(Carnival of Sorts) Boxcars
Sometimes it seems impossible to explain why one song just grabs you and doesn't let go some three decades later. There is nothing clearly revelatory about this song, it doesn't break new ground, except....there was something to the relentless, propulsive beat, the faintly muffled, often incomprehensible lyrics, the folky harmonies, and the lyrical, famously jangly Peter Buck guitar. I wish I understood music better to know what it is about the drumbeat in the "cages under cage" part at 2:01 that is so...cool.
One of the many things I love about R.E.M. is that their lyrics are vague enough to be open to your own interpretation, yet meaningful enough to engender strong reactions. I don't know for a fact what the band intended this song to mean, but it is, for me, an intensely emotional song. Perfect Circle is off of their first full length album, Murmur. If you don't have it, click on the link and buy it. Now. Rolling Stone ranked it as one of the top 100 albums of the last 20 years and they're probably not as biased as I am.
I love the mood and tone of this song, the lilting melody. The vision it creates of that perfect circle "of acquaintances and friends" is so romantic and warm and inviting. The song has been attributed to the band's drummer, Bill Berry, who left the group suddenly in 1997 after suffering a life-threatening brain hemorrhage. He probably wrote the music, while the confusing, seemingly random lyrics seem pure Stipe.
"There's a splinter in your eye, it reads react" is probably my favorite song lyric not written by John Lennon. This from a band who as of yet didn't want their lyrics to be understood. From the album, Reckoning, Harborcoat is the quintessential R.E.M. song -- layered guitars, fast percussion, the Southern feel in both the lyrics and the melody, and a counter-song sung as "harmony." I can't even begin to point out the little nuggets in the song. Just the "chh chh" sounds before the last chorus kill me.
This is simply a perfect song. It almost defies description. It certainly doesn't need me setting the stage or putting it in any context. It's from the album Fables of the Reconstruction which is another of those rare albums that is as good today as it was when it came out and each song on it is a treasure. This song is so atmospherically dense that you can feel yourself transported to the South from wherever you are. The images the song evokes are so vivid, I can't tell you why every line sticks with me so many years after I first heard them - Powerlines have floaters so the airplanes won't get snagged. He piloted this song in a plane like that one. We can reach our destination, but we're still a ways away.
Welcome to the Occupation
With Document, R.E.M.'s fifth album, they brought their political beliefs much more into the forefront. A band that at first did not seem to care whether people could understand their lyrics were now plaintively wailing "listen to me." The song takes the idea of a wall of sound and makes it a wall of Stipe. It's layer upon layer of his voice, all ranges, providing his own harmonies. Supported, as always, by the rough, solid bass and drum lines, counterbalanced by the almost lazy, fluid guitar. It was that mixture that made them hard to label, the drums and bass say rock, the vocals and the guitar are more folk yet together it was something different altogether.
Such longing, such sadness. I had to include an extra version. The top video is from the Bridge Schoo Benefit that Neil Young runs and he made a wonderful contribution to the song. The second video is from REM's second MTV Unplugged show. Stipe's voice, a little rough around the edges, a little weary, conveys such feelings of pain and loss. Everyone who's ever been in a failed relationship can relate to this song. This is also a good chance to give a nod toward Peter Buck, who gets so little attention for his guitar playing, and Mike Mills on the keyboard whose beautiful piano melody carries the song on the album. And, parenthetically, how beautiful is Stipe? "It's crazy what you could have had." Yikes.
The entire Automatic for the People album is a must-have for any music fan. But, in the interest of brevity, I'll only pick two songs from this amazing compilation. The first is an old fashioned rock song. Loud, angry, it has some of my favorite lyrics including the line "I know that this is vitriol, no solution, spleen-venting, but I feel better having screamed, don't you?" We all have felt that way, politically speaking, and though Stipe is coming from the Left while I hang out along the right side of the spectrum, I respect his right to complain. Especially when he does it so powerfully.
Find the River
Hard to imagine these two songs share space on the same album, but that's what makes R.E.M. the greatest rock band ever. This song could not have more heart, more yearning, more hope if it was a Hallmark Channel movie of the week. Every instrument, including the most powerful one, Stipe's voice, serves this song to tell its story. This is the definitive song for when you are about to embark on some life-changing endeavor. The song sounds like a river, slow, gentle, flowing. The line "I have got to leave to find my way" could not be any more poignant, or true.
So Fast, So Numb
This one you have to hear on the album. It's on New Adventures in Hi Fi and it is simply one of the most amazing songs ever written. His voice on the record is so pained, so raw, and the piano provides such comfort and support. Unfortunately, this is one of the few songs of theirs that I do not like live all that much. There's too much shouting in the live version. I hate the way he sings "motel BOY." Yes, even Stipe is fallible (Stand, Underneath the Bunker, Shiny Happy People, the evidence is out there, people), but it is unfortunate that I can't find a live version that does justice to this song. On the album, it's a more delicate song. Click here for the original song. The chorus is so beautiful, it's almost hidden in the over-the-top loudness of the live venue. At least at the end, when the instruments cut out, you get a sense of the real power of the song. It just grabs me so fast, so numb, that I can't even feel.
With Mike Mills' lovely piano playing backing Michael Stipe's singing and lines like "you might eclipse the moon tonight" it is somewhat of a love song, if only directed to Hollywood and the last century. Living in LA and knowing Stipe wrote it after living here and experiencing one of our earthquakes, makes it just a little bit more special to me.
I love the vulnerability of the lyrics. This live version of the song from their album Up only amplifies how exposed he is as he opens up to us about his struggles in life. I'm reminded of the Hulk, as he tears open his clothes to release his pent-up rage. Here he is willing to share with the listener the real person underneath the facade and encourage us to do the same. But, aside from the empowering lyrics, you have another example of R.E.M.'s subtle musical brilliance. That combination from earlier -- percussive and forceful, gentle and comforting -- is a hallmark of the R.E.M. sound. Celebrate the contradiction.
I'll Take the Rain
From the album Reveal, this is an anthemic song that I have tried not to love. It seems a little manipulative, but if it is, then I've fallen for it. I'm a sucker -- for his voice, for the piano, for the lyrics. I love the way the song builds, it just keeps adding layers till the big finish, "as birds take wing, they sing through life, so why can't we?"
And a little extra, out of order chronologically, is this song. My favorite cover of theirs. It's by another Athens, Georgia based alternative rock band from the early, early 80s, Pylon. I love how Peter Buck sounds like he's playing dueling guitars. The guy is very underrated; maybe if he ever broke out in a sweat people would realize that he's pretty damn good.
If you don't own any of the albums from which these songs originate, the highlighted titles are links to buy them. You'll be glad you did.