So. Central Rain

June 15, 2008

Despite its title, I’ve always associated “So. Central Rain” with wide open blue skies. Here’s my explanation: The song doesn’t take place during the storm; it’s in the time immediately after the deluge.

That’s Reckoning for you — nearly every song on the record in some way deals with the aftermath of an event, and at least half of them are traumatic. It’s an album about mourning your losses, taking stock of changes, owning up to guilt, and, in the end, moving on. In this way, the recurring theme of water in the lyrics is extremely appropriate. Just as with the fire of Document, the floods of Reckoning are destructive, but also purifying. There may be panic and trauma on Reckoning, but it’s ultimately a record about finding maturity after a period of chaos. 

“So. Central Rain” revisits the theme of communication from Murmur, but it’s notable that the inability to communicate has nothing to do with the singer’s social awkwardness, and everything to do with circumstance: The phones are down. Even aside from the chorus (“I’m sorry!”), a sense of guilt permeates every lyric and melodic turn in the song, implying that the anxiety related to the missed phone calls is symptomatic of a nagging conscience. The composition chugs along with a mellow grace — I suppose the body of the song could be described as ersatz country rock meets ersatz R&B — but it eventually reaches a sudden, cathartic vamp that rivals only “You” from Monster as being the most angst-ridden finale in the R.E.M. discography.

“There are songs I wrote in the past that were gender-specific. “7 Chinese Bros.” was about me breaking up a couple — and then dating both of them, a man and a woman, which is a terrible thing to do, but I was young and stupid.”

Michael Stipe in the April 2008 issue of Spin.

Okay, whoa.

That’s pretty scandalous and all, but c’mon, it’s also not that surprising so there’s no need to focus on that aspect of this revelation. The thing that really throws me about this is how aside from an oblique reference to what I presume to be both halves of this couple in the first line of the verses (“this mellow, sweet short haired boy, woman offers pull up a seat”), there really is no way to pull that narrative from the lyrics of the song. It just isn’t there! The first line introduces the man and the woman, the second introduces a setting and suggests a conflict, and the rest of the verse is entirely abstract. The chorus botches an allusion to Claire Hutchet Bishop‘s 1938 children’s book The Five Chinese Brothers, and nods in the general direction of both guilt and renewal.

The revelation of Stipe’s motivation in writing the song does shed some light on the allusion to The Five Chinese Brothers. In Bishop’s story — which is based upon a Chinese folk tale — one of the brothers is able to hold the entire ocean in his mouth, and does so for a boy who wants to gather fish. The boy turns out to be greedy, and does not return to shore when he is beckoned. The brother is unable to breathe and is forced to let the ocean out, which in turn drowns the boy. The brother is later sentenced to death by the townsfolk. It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to see why Stipe would relate his sordid scenario to this tale — it’s pretty clear now that he’s the selfish little boy in this story.

It’s still somewhat surprising to me that there’s this dark, painful story is buried in the subtext of this perky, innocuous song. It makes me wonder just how much is hidden in Stipe’s early lyrics, and how of what we don’t understand in his songs actually comes down to carefully coded messages to himself. Truthfully, aside from admiring the gentle sentimentality of the opening line, I’d never given all that much thought to the words of “7 Chinese Bros.” until just now — I’ve been fixated on the sunny, chiming sound of Peter Buck’s guitar part for as long as I’ve known the song. I suspect this is the case for many people, and perhaps the band themselves. After all, they did record “Voice of Harold,” which puts Michael and the instrumental to the “I’d listen to them recite the phone book!” test, though in this case, it’s the liner notes of a gospel album. It’s very funny and cute, though I don’t know if I’d label it “a must.”

When I was in high school, I had a job as a stock boy at the local supermarket. They played old-school Muzak over the P.A., i.e., mellow instrumental versions of well-known pop songs, never the actual recordings. In the time I was there, I noticed that there were a handful of R.E.M. songs in rotation: “Man On The Moon,” “Shiny Happy People,” “Everybody Hurts,” and, uh, “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville.” I probably heard the Muzak version of “Rockville” a few times before I realized what I was hearing — not that the song wasn’t recognizable in this form, but because I didn’t realize the song was well-known enough to enter the context of mid-90s supermarket Muzak. But really, why not? “Rockville” is a straight-up traditional country-rock tune, and one of the most unabashedly mainstream songs the band has ever recorded.

Much of the song’s charm — and near-total lack of weirdness — comes down to the fact that “Rockville” is more or less a Mike Mills solo composition. Michael Stipe may have filled the tune with obscure turns of phrase, but Mills’ words are simple and sincere: He’s way into a girl, but she’s leaving town, and headed off to a dull suburb in Maryland. He imagines that his life will be boring and lonely without her, and his vision of her life in Rockville is almost hilariously grim. It’s a very sweet song, but the best thing about it is that the singer’s earnest pleas are colored with a bit of selfishness. This is not to say that he is in any way a creep, but it’s pretty fair to say that this song is more about him and his desire for stability than it is about her.

A Jicksy Note: Very sloppy, but it fills my heart with joy!

Time After Time (Annelise)

September 30, 2007

Before I ever owned a copy of Reckoning, I was obsessed with a song called “The Unseen Power of the Picket Fence” from the No Alternative compilation. It was the very first song that I ever heard by Pavement, who would eventually become my all-time favorite band, and it just happened to be a tribute to R.E.M. in general and Reckoning in specific. On a very basic level, it’s a song about the magic of discovering music without knowing all that much about it, and the way enthusiastic, imaginative fans can rush to fill in their own history and meaning to art when they are not weighed down by the baggage of a shared culture.

In 1984, R.E.M. was a mystery for Stephen Malkmus to solve, just as his band would become a puzzle for me in 1994, and I’m certain that both bands benefited enormously from withholding information the public, and forcing the listener to develop their own context based on what they could glean from the records and whatever made it into the mainstream press. As usual, imagination allows for greater drama and insight: “Unseen Power” starts off with Malkmus identifying with the band’s southern roots despite having spent his own formative years in California, and ends with him imagining R.E.M. as stoic defenders of Georgia who confront General William Tecumseh Sherman at the end of his devastating March to the Sea. It’s all rather colorful and strange, but in an intuitive way, it summarizes the band’s appeal in the early ’80s than most anything else I’ve ever encountered.

In the second verse, Malkmus provides a quick recap of R.E.M.’s discography as of 1984, with a decided focus on Reckoning and its tracklisting. Though I knew “So. Central Rain” and “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville” at the time because I had a dubbed copy of Eponymous, some of the titles were warped by my adolescent ears, i.e., for some reason Reckoning came across as “Black Honey.” Through the verse, Malkmus seems awed by the songs, and so when I finally heard “Camera,” “Harborcoat” and “Pretty Persuasion” for myself, I was acutely aware of their legendary status, at least in the mind of the guy from Pavement. However, he made one thing very clear in that verse: “Time After Time” was his least favorite song. “TIME AFTER TIME” WAS HIS LEAST FAVORITE SONG!!!

“Time After Time” is not my least favorite song on Reckoning. Not even close, actually. Bill Berry and Peter Buck shine on the album version, with the former filling out the space between the latter’s loose, trebly notes with a variety of light percussive textures. The song gradually builds up to a rather majestic peak, but even still, the tone remains decidely mellow and understated. This is in part due to Michael Stipe’s cool, reserved vocal performance, and an airy arrangement that seems to evaporate into the atmosphere just when it rises into the sky. In a way, it’s the song on Reckoning that comes closest to what Malkmus achieved on his records with Pavement — it presents an extraordinary and specific sensation in a disconcertingly casual sort of way. In other words: “Time After Time” is slanted and enchanted.


September 16, 2007

When the party lulls, if we fall by the side
Will you be remembered? Will she be remembered?

I met a girl the other night at a party. It was a birthday party for two of my friends, and she wasn’t invited; she just happened to be at the bar that night. We talked for an hour or two, and it was great. I got pulled into other conversations later on, and then I noticed that she’d disappeared before I managed to get her number. I’ve been a bit heartbroken ever since because she was so awesome and interesting and cute, and I felt so comfortable talking to her that it makes me feel awful to think that I might never get to see her ever again.

Alone in a crowd, a bartered lantern borrowed
If I’m to be your camera, then who will be your face?

I’m already starting to lose my mental image of her.  I know the broad strokes, but the little specifics are starting to fade away. I’m sure I’d recognize her right away if I saw her, but there’s this nagging feeling of “what if I don’t?” I remember the hair and the glasses and the tiny equilateral triangle nose and the dimples, but it doesn’t always fit right when I try to put it all together in my mind’s eye.

I still like you, can you remember?

I keep wondering if she remembers me, if she’s thought of me since Thursday night. She left quite an impression on me, but maybe despite what I believe to be a pretty fun conversation, maybe I just wasn’t that memorable, or it wasn’t worth it to stick around and wait for me to get her number. I have no idea.

“Camera” is one of R.E.M.’s finest songs about social anxiety, mainly because it’s less about freaking about “conversation fear,” and more about being surprised by one’s own capacity to make a connection with another person. You talk yourself out of it, you worry and you get worked up about ridiculous things, but really, anyone can do it. You’re never really “alone in a crowd” unless you want to be. The chorus rises like an epiphany, but Michael Stipe undersings the words to great effect, making the song feel smaller and more unsure of itself. It’s dramatic, but everything, including Michael, is contained within the thin outline of Peter Buck’s fragile lead guitar lines.

Second Guessing

August 14, 2007

The difference between Murmur and Reckoning is like night and day — literally. Whereas Murmur‘s stark contrasts, snappy beats, and murky textures evoke the romance of twilight, it’s almost impossible to hear the songs on Reckoning without imaging blue skies and broad daylight. In the least self-conscious way possible, Reckoning is a summer album, a piece of music ideally suited to being heard on a car stereo on the way to something fun. The album gets a bit heavy in places, but a great deal of its appeal comes from the sense that the band is more focused on evoking a pleasurable sensation than belaboring a point. When it comes down to it, “Second Guessing” is mostly just harmony and velocity, with a lyric that isn’t concerned with much more than social status in a local scene. It’s about as thematically lightweight as it gets for R.E.M., but that lightness allows it to whoosh on by in a carefree rush on to the next exciting whatever.

Pretty Persuasion

June 27, 2007

It doesn’t even matter what you think Michael Stipe and Mike Mills are singing on “Pretty Persuasion” so long as you catch the title phrase.  The composition jerks back and forth between gorgeous, sunny cascading harmonies and moody tangents, basically seducing the listener with its beauty before revealing something a bit more dark and sinister. Y’know, just like the people in the lyrics. Michael has fun with his pronouns in this number, intentionally obscuring the gender and sexuality of the song’s subject to the point that I wonder if it was always intended to evoke a sense of deep confusion with regards to sexual orientation.

Letter Never Sent

May 13, 2007

It’s a classic rock and roll tradition: Send a bunch of young guys out on the road for their first national tour, and they’ll come back with at least one song about feeling homesick. In the case of R.E.M., we got two — the moody, cryptic “So. Central Rain,” and the relatively straightforward “Letter Never Sent.” Though the former nails a very particular type of longing and frustration, the latter hits upon a mix of restless energy and emotional/physical exhaustion that seems rather close to my impression of life as a traveling musician. Michael Stipe sounds alternately tired and deadpan throughout the track — he jokes about wanting to vacation in his hometown, mutters something about catacombs, and worries about being being unreachable on the road. He’s overselling the charm of Athens a little bit on the chorus (“heaven is yours where I live”), but it’s exactly the sort of exaggerated fondness that comes from prolonged separation, and so it feels especially poignant and true. Mike Mills’ harmonies lift up the mood on the chorus, but ironically, his words drag the song deeper into negativity as he moans about being “so far,” “so dark,” and “so lost.” “Letter Never Sent” is a tangle of contrary sentiments, but its crisp, agile composition keeps the feelings shifting so that they overlap and contrast rather than melt into an undifferentiated glob of emotion.


April 25, 2007

“Harborcoat” does a fine job of setting the sunny, breezy tone of Reckoning, but unlike the opening tracks of most other R.E.M. releases, the song casually drops us into the album without much drama or fanfare. It’s an up-tempo number, but despite Bill Berry’s brisk beat and Peter Buck’s pleasantly bopping guitar parts, it can’t help but feel a bit mellow and relaxed due to the relatively sedate lead vocals of both Michael Stipe and Mike Mills. Their voices run parallel to each other throughout the piece; both of them essentially singing a different song that overlaps and collides in strange and beautiful ways.

Even compared to other early R.E.M. songs, the lyrics of “Harborcoat” are especially dense and difficult to parse. Mills’ words are almost impossible to discern, and so the relationship between the two vocal parts is left maddeningly ambiguous. Meanwhile, Stipe is busy planting intriguing images — “they crowded up to Lenin with their noses worn off,” “then we danced the dance til the menace got out” — that do their best to invite the listener’s interest with specific language, but nevertheless stubbornly resist any sort of literal interpretation. (This doesn’t mean many people have not tried.)

The most memorable line in the song — “there’s a splinter in your eye and it reads ‘REACT'” — is a sideways reference to the Gospel of Luke, but it’s just as likely a nod to an aphorism from the Theodor Adorno‘s book Minima Moralia: “The splinter in your eye is the best magnifying glass.” That quote is a bit hard to paraphrase out of context, but the gist of it seems to be that the misuse of reason has led to suffering, but by working through that suffering instead of ignoring it you can get back to reason again.

That concept seems to tie in with the apparent subject matter of the song — ie, the day-to-day struggles of life in Russia following the Bolshevik Revolution — but as much as the song triggers rewarding intellectual tangents, there’s really not enough in its text to support even the most fascinating theories. Like much of the band’s early ’80s material, “Harborcoat” is not overly deterministic about its message, and seems as though it was specifically designed to arouse curiosity and stimulate creative extrapolation of its words.

(Thanks to Mike and Eric.)

Little America

March 27, 2007

I bought Reckoning when I was fourteen years old, and even then I had trouble relating to the opening line of this song: “I can’t see myself at thirty.” I mean, half of my problem is probably that it’s always been too easy for me to imagine that my life would be sorted out by that age, and figuring that I can just put off lots of fun things til then. When I hear “Little America” at the advanced (though maybe not “lacquered”) age of 27, I feel a strange mix of nostalgia for the fun I have experienced, and envy for even the most unremarkable joys of other people’s lives.

Like most early R.E.M. compositions, the lyrics of “Little America” are nonlinear, obscure, and impressionistic, and only come close to making sense when you hear them in the context of the music and Michael Stipe’s voice. It’s impossible for me to hear the guitar in this song without thinking of blues skies on hot days, and driving around in cars without air conditioning. It sometimes seems as though we’re missing half the words because we’re stuck in the backseat, and we can’t make out everything Michael is saying on account of the windows being rolled down and the radio on full blast.

The words seem much more cynical in print than they do on record, and some of that is surely a result of the irrepressible humanity of Stipe’s voice, but it’s mainly a side-effect of the arrangement, which can’t help but sound totally exciting. This is one of my favorite performances by Bill Berry — his percussion is nimble and dynamic, lending Peter Buck’s riffs an incredible sense of forward momentum, like a car zooming off into the unknown. When Michael sings “another Greenville, another Magic Mart,” it could’ve just seemed bratty, but in context, it comes off like another detail in their sorta-mundane road trip adventure. They might be noticing the increasing homogeneity of the United States, but the thrill of exploration is still there.