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June 11, 2003 - 12:56 p.m.

The REM Entry

Listening to REM's Chronic Town EP. I've wanted it for years and years but never found it til recently.

It's their first record, before Murmur, from 1982. It was out of print for a long time, but I got it as bonus material on an import CD of Dead Letter Office (which I already had on vinyl, so it was a bit of a stretch to force myself to buy it a second time. I’m a big fan, but I’m not a collector.) The album has proven not to disappoint, though. Of course, I was already familiar with “Gardening at Night,” the breakaway single, but the other songs are all very good, as well. Lots of hard-to-decipher Stipe lyrics ®, but it's very melodic and it really moves. The thing I like about their earliest work is that it has a trajectory--the picking jangle of Peter Buck’s Rickenbacker guitar drives the song, makes it urgent, makes me feel like I'm a 21 year old guy, a bottle of Mickey's in my hand, hanging with my pals in a parking lot in the suburbs of Atlanta, all kinds of post-teen testosterone pumping in my veins, transforming itself into newfound, second-year-of-college intellectualism. That’s the tone of the early REM that I really appreciate. Their more recent stuff, I like too, actually.

But it’s not the speed and energy that appeals now, it’s the languidness, the understatement. The band members are all in their forties, ahead of me in age by a decade or so, but it’s a progression that makes a lot of sense to me. They moved through the urgent, “my angst is incomprehensible” phase, into a bigger, bolder commercialism, and now they’ve slipped into a slower, dreamier groove. Yes, I know lots of people who’d call it tired, not dreamy. But I think a lot of their more recent efforts show a measure of vulnerability that wasn’t there when Stipe was still mumbling with his back to the audience. “Walk Unafraid,” (“Hold my ‘love me or leave me’ high,”) and “Sad Professor,” (“Everybody hates a bore, everybody hates a drunk/ I hate where I wound up,”) from Up, are good examples of this shift.

I’m not so hot on their most recent record, Reveal. It just didn’t grow on me, like I thought it might. The singles are totally forgettable and commercial in the worst sense. I like Up a lot. I like New Adventures in Hi-Fi.

Okay, you asked for it (no, you didn’t, but in my mind’s eye, you did!) my ranking of REM records, from worst to best:

15 Reveal - In my opinion, the only through-and-through-stinker in the bunch. Pretty impressive career with only one shitty record out of thirteen original albums (including the Chronic Town EP,) and tons of foreign releases, singles, bonus tracks, compilations, collaborations, and soundtracks in over twenty years of recording. I will say I like two tracks on the record, “She Just Wants to Be,” a song about resigning to live in this moment, and “Beat a Drum” for its melodic refrain, “This is all I want, it’s all I need/ This is all I am, it’s everything.” That I find their most recent album the least compelling doesn’t concern me all that much--I’m quite sure, based on their whole body of recent work, that REM will continue to produce vital music in the future. It’s not like they’re the Rolling Stones, who stay together as a band simply to cash in on the tour bucks.

14 Eponymous - Better than Reveal, even though it’s a compilation. A good intro to the singles (no substitute for a whole album,) but not nearly as interesting as...

13 Dead Letter Office - Also a comp (a collection of “B” sides) but full of fun tidbits like a cover of “Crazy” by obscure Athens, Georgia peers, Pylon, and Stipe singing smack about fundamentalist Christians in the very cheeky “Voice of Harold,” an impromptu oratory over the melody of Reckoning’s “Seven Chinese Brothers.” Unfortunately, their butchering of Velvet Underground tunes in several covers placed on this record damns the LP to the bottom ranks.

12 Automatic for the People - Some pretty songs on this record, like “Nightswimming,” a track that yearns for a time passed without becoming sappy; but the sentimentality of other tracks, like “Everybody Hurts,” becomes a damper to the effectiveness of the album. This record is, in my opinion, the pitfall example of what happens when REM writes for commercial success instead of writing from a deeper place.

11 Monster - It’s got what I want in a pop album: extra-crunchy reverb guitars, and a song inspired by Courtney Love (“Crush with Eyeliner”) that makes me think of drag queens. With angsty lines like “I’ll settle for a cup of coffee, but you know what I really need,” even avowed dykes like me can’t help but wanna fuck Michael Stipe. Monster is a fun record, take it that way.

10 Up - Other REM fanatics will probably disagree with this placement as too high, especially since it bests the more popular Automatic. Tough shit, this is my countdown. As mentioned above, Up captures the flowing, understated tone I really like in the “new” REM. We miss Bill Berry a lot, but the transformation from straight-up rock quartet to a down-tempo, ethereal feel on this record really works. And the boys win with disturbingly honest lyrics, like “I watched you fall/ I think I pushed,” from “Diminished.” Also worthy of note, “At My Most Beautiful” is a gorgeous piece of work, with its unabashed lyrics, “At my most beautiful/ I count your eyelashes, secretly/ With every one whisper ‘I love you’/ I watch you sleep....” The song pays homage to Brian Wilson (The Beach Boys) in the most flattering way, down to the SoCal harmonies and heart-thumping crescendo to the refrain, “I found a way to make you/ I found a way/ A way to make you smile.” I love the album, overall, but there are a couple of misses, one of which is a send-up of Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne,” in the song, “Hope.” The phrasing of the lines mirrors “Suzanne” almost exactly, and they credit Cohen on the album, but with lyrics the stuff of stale pop-psychology (“So you look up to the heavens/ And you hope that it’s a spaceship/ And it’s something from your childhood/ You’re thinking don’t be frightened,”) the song isn’t a send-up, but a send-down.

9 Chronic Town - As I mentioned at the start of this article, I really dig this record. The EP set the tone for their first three full length albums, all classic REM. It introduces us to their nostalgia for the South and their love affair with the motion and the mythology of the railroad (“Carnival of Sorts.”) For a first album, it’s surprisingly indicative of their enduring style as a band.

8 Fables of the Reconstruction - With Fables, we get into classic REM territory. “Driver 8” is a song with the distinctive mark of a true REM gem--the Rickenbacker riffs, the wailing Stipe lead vocals, and the backing call-and-response of Mike Mills and Bill Berry. The album becomes the very mythology of REM, the band: the storytelling of the South weaves in and out of every song on the record, narrating the love of the land and the heartbreak of leaving small towns behind for uncertain, but better, opportunities.

7 New Adventures in Hi-Fi - has become one of my most favorite REM records. It doesn’t have the pop caché of Out of Time, nor the howls of the younger, more emo Michael Stipe--it’s the emotional arch of the album that draws me to listen to it time and again. The early tracks are the “potential energy” of the record--the easy incline is built with “How the West Was Won...”(“A marker to mark where my tears run dry/ I cross it, bless it, alkali,”) “New Test Leper,” (“I know this show doesn’t flatter/ It means nothing to me,”) and “E-bow the Letter,” with guest vocals by Patti Smith, (“Aluminum smells like fear/ Adrenaline pulls us near” --These affecting tracks build to the energetic release of “Departure” with its crunching guitars keeping time (“What a fuck-up, what a fighter/ Free-fall, motorcycle, hang-glider.”) “Departure” and “Bittersweet Me” (the pop single, which, on its own, I could do without, but in context of the album becomes, along with “Departure,” the energetic apex of the record) are New Adventure’s “kinetic energy,” and after the peak, the tracks begin to decline in tempo and temperament, into a more intimate, plaintive mood (especially “Binky the Doormat”--“Yeah, shut the door and open wide/ Seconal and astroglide/ Fuck with me and traumatize.”) If that ain’t Stipe’s “coming out” number, I’ll eat my hat, btw.

6 Out of Time - REM’s first number one album on the charts, with strong songs, among them “Low” and “Country Feedback” (“You come to me with a bone in your hand/ I need this.”) The popular (but anemic) hit “Shiny Happy People” detracts from the album (apologies to guest vocalist, Kate Pierson of the B-52s,) but otherwise, a powerful album with both popular appeal and deeply moving, emotive tracks.

5 Murmur - Ne’er a more apt album title could anybody conjure. This is the quintessential album that you can love and love and listen to time after time and still have no freaking idea what Stipe is saying--or, if you understand the words, you can’t imagine what they might mean. Let’s consider a few different interpretations of the first two lines of the refrain from “Sitting Still,” one of my all-time favorite REM tunes, a composition I love for its mood, its tempo, and the meaning that I glean from it, but I have not Clue One as to its literal meanings. These guesstimates were ripped off from various fansites:

Version One:

Up to par, Katie buys a kitchen-size, but not me in
Sit and try for the big key, a waste o' time, sitting still

Version Two:

Up to buy, Katie buys a kitchen-size, but not Mae Anne
Setting trap for love, making a waste of time, sitting still

Version Three:

Up to par and Katie bar the kitchen door, but not me in
Setting trap for love, making a waste of time, sitting still

My interpretation, though I know it’s wrong, is:

Up to par, and Katie bar the kitchen door, but not me in
City traffic I’(ve) been in, waste o’ time sitting still

(Chalk up the sitting in traffic image to my undeniably Californian upbringing.)

I saw an interpretation somewhere on the web for the “Katie, bar the kitchen door” theory. The expression means, basically, big trouble is coming our way--keep the door locked--“but not me in” then becomes, “but don’t let us (or me) get trapped.” I like this idea, but if you really listen, these words obviously don’t fit with the way the line sounds. “Katie buys a kitchen-size” is the closest auditory approximation, but what the hell does it mean?

But regardless of the obscurity of the lyrics, you can’t help but feel like you’re on a ride when you listen to Murmur, speeding along with the band, in 1983, away from the chart domination of Thriller, away from inane soft-cock rock álà Hall & Oates, and into the land of picturesque kudzu-lined back roads leading to the basements of shy, sensitive Southern boys listening to Buddy Holly and Patti Smith records.

4 Reckoning - is actually my personal fave, but I don’t think it’s quite strong enough for the top spot. What I love about it: it’s stripped down and quirky, sober and modest. It showcases both the humility of defeat (“Did you never call?/ I waited for your call/ These rivers of suggestion are driving me away,” from “So. Central Rain”) and the budding (but seldom cocky) confidence that characterizes the tone of so many REM albums (“I know it might sound strange, but I believe you’ll be coming back before too long,” from “Rockville.”) Phrased with such poetry, how could we not come back?

3 Document - This period of REM signifies the jump they made from college radio cult success to the mega-stardom that was realized upon their next original release, Green in 1988. And in this transition time, a time they were fully aware of by 1987’s Document, (“It’s the end of the world as we know it/ And I feel fine,”) they succeeded in one album after another to capture both the popular imagination and to remain true to their earnest emotional and cultural obsessions. From the very first track on Document, “Finest Worksong” (“The time to rise has been engaged/ You’re better best to rearrange,”) through to even the most commercially recognizable of tracks on the album, like “The One I Love,” (“A simple prop to occupy my time,”) REM remains determined to confess their raw, culpable psyches. This is the period characterized by fire, as the band members have often commented (“Fireplace,” “Odd Fellows Local 151,” and “The One I Love” all refrain with “fire,”) while we imagine trial by fire, in the form of “walking on coals” in “Exhuming McCarthy.” With images of book burning in both that song and “It’s the End of the World...,” we imagine the fires cleansing even the worst of political sins, in this send-off to eight years of Reagan rule.

2 Life’s Rich Pageant - REM’s fourth full-length record is their first masterpiece. Every song is a keeper--is REM even a band without “Fall On Me,” “I Believe,” and “Cuyahoga?” It is essential REM in tone, as in the poisonous beauty of the “Flowers of Guatemala,” (“Amanita is the name/ The flowers cover everything,”) in imagery (“Hey, captain, don’t you wanna buy some bone chains and toothpicks?” from “Swan Swan H,”) and in spirit (“Silly rule, golden words make practice/ Practice makes perfect/ Perfect is a fault, and fault lines change,” from “I Believe.”)

Songlist: Pop Song 89 • Get Up • You Are The Everything • Stand • World Leader Pretend • The Wrong Child • Orange Crush • Turn You Inside-Out • Hairshirt • I Remember California • Untitled

1 Green - Though I wish I could just lump the top four albums together into the number one spot, I choose Green as REM’s tour-de-force for a number of reasons. To start, there isn’t a single song on the record you can dismiss. Even the poppiest of pop tracks on this album, “Stand,” is appealing, broadly (if not for the early-REM purists, then for the rest of us) as it represents the kind of commercial track that still retains REM’s spirit musically and lyrically, as in “Think about the place where you live/ Wonder why you haven’t before”--there aren’t many examples of rock bands in 1989 who were achieving as much commercial success as this with such contemplative lyrics (songs like Aerosmith’s “Love in an Elevator” and “Cover Girl” by The New Kids on the Block were both on the charts at around the same position as “Stand” for the year.)

Another example of a popular track on Green that, on the surface, seems silly and obscure but unveils itself when considered more deeply is “Orange Crush.” I was sixteen in 1988 when Green came out, and I definitely thought the chorus was, “I’ve got my Sprite, I’ve got my Orange Crush.” How couldn’t it have been? In all probability, however, with the battlefield imagery, the helicopter sounds in the background, and the military sound-off at the bridge of the song, the “Orange Crush” of the title isn’t just a reference to the orange-flavored soda, it’s a reference to Agent Orange. “We are agents of the free/ I’ve had my fun and now it’s time to/ Serve your conscience overseas/ Coming in fast over me.” I’m not claiming to know the band’s intentions with the lyrics, but it’s safe to assume that there are double-entendres at work here, as in many of REM’s songs.

There is a forlornness in Green that is emblematic of REM’s total career, in tracks like “You are the Everything,” a song that Stipe has described as nostalgia for lying in the back seat of his parents’ car as a kid. First, you contemplate your fear of the world, and your place in it, then you’re told to “eviscerate your memory” and picture the scene:

You're in the back seat laying down
The windows wrap around
To sound of the travel and the engine
All you hear is time stand still in travel
and feel such peace and absolute

This sweet, safe memory (is it our fear of the world or the back seat safety that we were meant to “eviscerate?”) is replaced later in the album by the terror in being “The Wrong Child,” (“Hey those kids are looking at me/ I told my friend, myself/ Those kids are looking at me/ They're laughing and they're running over here.”) As Stipe wails a bloodcurdling refrain, “But it’s okay...okay,” we can only assume that it isn’t okay.

One of the strongest songs on the album, and one of the most memorable of REM’s songs, takes the forsaken, and begins to make something new of the dregs. “This is my mistake/ Let me make it good/ I raised the wall, and I will be the one to knock it down” (“World Leader Pretend.”) The song, not incidentally, was the only song for which REM ever published the lyrics, until the release of Up nine years later.

So, I choose Green for its breadth--it bridges the pop and the disturbing, the hubris and the humble, the forlornness and triumph of kindness that completely epitomizes REM. It was the album that broke them into global stardom, and it contains equal parts commercial savvy and raw, enigmatic tomes. Give it another listen--go ahead. In fact, listen to their whole catalogue while you reread this article. You’ll fall in love again, I promise. And remember to “hang your hairshirt...it’s a beautiful life.”

Recommended REM links:

the lyric annotations FAQ

askthesky.com fansite has lots of great links as well as a crazy section of drawings of REM by fans--fun stuff!

Lotsa love,

Bree

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