Life and How To Live It

July 22, 2008

1. The opening guitar figure of “Life and How To Live It” is like a lit fuse in slow motion. The fire gradually consumes the wire, and when the song kicks in all at once at the 30 second mark — KA-BOOM.

2. The opening line is “burn bright through the night,” which may help to explain why I can only imagine this song visually in terms of hot light contrasted with total darkness. In addition to the fuse imagery, I have long associated “Life and How To Live It” with a county fair or amusement park at night. I have no idea how this ever got in my head — 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 away.

3. The first time I saw R.E.M. perform this song was at Madison Square Garden in 2003. It was the first song in the encore. I remember the lights going out, then some flicker of strobe light as Peter Buck began the song. I’m not sure if that’s actually accurate, but it’s what I remember in my mind’s eye. When I think of this moment, I see it in black and white. I didn’t realize what Peter was playing right away, and it had never occurred to me that it would be in the setlist. I was stunned.

4. “Life and How To Live It” reveals itself in concert. It gets wilder, faster, and more cathartic. The moments of the composition that feel euphoric on the studio recording sound absolutely unhinged in live performance. Whereas the version of the song on Fables of the Reconstruction capably simulates the manic state of the song’s deranged protagonist, its live incarnation finds the entire band taking a method approach, and fully inhabiting his ecstatic madness.

5. “Life and How To Live It” is based on the true story of Brev Mekis, a schizophrenic man from Athens who split his home into two sides, each with a totally different set of furniture, books, clothing, pets, etc. He would live on one side for a while, and then switch to the other, and back again. After he passed away, it was discovered that he had a few hundred copies of a book he had written outlining his philosophy published by a vanity press hidden away on one side of his house. The book was titled Life: How To Live.

6. The majority of the songs on Fables of the Reconstruction are concerned with older, unknowable men who in some way retreat from the world around them. Whereas the other tracks describe a man’s actions from the outside looking in, “Life and How To Live It” is written from the perspective of its subject. I doubt that this was a deliberate decision, but it would make sense that Michael would relate to Mekis’ radical compartmentalization of his life. Most obviously, Mekis’ lifestyle is roughly analogous to that of a touring musician — time is split between two distinct ways of living, each accentuating a different state of mind. Ultimately, both sides feed into the other, arguably giving the person a more varied and rich life experience. (Also, one could make an interesting argument that the song reflects Michael’s sexual confusion as a young man, and the intentionally separated home represent life in and out of the closet.)

7. It helps to think of the song’s arrangement in the context of its lyrics: Michael is singing about a man running around and hollering as a structure is being built. Bill Berry lays the foundation of the building, and holds the piece together as Peter’s parts give it substance, color, and shape. Mike Mills’ bass part is the most dynamic element — it darts, climbs, and leaps around and through the form of the song, as if to represent Mekis’ frenzied state as his vision of an ideal life takes shape before his eyes. Mills’ bass lines in the song are crucial to the success of the composition, and are essential to its feeling of constant frenetic movement and elation.

8. All four members of the band get at least one moment in the song when their respective contribution seems to pop outside the bounds of the composition. (For one example, consider the way Peter’s guitar part seems to bounce up dramatically in the chorus.) This is brilliant, not simply because it makes for a ridiculously exciting piece of music, but because it allows each of the musicians an opportunity to channel the character’s joyous lunacy. For a song about a bizarre loner, there is not even a trace of alienation or condemnation in “Life and How To Live It.” Truly, every aspect of the song respects its subject’s skewed vision, and throws itself headlong into his creativity, pleasure, and unwavering faith.

Feeling Gravitys Pull

June 5, 2008

Whereas a huge number of songs in the R.E.M. discography in some way examine the relationship between dreams and waking life, “Feeling Gravitys Pull” is fully immersed in Michael Stipe’s dream world. The song works against all odds — dream logic is almost always extraordinarily difficult to describe in a way that does justice to the workings of your unconscious mind, and anyone who has ever humored a friend as they attempt to recount a particularly evocative dream knows that it’s often a very dull chore. Stipe’s lyrics work mainly because his imagery is vivid and interesting enough to be effective in any context, and he’s not writing about a dream so much as writing about the experience of dreaming in general. In the song, the dreamscape is both a thing of mysterious, somewhat terrifying beauty, and a domain where a person can overcome the rules of society and the laws of physics, and achieve a sort of power and freedom they could never know when awake and in the real world. The song is defiant; the sound of someone finding power in a life in which they have no choice but to be passive to the humbling forces of nature.

“Feeling Gravitys Pull” is among the band’s finest compositions. It’s a very tense and moody piece of music, and much of its power comes from the way the group are capable of subtly shifting between dense, claustrophobic passages and sequences that are both grandiose and ethereal. In particular, Peter Buck shines with one of the most distinct guitar parts in his repertoire — a sinister lead line that alternates with a clanging, metallic rhythm that chugs along with Mike Mills’ thick, menacing bass part and Bill Berry’s subtly vertiginous percussion on the verses.

Old Man Kensey

February 12, 2008

Much of Fables of the Reconstruction is concerned with the mystique of outsiders, specifically misunderstood or overlooked older men living in small towns.  It’s an interesting area of fascination for a young band. Whereas your average rock band full of young dudes is primarily focused on the narrow confines of their own psyches or speaking of the outside  world in broad, unintentionally condescending terms, Stipe’s mix of empathy and curiosity when investigating the lives of characters on the margins of society seems both humane, and ever so slightly sexual. (It’s not so hard to think of some of the songs on Fables as being like mash notes to their respective characters.) All of the characters are more or less eccentric, but the most important and consistent connection is that they are aloof, impenetrable and unknowable.  Stipe’s interest is exacerbated by their refusal to connect, and the romance comes from their willful separation from what the observer may believe to be the corrupting influence of modern life. In other words, it’s a young man’s search for purity and authenticity. “Old Man Kensey” can remain untainted and perfect because he’s not a man, per se — he’s an idea of a man, a concept that cannot be ruined by the harshness of reality.


October 30, 2007

Throughout the ’80s, R.E.M. was on a fairly relentless grind of writing, recording, and touring, and though I think it was mostly beneficial to their craft, that unforgiving schedule also yielded a handful of somewhat half-baked album cuts like “Kohoutek.” On its own terms, it’s a pretty likable tune with strong contributions of all four band members, but in the context of Fables of the Reconstruction, it’s so completely overshadowed by full-on masterpieces such as “Feeling Gravity’s Pull,” “Life and How To Live It,” “Driver 8,” and “Can’t Get There From Here” that it’s hard not to either notice the way it never quite gels despite containing a bunch of good ideas, or simply forget that it’s on the record at all. The composition is competent but unremarkable; essentially the work of a bunch of guys coasting on their respective talents, and approaching a creative dead-end with their original jangle-pop style.

Good Advices

September 26, 2007

The words of wisdom contained in the lyrics of “Good Advices” are intentionally archaic in tone and turn of phrase, which in turn highlights the strange superstitions, and forces the listener to notice that its narrator may not actually be particularly reliable. The advice in the song boils down to distrusting everyone and keeping them at a distance, both physically and emotionally. The central irony of the song is that even though we may think that the singer is being old fashioned and severe, most of us share his anxieties to some degree, and sometimes that results in the sort of proud loneliness that comes across throughout the song, but most especially in its final bridge and chorus. “Good Advices” is gorgeous but slightly muted, and though the tune could have easily worked with a more grandiose arrangement, its understated sentiment is extremely well suited to its lyrical theme of neurotic self-isolation.

Green Grow The Rushes

August 15, 2007

“Green Grow The Rushes” may be the first obviously political R.E.M. song, with lyrics that unambiguously address the plight of Mexican guest workers in the United States. It’s a fairly laid-back form of protest song — the band seem more interested in simply raising awareness of a problem than in directly scolding Americans who exploit their neighbors in order to maximize their profits — but the lyrics don’t entirely gel, and the words recede into the background of a tune that mostly just sounds very pretty. “Green Grow The Rushes” isn’t exactly a  technical mind-blower, but it surely features some of the loveliest Peter Buck guitar parts of the IRS era, particularly the sweet, mellow sequence that comes just after the chorus. The simple beauty of the piece almost certainly overshadows Michael Stipe’s well-intentioned message, but it’s not exactly a major problem.

Driver 8

July 16, 2007

Live band karaoke is a weird thing, and it brings out my snobbishness about rock music like few other things. It’s not just that you have to indulge people in their selection of really obnoxious songs — that’s just part of karaoke, you know? — but that you’re at the mercy of a short list of tunes pre-selected by the musicians, and the sort of people who form live karaoke bands, well, they all seem to skew heavily towards the shlock rock end of things. R.E.M. always seems to turn up on these lists, but it’s always the same few songs — “It’s The End of the World As We Know It,” pretty much always. “Losing My Religion” and “The One I Love,” usually. And more curiously, I have encountered both “Can’t Get There From Here” and “Driver 8.”

I saw some dude do “Driver 8” last night. His voice sucked and he was missing his cues badly enough to skip an entire verse, but who cares, it’s just karaoke. The band, however — ugh, I feel like “frustrating” might be the most charitable word I can use. Peter Buck’s guitar parts alternate between the gravity of the opening figure and a light, uncluttered arpeggiation, but the karaoke band flattened all that out into a distorted, generic post-alt-rock crunch. For most of the selections being played, it didn’t really matter if the guitar tone was boring and anonymous, but their thoughtless arrangement sucked the life out of “Driver 8.” The song may be well-written enough to retain a certain amount of charm even when it’s being butchered by an unimaginative cover band, but its most essential appeal comes from the way Buck’s chords and tone evoke the patina of old train lines and the ghostly feeling of abandoned, obsolete industrial sites. There’s a romance, there’s a mystique, and most importantly, there’s a subtext, and if you dumb down the arrangement, you’re throwing all of that out and leaving the listener with nothing more than just another catchy tune.

When I sing along to this song, and I often do, I always do the Mike Mills half of the chorus. I don’t think I’ve ever once even tried to do the Michael Stipe part — it seems counter-intuitive, like I’d be swimming against a strong tide. Mills’ part sits comfortably in my range, flows nicely along with the forward momentum of its rhythm, and seems to demand group participation by design. As the song charges ahead, Stipe’s charming yokel character moves at his own pace, contradicts conventional wisdom, and stands in the place where he lives. We’re not supposed to relate to him; we’re the ones who got lost in the places in between our destinations.

Peter Buck’s parts on “Can’t Get There From Here” are inspired, and benefit greatly from a guitar tone that emphasizes the fact that’s he’s really just plucking strings made out of metal. The clicka-clicka sound on the verses remind me of the polished chrome of a vintage car, and the arpeggiated section leading up to the chorus always makes me think of power lines passing overhead on a country road.

Wendell Gee

May 9, 2007

Peter Buck has made no secret of loathing this song, and it’s easy to understand why. “Wendell Gee” is corny and saccharine to such a degree that it’s actually somewhat surprising that it’s actually an R.E.M. original — the sappy tone is so far off from the prevailing mood of Fables of the Reconstruction that it comes off like an unusually earnest cover rather than a pastiche of a sentimental country ballad. It’s more difficult to grasp why the band felt it was necessary to tack the song on to the end of the album when “Good Advices” would have been a perfectly fine conclusion, but it’s pretty and tuneful enough to get a pass even if it is the weakest track on the record by a considerable distance.

Maps And Legends

April 5, 2007

More than half of the selections on Fables of the Reconstruction are preoccupied with the behavior of mysterious older men. These tracks fall into two major categories — sentimental portraits of obscure eccentrics, or detached observations of unknowable characters. “Maps and Legends,” the band’s tribute to their onetime collaborator the Reverend Howard Finster, belongs in the former category. Finster is portrayed as a somewhat mystical loner, and though Michael Stipe is clearly humbled and awed by his gifts, his fascination seems entwined with a vague sense of alienation. Despite the fact that he is presented as something of a visionary (“he sees what you can’t see, can’t you see that?”), Stipe seems to mainly admire Finster for his status as a self-possessed outsider. Though Michael clearly identifies with Finster on some level, it’s difficult to tell whether or not he intended this meditation on the allure of the enigmatic artist to mirror the way his own fans and critics responded to his work and public persona at the time the song was written.

“Auctioneer (Another Engine)” is the second of two songs on Fables of the Reconstruction with a clear railroad theme, and though its words tie into the general lyrical themes of the album, I get the sense that Michael Stipe was simply reinforcing an impression that the music would have suggested either way. Maybe I’ve spent entirely too much time on and around trains in my lifetime, but I’m fairly certain that I’d associate the sound of this with dilapidated tracks and zooming freights regardless of what he was singing.

Among early R.E.M. compositions, “Auctioneer” is the most indebted to the claustrophobic, uptight sound of British post-punk, though that style is filtered through the rather specific sensibility of Peter Buck. Though Bill Berry’s driving percussion is crucial to the character of the piece, the song’s most memorable features come courtesy of Buck — the creepy arpeggiated tangle of notes on the chorus, and the fiery lead figure that implies breakneck speed without actually being all that fast.