September 10, 2008
Well, it’s all over for now. The original mission of this site is completed, and I have written an entry for every song on every R.E.M. record that existed as of March 2007, plus every non-album track that I deemed worthy of consideration. I am generally quite proud of the results, and some of my favorite writing that I’ve done in the past few years has appeared on this site.
A lot of my favorite posts here are the ones in which I arrive at an idea about a song, or discover something in a song that I probably wouldn’t have found if I had never taken on this project, and spent so much time thinking about a body of work that I’d come to take for granted, or just accepted as good and pleasurable without thinking much about why the songs and the band have resonated with me for so many years.
I will definitely be writing about all of the songs on Accelerate at some point in the future, perhaps at some point in 2009. (I may also hit some songs I missed the first time around.) It’s important that I have some time to let those songs sink in — a lot of what made this site work is that I lived with all the music for quite a while — and I think it’s absolutely crucial to wait for the result (and aftermath) of the 2008 Presidential election to put the lyrics in their proper context.
This project would not exist were it not for Chris Conroy. I was stuck on writing up a Fluxblog entry, and I asked him what I should write about. He suggested R.E.M., and specifically “Let Me In,” and so I did. I realized that I could probably find something interesting to say about every R.E.M. song, and the thought of doing just that crossed my mind. A few days later, I saw a video by Ze Frank in which he advises his audience to execute every idea they have, and I felt like a gauntlet had been thrown down, and I had no choice but to go for it. I recommend that all of you take Ze Frank‘s advice to heart.
I would also like to thank my friends Eric Harvey, Bryan Charles, Mike Barthel, J. Edward Keyes, Maura Johnston, Susan Broyles, Karen Broyles, and Hannah Carlen for their feedback and support throughout the life of the project.
Thanks to Scott Lapatine and the Stereogum crew.
Thanks to Ethan Kaplan and Murmurs.com
Thanks to Bertis Downs, David Bell, and everyone at the R.E.M. office.
Thanks to the readers of this site, most especially the regular commenters. I feel extremely lucky to have had such an amazing bunch of commenters on this site. In addition to being exceptionally civil and well-behaved, I could always count on you all to provide your own thoughtful commentary, bring up interesting bits of trivia, offer words of encouragement, or go off on your own little tangents. You are the most enthusiastic and generous audience a blogger could ever hope for, and I really appreciate your attention and support.
Thanks most of all to R.E.M. themselves, for doing what they’ve been doing for all these years.
September 9, 2008
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.
August 29, 2008
“What’s the frequency, Kenneth?” is your Benzedrine, uh huh.
As the story goes, back in October of 1986, Dan Rather was attacked by two men on Park Avenue in New York City. As the men accosted the famed anchorman, one of them repeatedly asked a puzzling question: “Kenneth, what is the frequency?” It doesn’t really matter so much what actually happened, or what they meant by their strange query. The important thing is that Rather told his version of the story on television, and after that, the event took on a life of its own. Rather’s critics questioned the veracity of the story; some meditated on the attackers’ question as it if were the Riddle of the Sphinx; and this one guy described the episode as “the premier unsolved American surrealist act of the 20th century.” More than anything, the “Kenneth?” story became a bit of pop cultural trivia; another strange fragment in a sound bite world.
R.E.M.’s song is not strictly about Rather’s incident, but instead touches on the cultural meaning of the phrase, and the value of esoteric knowledge. Michael Stipe is addressing someone for whom this knowledge is akin to a stimulant — this is a bit vague, but the implication is that he’s in dialogue with a person who relies on controlling information and knowledge as a way of attaining power, and since the market for information shifts constantly, that person is in something of a precarious position. (This person could just as well be Dan Rather himself, given his profession and position of prominence in the media world.)
Tunnel vision from the outsider’s screen.
At its most basic, “Kenneth” is about the tension of media insiders vs. the media’s audience, and our singer is in the uncomfortable position of either being a bitter and ineffectual cog in the media machine, or an outsider who has accrued enough knowledge to understand the workings of that world. In any case, our protagonist here is irritated by the way the media shapes a cultural narrative, and is questioning their motives for revising history, however recent.
I’ve studied your cartoons, radio, music, tv, movies, magazines.
Though “Kenneth” is a far more political song than anything else on Monster, the lyrics tap into one of the most potent themes on the record: Obsession. In its way, the song is an echo of “Losing My Religion,” with our protagonist ruminating endlessly on his relationship with an entity that barely seems to acknowledge his existence. “Kenneth” is a few steps removed, and places Stipe in the role of the celebrity stalker who develops his own narrative based on information that he finds, and perhaps inserts himself into the story in troubling ways. It’s a disturbing tension; the push and pull of feeling that you are irrelevant and powerless, and laboring under delusions of grandeur. Though it’s easy to relate to the singer of the song, it seems rather obvious that the character is being written as an unreliable narrator.
Richard said “Withdrawal in disgust is not the same as apathy.”
You said that irony was the shackles of youth.
Specifically, I think “Kenneth” is about a frustration with the way the media packaged “Generation X” in a way that deliberately glorified Baby Boomers, and infantilized younger people, and wrote off discontent with established forms of political engagement as cynicism and apathy. (You can see echoes of this in how many people write about “Millenials” in recent years.) The implication here is that the person Stipe is addressing is out of touch, unable to understand this new context, and has invested too much in a narrative that casts their generation as cultural heroes, and vilifies and/or belittles the youth. The most bitter irony of the song is that it is apparent that both sides find it difficult to engage with a version of reality that is not some kind of story.
Peter Buck is not a guitarist known for his impressive guitar solos, but his lead part on the bridge of “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” is particularly inspired. The melody expresses a blank, disappointed form of melancholy, but it’s all rather understated and fluid even though it’s being played backwards in the studio recording. Whereas backmasked parts tend to be rather psychedelic and impressionistic, the solo in “Kenneth” has a more literal effect — it sounds as though we are listening to the notes from a reversed perspective. This suits the song’s lyrical themes about the media and outsiders rather nicely.
I never understood, don’t fuck with me, uh huh.
It still amazes me how many radio and television stations have aired — and continue to air — the song without editing out the swear at the end. All those years of “mumbling” finally paid off.
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.
July 19, 2008
If R.E.M. has a credo, it is most certainly “I Believe.” Though the song has its share of self-deprecating jokes and baffling Michael Stipe-isms, it is essentially a litany of virtues and aphorisms that inform the band’s outlook on politics and life in general. It’s earnest, but it’s also rather playful. One of the best tricks in the song is the way Stipe strings together aphorisms until they collapse into nonsense, which has the curious effect of making the listener reflect on the actual meaning of cliches that normally go in one ear and out the other. Some may take Stipe’s humor and obscure language as a sign of immaturity and a need to cling to inscrutability like a security blanket, but it’s actually essential to the piece, not simply because it keeps the lyrics from getting too Pollyanna-ish and preachy, but in that Stipe values levity and mystery just as much as change, honor, and “time as an abstract.”
Stipe sings about his adult convictions in the context of his experiences as a little kid. He recalls childhood illnesses, outdoor adventures, and the moral codes encouraged by scouting, and rather obviously wishes to reconnect with his former innocence and curiosity about the world. At its core, “I Believe” is a song that expresses a desire to regain the idealism of childhood, and to cast off the ethical compromises that mark adulthood. The sentiment of “I Believe” is ultimately rather poignant because both the audience and the singer know the truth: Though you can draw on youthful idealism and do great things, you can’t turn back the clock and become naive again.
A baffling Michael Stipe-ism note: The line “example is the checker to the key” makes very little sense in or out of context, but according to Marcus Gray’s It Crawled From The South, it is a reference to Michael’s car at the time — a checkered cab.
You know that oft-quoted Brian Eno line about how the Velvet Underground‘s first album sold about a thousand copies when it was released, but everyone that heard it went out and started a band? R.E.M. are not one of those bands, but rather the progeny of that first wave of Velvet Underground acolytes. I’m pretty sure that the band, and most especially Peter Buck, were acutely aware of this lineage, and it comes through in all of the band’s VU covers. Like a majority of R.E.M.’s cover versions in the ’80s, their arrangements for Velvet Underground tunes seemed intent on reverse-engineering them in order to uncover their connections to the mainstream pop of the 50s and early 60s, kinda like a form of musical genealogy. This is especially true of their take on “There She Goes Again” from the Velvets’ debut album — stripped of Lou Reed’s tough guy/poet affectations, the song is neat and streamlined into pure bubblegum.
“Pale Blue Eyes” and “Femme Fatale” are a slightly different matter. For both songs, the arrangements are reasonably close approximations of the Velvet Underground versions, but Michael Stipe’s approach to the vocals is rather sentimental and straight-forward compared to the original performances by Reed and Nico, respectively. I actually heard R.E.M.’s version of “Femme Fatale” before I’d encountered the VU recording, and I’ve got to tell you, I was pretty surprised when I realized that Stipe’s performance was a lot more traditionally feminine than Nico’s aloof Teutonic intonation. Stipe’s versions eliminate the more subversive qualities of the songs, but I have to be honest — I’ve always found his take on both songs to be far more emotionally affecting.
It’s a shame that R.E.M.’s best and most interesting Velvet Underground cover was never tracked in a studio. “After Hours,” a gem from the Velvets’ self-titled album, is a lonely, melancholy song about fantasizing about the fun and glamor in other peoples’ lives, but as covered by R.E.M., it’s all goof and fluff. It’s a rare case of a band gutting the most emotionally affecting aspects of a song, investing it with a completely different meaning, and making it work. In R.E.M.’s context, “After Hours” was their cheeky farewell song, the thing they played at the end of a majority of their concerts in the late 80s. They recast the tune as a music hall/cabaret showstopper, and often allowed the song to collapse upon itself in multiple fake-out endings. I can’t imagine how fun it must have been to see the band end their shows in this way — silly, giddy, humble, weird, and a tiny bit sad. Seeing in that it’s probably never going to be performed by the band ever again, I can only hope to experience it vicariously via the ending of the Tourfilm video.
June 30, 2008
I looked over the entries for all of the Around The Sun songs, and I was a bit sad to realize just how much I’ve slammed that album over the course of doing this project. My opinions haven’t really changed — I may have overstated my distaste for “Leaving New York” and “Final Straw,” but let’s face it, even if I give them a bit more credit, I am not ever going to love those songs. However, I would like for you to come away from this knowing that while I can’t fully endorse Around The Sun, I don’t think it’s a total failure. If anything, the frustration of the album comes from the fact that it’s a mixed bag, and a few really great songs have to share space with half-baked duds and unsuccessful experiments.
“I Wanted To Be Wrong” is one of the album’s unqualified successes. It’s a slow, pretty folk-pop ballad that attempts to reconcile a strong feeling of alienation from George W. Bush’s America and a sense of obligation to feel empathy for people the singer views as a destructive influence on his country and the world at large. It’s a very conflicted song, but it’s surprisingly low on angst — if anything, it comes across like a defeated shrug. There is certainly some anger in the lyrics, but it’s stifled and buried as the singer looks around, struggling to understand a culture that he barely recognizes, and openly rejects his identity and ideals. He’s trying to be fair, he’s trying not to be judgmental, but he can’t help it. Ultimately, his empathy is strained, but his frustration eventually hardens into the righteous, empowered fury of Accelerate.