Strange

October 31, 2007

I heard R.E.M.’s version of “Strange” long before I ever heard Wire’s original recording on their classic album Pink Flag, and so I was a bit shocked to learn that Wire’s take was half as fast and sorta cartoonishly spooky. I love both versions, but I simply can’t hear the original without feeling like Wire are deliberately fucking with the song, and that its natural state is the perky rave-up found on Document. There’s a real sense that R.E.M. liberated the song from Wire’s pretense, though it’s also clear that the group’s reverence for the original and Wire in general is intense and genuine. They definitely make it their own — Mike Mills’ backing vocals are top-notch whether he’s ghosting the chorus along with Michael Stipe, or chanting “doo-doo, doo-doo” over the chugging riff. The solo on the bridge practically screams “I am being performed by Peter Buck circa the late-80s,” and true to his slightly modified lyrics, Michael sounds nervous, but also goofy, coy, and urgent.

King Of Birds

October 26, 2007

There’s a fair few songs in the R.E.M. catalog that would be difficult to pull off without Michael Stipe on lead vocals, but “King Of Birds” may be the selection that would prove most disastrous in the hands of most any other performer. It’s essentially a majestic ballad about humility, and thus the piece requires a very delicate balance of emotions. You can’t get too grandiose or slick with it, or you miss the point entirely. You can’t undersing it, or you rob the tune of its poignancy. If you foreground the irony, you gut the piece entirely. To nail this song, you have to commit to a lot of contradictions and possess a voice that merits the audience’s empathy without directly soliciting it. I’m not saying there is no one else who could do it right, or maybe even better than Stipe, but that person has to be one hell of a vocalist.

The music of “King Of Birds” maintains the same balance as the vocals — the beat is martial, and the chorus builds to a significant emotional peak, but the arrangement is filled with flourishes that lend the track a creaky, janky, dusty quality. Even when the song reaches its grandest moments, there’s a quiet, insistent jangle of a tambourine there to somehow bring the piece down to earth.

A lyrical note: I’m kinda amazed that up until I wrote about this song today, I never once considered that when Michael Stipe sings “a mean idea to call my own,” he could be meaning “a cruel idea” rather than “an average idea.” I definitely think he means the latter — it makes a lot more sense in context — but it’s a more obscure definition of the word and it’s sort of odd that I’ve known the song for quite a long time without ever thinking of it.

Finest Worksong

August 21, 2007

I like to think that sometime in 1986, R.E.M. got around to thinking that all of the music that was being called “industrial” was not taking that label literally enough, and decided to write a song of their own that didn’t just sound a bit like a factory, but also played out the tensions between industrialized capitalism and the workers who operate its machinery.

“Finest Worksong” may be somewhat pretentious on a conceptual level, but its strength comes from its unashamed populism.  With its thundering beat and sweeping chorus, the song is ideally suited to being performed in stadiums, especially as the opening number of a show. The studio recording is dominated by the enormity of Bill Berry’s drum kit, but the blown-out treble of Peter Buck’s  guitar is key to the appeal of the piece, signaling both a nervous urgency in its rhythms, and a harsh, metallic environment with its cold, tinny pitch. Whereas Buck’s parts are sharp and flat, Mike Mills’ bass is sleek, thick, and somewhat elegant when it is foregrounded for brief leads. An alternate version of the track found on the Eponymous record features a brass section that pumps up the chorus, but it’s a bit too obvious and heavy-handed for its own good, and the track is much more effective when it simply implies the fanfare.

Much like “Cuyahoga,” “Finest Worksong” proposes both revolutionary action and reform.  Michael Stipe’s alienated worker may be calling for unionization, or a labor strike, or a full-on Marxist revolt, but the specifics aren’t as important as the message of the refrain: “What we want and what we need has been confused.”  It’s a crucial lyric, not just in that it makes a strong, succinct point in the context of that song, but in that it is essentially the central theme of the band’s entire late ’80s period boiled down into a simple slogan.

Lightnin’ Hopkins

July 31, 2007

The lyrics of “Lightnin’ Hopkins” effectively combine two of Michael Stipe’s major obsessions — the culture of the deep south, and the art of photography and cinema. It’s important to note that the rural scenery and the people described in the song are only presented in terms of how they are being filmed, which quietly suggests to the listener that it’s important to consider the way the place and its culture is represented to those outside of it, and by who, and how, and why. The words sketch out a set of distinct images and hint at something specific, but there’s not much in the way of context, and it’s unclear why the Texan blues guitarist Sam “Lightnin'” Hopkins is being invoked at all, or why the song bears his name.

Bill Berry’s drumming on “Lightnin’ Hopkins” is undoubtedly his most busy and frenetic performance on any R.E.M. record. The beat sounds a bit like a dribbling basketball at the start of the track, and so it’s actually quite difficult for me to hear the song without thinking of the game. On top of that impression, I have a vague recollection of hearing the song in a basketball highlights reel on television a long time ago, but I’m not sure whether or not that actually happened.