Ruminations on TV Shows, Comics, And Music
In 1988, REM, the darling of the college radio airwaves signed a massive contract with Warner Brothers records, which gave them complete creative freedom over all of their albums. They responded by releasing the dullest two albums they made in the twentieth century.
Sure, Green had a couple of hits, and Out Of Time gave them mainstream radio supremacy for a couple of years, but overall, each album felt like a few singles and B-sides thrown together for no reason.
The writing on Green is, compared to all their previous albums, atrocious. They gave up on imagery for straight-forward political chants, and it didn't work. While the lyrical content vastly improved for Out Of Time, and the mandolins and other string instruments went from "a thing we're experimenting with" to "the driving force of an album", it still didn't hold up for me.
In some sense, I think both "Radio Song" and "Shiny Happy People" were attempts to recreate "The One I Love" by making poppy sounding music with upbeat lyrics that were dripping with irony that most radio DJs and music fans wouldn't get. For me, they both failed, and I can't listen to them. Even with my favorite B-52 doing the background vocals for "Shiny Happy People", it's just too saccharine for me. And while I'm pretty sure I'd hate "Radio Song" even if it didn't have a pedophile-apologist, wannabe-prophet as its guest rapper, it sure is easier to hate knowing that KRS-One is involved. Neither song, even though they were radio hits, are on this album.
I have managed to put "Stand" on, even though it was the theme song to one of the worst television shows ever aired, "Get A Life".
I had a couple of previous versions of this reimagined album that was merely, Out Of Time. But I didn't like the flow, so I spent some time rearranging the tracks, and the idea of "Belong" being the focus of the album, with all other tracks referencing that story really appealed to me. So, instead of a mix of songs that I somewhat enjoy, this is a concept album about parental relationships after a politically divisive apocalypse. It might involve fish people. I'm not sure.
World Leader Pretend gives us a preview of R.E.M.'s more countrified sound. It still has the feel of early R.E.M. but there's a pedal steel guitar wonnnnnnnnnnng that comes in from time to time that hints at the musical changes taking place on this album. The lyrics could fit well, thematically, on Document, though they're a bit too straight-forward. They also foreshadow that something pretty terrible is about to happen.
Stipe transitions us into a love poem, while using the same basic imagery from the first track, in Belong. This is a weird little fable about using the word belong as a spell to keep her child alive and apart from whatever drastic world change she heard about before she folded the newspaper and silenced the radio.
The woman from "Belong" has left her child behind to be with her people overseas. She, and a group of her friends, are singing this very contradictory song, Orange Crush, to her child, who is older now, and who she hasn't heard anything about in years. There is a political chanting breakdown in the middle of this song that reinforces that something awful happened in "World Leader Pretend' that has broken up families, and insinuates that it may have changed the way humans have evolved.
There's a little bit of a calliope break, and then we move to see the son from "Belong", who is starting to see cracks in the capitalist, suburban society he's been living in. Every sign he sees advises him to Stand in the place where he lives and works. But his interior voice is suggesting that he needs to leave and start questioning everything around him.
Texarkana is the place where the mother has ended up. Because some people would need an apocalyptic scenario to take place before they ended up in Arkansas. This song mentions the stars falling out of the sky. Metaphor? Or is this scenario as science-fiction based as "Belong" suggests?
Joy! The mother and son are reunited, and he sort of recognizes her. But what on earth will they talk about? Pop Song 89 suggests the weather, the government, and a few other options. Sadly, she is on her deathbed, and occasionally loses coherency, and apologizes to the man she is no longer sure is her son.
Losing My Religion is a pretty straight-forward ballad. The son is losing his faith as his dying mother doesn't recognize him. He has work to do for the revolution, but he also wants to stay near his mother before she passes. This song is delivered to a doctor who may not share the son's political affiliations.
The doctor the son has been confessing to has fallen in love with him, and they are spending a ton of time together both in and out of the hospital, but she knows she's going to have to report him to the authorities. But, damn, yo, the sex is great. It gets her Near Wild Heaven.
Me In Honey is the son's response to finding out the doctor narced on him, and he has to go on the run again. (If Stipe plays the son, then Kate Pierson from the B-52s plays the doctor).
Country Feedback is the two lovers trying to come to sort of agreement as to whether or not to have a relationship. But in the end, the doctor kills him and just keeps repeating It's crazy what we could have had / I need this.
We close out the musical (the dark political sci-fi apocalypse musical starring 80s musicians) with Low, a rumination from the child who was born from the doctor and the son's relationship. His world is subterranean because his mom's side won, and pretty much destroyed the world. He's been the narrator (though this is his first song) for the whole show. This last track is sung through some sort of mask that allows him to go up to the surface, where he's visiting his mother's grave. In many ways, he feels as abandoned as his father had. His mother didn't leave him physically behind anywhere, but her feelings for his father and her role in his death made her distant.
I really wanted to call the second album in the discography, Fables Of The Reconstruction, but I'd really stripped that album for Murmur, and there's not a ton of material here relevant to the Post-American Civil War Reconstruction.
This is a decidedly more political album than the first, though it's not as didactic and potentially off-putting as the Rock The Vote era R.E.M. Instead, it uses images and language in such a way that, over thirty years later, people still find the Document-era R.E.M. to be politically relevant.
Probably the best opening track in the band's history, The Finest Worksong is a nearly perfect example of how the band could take bright instrumentation in a minor key, drape non-traditional narrative lyrics around it, and arrange unusual but not challenging background vocals to enhance Stipe's voice. It really was the finest hour.
That's great it starts with an earthquake, and it follows it up with Stipe's fastest lyrical gatling gun. Imagine if Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start The Fire", instead of being a shitty middle aged turd blaming his parents' generation for all of the world's problems, was a guy nearing thirty, trying to come to terms with world events and why he isn't doing anything to change them. It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) is probably the most lyrically brilliant thing Stipe ever penned. I'm pretty sure that's a consensus opinion, though.
Swan Swan H is more Murmur style lyrics, but delivered clearly. I mean that both in the way that you can hear Stipe articulate the words, and that the message is evident, even though it's still told with more focus on imagery than the traditional pedantic narrative of rock.
While we're talking about non-traditional lyrics painting a clear story, Begin The Begin, the opening track from Life's Rich Pageant, advises the listener to follow the leader, run and turn into butter. If you ever want to give yourself an aneurysm, go to SongMeanings.com, type in any REM song, and read what various people think Stipe is trying to say (especially fun when it's a song that Stipe didn't write the lyrics for).
Carnival Of Sort (Boxcars) probably should have been on Murmur, not just because it's a very early R.E.M. song, but also because the lyrics are difficult to decipher. The calliope intro and laughing outro make this one of the band's creepier efforts.
We uplift a bit for I Believe. Musically, not lyrically. My inane interpretation of this song, were I to make a video of this song, would focus on a terminally ill kid who is housebound, but not bedridden, mostly seeing a surreal world outside his window, reading a ton of books, and being visited by an assortment of normal looking family members and creepy doctors wearing horrifying masks and blood soaked scrubs.
I don't usually like to include a song twice, but it's going to happen on this album. The studio version of Time After Time (Annelise) has some cool background effects, and the drums sit at such a weird place in the mix that it almost sounds like you're listening to one song on Youtube, not realizing that you have another tab open, and it's playing something that complements the song, but feels as though it doesn't actually belong.
My imaginary video for Pretty Persuasion is a man watching other people in a bar pair off into unlikely couples. We see subtitles for their various pickup lines and techniques, all of which are either shockingly bold, or else seem destined for failure. But they all work.
The background vocals for There She Goes make it sound like an early 20th century folk song. I am embarrassed to say that I was completely unfamiliar with the original version by The Velvet Underground. I knew this was a cover but never placed the original until well after I thought of it as an R.E.M. song.
When I was in elementary school, I joined a competition called Future Problem Solvers. The problem we fourth and fifth graders were expected to solve? Acid rain. Someone else in the group found some research (probably with a huge assist from our advisor) about Black Backed Gulls, and how their droppings counteracted the effects of acid rain. As I can't find said research or anything like it online, I'm going to guess it was disproven. But we worked hard on our concept, and we lost to the Home Team (the team representing the school where the competition was held) who thought you could beat acid rain with the power of positive thinking. Well, their approach didn't work, either, but it was good enough to crush our team, and I dropped out of the group before our next meeting. R.E.M.'s solution to the problem sing Don't Fall On Me in the acid rain's general direction, didn't work, either. So I guess Michael Stipe and I have that in common.
Talk About The Passion is the final studio track on the album. It's a highly repetitive anti-prayer, and a passionately sung song about losing passion. It devolves into applause.
The last three tracks are actually a medley. Someone in the audience requests that they sing Time After Time (Annelise), and Stipe starts acapella. The guitar track rises up to meet him and then the background vocals come. The song building itself around him is a really cool effect. There several verses in before Stipe starts singing the chorus to Peter Gabriel's Red Rain, and the audience applauds thinking the song, and perhaps the show, is coming to an end. But, surprise, the opening riff to So Central Rain kicks in and ... there's no percussion in this track, anywhere to be found. Was Bill Berry in the bathroom? ... then strings it back into "Red Rain". It's a really beautiful journey.
The second and final album of The Cars discography is twice as long but half as good.
It's still really solid, and it's filled mostly with songs I listen to with some frequency, but the first album is just fucken classic, and spans only three years of creativity. This album starts with material from the early 80s and ends with the band's final album (sans bassist and vocalist Benjamin Orr who passed before the band got back together) from 2011.
The wide scope of years means there's a lot of variety in the instrumental and production style of the various tracks, which makes for a cool album overall, but Let The Good Times Roll was a laser focused moment in a band's career, and I could listen to it on repeat.
I might have even done so at work earlier this week.
But there's a lot of great here, too. Only a smattering of hits, but they're the hits that I heard on the radio growing up. I didn't hear the band's earlier albums until I was in high school, which was well after the band broke up (they released no new material between 1989 and 2011).
I'm not precisely sure why I've done both album covers with The Jokerman font, but it's probably close to something from one of their videos.
Heartbreak City is the previous album's sound being swept into a pile of classic rock. The synths are highly reminiscent of Corey Hart's "Sunglasses At Night", mentioned in my last post. But it's much more laid back, with a quiet spoken set of bridges instead of an intense shouty chorus. It probably sounded retro even when it was released.
Go Away falls into every category and trope of the last track. It's a mediocre The Cars track, but it exemplifies that mediocrity in a way that warrants listening to, if you like the band. Of all the songs that just sound like quintessential The Cars album tracks, this is the most memorable.
The first actual hit from this album is Magic, which returns us to the full blown 8-bit feel of the first album with the wonderful grind of a simple 80s guitar riff. I rank Uh-oh it's magic with Oops, I did it again for my favorite pop lyrics that acknowledge the need for apology by using infantile language. That this track hasn't been mashed up with Insane Clown Posse's "Miracles" is a travesty.
It's Not The Night keeps its fists wrapped tightly around that 8-bit heart with an almost Hall & Oates vocal. I imagine a video for this song would just include Ric Ocasek constantly discorporating and reappearing in different eras because of the jingly transition effect that begins the song and recurs throughout. This is The Most 80s Movie Montage Theme the band ever recorded. It should have been the theme for a sci-fi fantasy movie about skateboarding.
Coming Up You is obviously meant for an 80s rom com. A bunch of twenty-somethings shrugging after they do something silly, and then throwing their arms around each other, and maybe doing the lean-in, edge of lips kiss that was so popular at the time. It would never make it a single, but everyone would remember the scene fondly, or ironically. It's the closest thing The Cars have to a Too Many Cooks moment.
Eeping through the previous song's fade out, You Are The Girl hits you with an incredibly noticeable but not very memorable bassline, and a soft rock vocal style that hair bands used when recording their one ballad on every heavy metal album from the late 80s. I'm not sure whether it's because they're purposefully so vague, but I really appreciate that every The Cars song about unrequited love or breaking up with someone manages to have aged well. There's never a friendzoney feel or blaming someone else for not loving them enough, it's always more like this song You are the girl of my dreams even though you point to the door. Why? It doesn't matter, we're left to assume that it's probably the singer's fault, but he's not going to be a martyr about it.
Why Can't I Have You keeps this aesthetic. Oh sure, she's always breaking my heart in two but it's
because I tripped and stumbled, not because she's a jerk.
While I appreciate that their love lyrics are never problematic, they're also often not very good. They're inoffensive fluff rhyming end and bend, down and around. The highlight of Too Late is the rhyming of line and clementine. The rest is pretty standard pop lyrics.
The 2011 track, Free, owes its guitar riffs to 21st century pop punk and its chorus to late 90s Beatles inspired Britpop. With harder vocals, it could be a Vines song. But the 8-bit synth it owes to the band's own legacy.
I'm Not The One feels like the closing theme for a Legend Of Zelda game with an 80s chorus going round and round.
Wound Up On You has the least smooth transition of the album. It's almost too bright with its synths. I almost cut the song several times. But it has a cinematic depth to it that feels necessary on this album. It doesn't feel like a particular movie. There are parts that remind me of a traveling scene from a puppet based fantasy movie, and the chorus belongs in a melodramatic film about two Wall Street investors that accidentally fall in love, even though they're both trying for the same promotion.
Stranger Eyes is a kind of steampunky masterpiece suited for the opening theme of a cartoon, probably with elves or dwarves. I mean, the song is clearly about sex, but in that way that you could still use it in a kids movie, and they'd have no idea. It would be a better fit than that time they used Third Eye Blind's "Semi-Charmed" to promote The Tigger Movie.
One of the most Carsiest The Cars songs ever recorded is You Might Think. I'm not sure it's possible to even like The Cars if you don't love this weird little love song.
Closing out Side A is one of those brooding 80s stalker ballads, Fine Line. Though, with this song, it's hard to tell if it's an unrequited love, or if he's actually singing it to his equally weird partner.I like this track, but it definitely makes me sleepy.
Unlike the other album, Side A and Side B are nowhere near the same length. Side A being thirteen minutes longer. If it helps, imagine the thirteen minutes of silence are at the beginning of Side A, making the opening Hello of "Hello Again" all the more relevant.
Hello Again is a fun, bouncy 8-bit song about ... oh, it doesn't matter, just bop your head and enjoy the weird, little ride.
What if The Cars tried to play a Metallica song? Well, it might sound like Door To Door. In that it sounds nothing like Metallica, but has furious drums, relatively loud and simple guitar riffs, and it buries the eeps and synths in the mix. Still, it's The Cars song most likely to get people displaying devil horns.
Looking For Love is another generic love song that benefits from the unusual vocals, and what sounds like a slightly vocoded occasional background vocal.
But building out of the end of the track is another The Cars hit, Shake It Up! It's so 80s that every time you listen to it, you'll find a sweat band or a leg warmer mixed in with your laundry. Jelly bracelets will show up in your sock drawer. The cabinet beneath your sink will fill with Aquanet. It will all be worth it.
Woah. We have left the 80s. Sure, there are some eeps and hand claps in Blue Tip, but it is definitely twenty-first century production. Ocasek is higher in the mix. The rhymes, however, are just as basic as ever. That's a good thing. The world doesn't really want or need a serious, well-crafted, political The Cars song.
Is there some electric glockenspiel mixed in with the chimy keyboards of Strap Me In? Worth it, if so. They clash so wonderfully with the driving guitars. This almost sound like an 80s remix track. Again, it would work really well for a motivational scene from a movie. This time, it's a time travel adventure, and the last time they used the machine someone died. Will the protagonist survive this trip? It doesn't look good for our hero.
Take Another Look thuds out of "Strap Me In" before bright guitars let us know that everything is going to be okay. I mean, someone might have died, but, if so, they've gone to a happier place. Montreal, perhaps. In the summer. You can totally eat cotton candy or poutine to this song. It's your call.
We're still in Montreal. We're with someone we care about. We have healthcare. But, oh ,we'll have to return to our regular horror show Soon, so we best enjoy this chill moment for as long as we can.
This Could Be Love is that point in a video game when you're not quite at the final boss, but you're close enough that you're getting spammed by lesser villains and the music is getting more intense, and your health bar keeps getting lower no matter how many pills, turnips, cheeseburgers, or wrenches you eat. What if you don't even make it to the boss. Oh god, you don't want to have to go through this level again.
Victim Of Love returns us to the world of hand-clapping percussion. The lyrics seem almost taunting. They talk about a woman who done you wrong, but it almost sounds sarcastic, like, get over yourself. Yea, she broke your heart. Why did you give her your heart? She told you she didn't want it. This is totally your fault.
Closing out the album and the discography is one of my all-time favorite The Cars' songs, Drive. It's a song about questions. Evaluate yourself. What will happen if you break up with that special someone? Will it be worth it? I mean, you don't have a driver's license. Who's gonna drive you home tonight?
If I had to give The Cars their own genre, it would be 8-bit New Wave. They didn't always have squelchy arcade sounds in their music, but when they did, it made sense.
When I was an elementary school student going to my first ever sleepaway camp, we had a lip synch night that was about as close to an elementary school drag show as you could get in the 80s without a Christian Right parent calling the authorities. And while my cabin ended up performing Corey Hart's "Sunglasses At Night", our counselor first made us go through pretty much every song on The Cars' debut album.
The Cars' actual debut album, The Cars, is great as it is. It's thirty-five minutes of songs that, with only one exception, have been played on classic rock stations for decades. The joke is that they could have called their first album Greatest Hits, as neither of their next two albums came close to that level of quality.
I, of course, want the album to be longer, so I've rearranged the order, and added songs from those two albums that I mentioned not being nearly as good. But, for this album, I gave it a proper A-side and B-side, not by quality of song, but providing a break at about the halfway point.
This is only going to be a two disc discography, so I might post the follow-up later on today.
You know I love a slow build of music, so Cars aficionados shouldn't be surprised that Moving In Stereo kicks off the album, with the band singing about the effects as they use them in the song. This is also one of the few routines that I remember from the camp lip sync show because it's the only one where we all had a turn at pretending to be lead singer, each of us strumming our dining hall brooms, except for one kid who was playing a table like drums, and another who was playing keyboards on a pillow, I think. This is a shitty song for a lip sync competition, though, as its strength is its instrumental section, and there are minimal vocals. Maybe our counselor just thought we were bad at lip syncing, and this was to save face.
The song naturally fades into All Mixed Up. This track has its feet planted firmly in the land of progressive rock. It's barely an octave blow Rush's range, and it's got a nearly Queen section of background vocals at points ... not "Bohemian Rhapsody" Queen, something from the first album. There's also a sax outro, which was unusual for the band, and seems to come out of absolutely nowhere.
We go back to the 8-bit keyboards as the lead instrument as The Cars go for the love and shoes classic, Lust For Kicks. In addition to the Mario-jumps-over-barrels guitar effects, I like how the song always seems about a half tone from going completely flat, which is a nice way to balance the fact that Ric Ocasek was one of the best terrible singers in rock. Seriously, this song is so 8-bit that I always assume it's going to end with the Q-Bert swearing sound.
The first time I heard The Smashing Pumpkins' cover of You're All I've Got Tonight, my memory misattributed the song to Devo. It's got that spare quality with the trilling guitars. This song factors into Let Lie The Dogs Of Rock And Roll, so I've been listening to it quite a bit lately, and I'm sad that I'm posting it here as part of a tribute to Ocasek, rather than just part of the fictional rock world I'm working on.
The first super hit from the original album to make this reimagining is Just What I Needed, one of my favorite ever New Wave love songs. The balance between synth and guitar is perfect, and Orr on lead vocals, sounding a bit like Ocasek, is a neat touch.
Touch And Go is more spare and less rocky than the songs that precede it. It's the first track I'm using from Panorama, which is a fine rock record but seems mostly boring compared to the successful risks of The Cars and the mostly unsuccessful risks of Candy-O. This track is a standout, in that it's one of the more boring songs on this album, but it's an upbeat and steady rock song that could easily be a template for any band trying to satirize New Wave music. And yet, it's still a great song.
I'm In Touch With Your World has a countrified sound, much like some of REM's early work. It's almost difficult not to imagine it being covered by an 80s country musician. Without the keyboard eeps and echoes, of course.
Another unusual song for the album is You Wear Those Eyes which has a cricket chirping percussion with a thunder drum effect. It almost sounds like it comes from a 70s stage musical. And when the guitar moves to the front, it's electric AND twangy. It's such a weird little ditty, and it fades out as the final track from Side A.
Kicking off Side B is another one of the megahits from the first album, My Best Friend's Girl. The bass intro. The hand clap percussion. The lyrics about watching his best friend's girlfriend dance, his best friend's girlfriend who used to be (his) is written and sung without pangs of jealousy or entitled sense of possession (used to be mine is used as shorthand for used to be my girlfriend, which is possessive, but in a way that's ingrained in our language, not meant to imply actual ownership). It's more of a Wow, She Is Still Wonderful Even Though We're Not Together Anymore, which you don't expect from a late 70s pop song.
Up And Down has heavier guitars than most of the tracks on Side A. It sounds more like a mid 80s video console game than a late 70s arcade game. It could totally have been the background for a level of Contra, especially if they changed the lyrics to Up Up Down Down / Left Right Left Right / B A Start. Which would fit.
The effects spin right into the title track, Let The Good Times Roll. Our routine for this song was to look incredibly sad (while wearing sunglasses). Each of us standing at different parts of the dining hall, doing a minimal amount of dancing, shoulder rolling and such, while shaking our heads.
Since I Held You is a typical Please Don't Go song. Sort of. While repeatedly lamenting that it's been a while since he's had physical affection, there's no Fuck You, and no begging that she comes back, Instead the singer notes Something in the night, just don't sit right. So something feels wrong, but it's probably not her or him, it's just the overall situation. What a healthy perspective.
Let's Go is the first of two songs on this album that is almost a Tom Petty song. Strip away the synth line, and this is absolutely something off Damn The Torpedos. I am sad that neither of these artists is still alive (the lead vocalist on this track, Benjamin Orr died in 2000) to trade vocals. Orr could totally have done "Here Comes My Girl" or "Don't Do Me Like That" with the Heartbreakers, while Petty rerecorded this song with The Cars. What a lost opportunity.
I love the echo delay on Double Life. I didn't intentionally keep all but one of the songs I used from Candy-O all together, but I guess they do flow really well.
Don't Tell Me No is the second Petty And The Heartbreakers soundalike. This one would sound more at home on You're Gonna Get It.
The synth and guitar trading rhythms on Getting Through before the Galaga sound effects eep through are a really cool balance. And then Ocasek sort of screams near the end!
Wrapping up the album is It's All I Can Do. It's no more ballady than the rest of their songs, but it has a good fade out to close out the album. I also enjoy that it's a pop love song, but it points out that the reason he is in love with this person is not that they're great, but that he is crazy. Her qualities are never mentioned.
Like most people around my age, I wasn't cool enough to listen to REM when they were and up and coming New Wavey band. I was in middle school when "Losing My Religion" hit, and everybody went out and bought Out Of Time.
Around the same time, I was performing in a Community College production of The Crucible with a bunch of actors about a decade or so older than me. And early on in the rehearsal process, we were hanging out in the parking lot when someone started playing "It's The End Of The World As We Know It" from their car stereo.
"Is this REM?" I asked.
"Uh. Yea." said one of the techies, trying desperately to climb the social footstool of community theater, "Everyone knows that. What are you fourteen?"
"Uh." I said with less conviction. "Yea. Actually."
I don't recall him climbing very far.
It was highschool before I could say I "got into" REM. I had too much spending money for a kid who didn't buy drugs, cigarettes, comic books, or pogs, so I bought CDs like a completist. The IRS Years CD collections were pretty cheap around the time I thought "How did REM go from 'End Of The World As We Know It' to 'Losing My Religion'?" I was still in the midst of this journey when Automatic For The People came out, and I became an REM stan.
This discography is only mildly chronological. Unlike the Prince, Queen, and The Weeknd discographies, it's not just a trimmed down version of their albums, in order of release. And, unlike the U2 discography, it's not an expansion of their albums with all of my favorite bonus material. This is how the songs go together in my head. An even more headcanon chronology than usual.
Murmur was the name of their first album, but apart from its first track (also the first track here), there are no other songs from that album. This is a collection of early songs that have Stipe's early murmury low vocals, usually set against bright guitars and horns.
Eponymous was the collection I bought from Columbia House, before my deep dive into REM's IRS albums. So I originally heard the slightly cleaner and brighter mixes of their early hits. IN some cases, I prefer those reimaginings, but the original version of Radio Free Europe is a perfect introduction to early R.E.M. Thanks to Seattle and Nirvana, it would be a mistake to call it grungy, so I guess I'll go with grimy. The instrumentation sounds deliberately sloppy. They're doing what the band wants them to do, and the lyrics sound too low in the mix. I mean, what the fuck is Michael Stipe singing about? It was years before I knew the chorus was Calling in on radio transit. This was some straight up marbles in the mouth 80s basement music.
In a discussion about doing the reimagined discography of REM, my friend Alex said "I'm curious what you're going to do with them. All of the early REM albums are flawless." "Even Dead Letter Office?" I queried. He put his drink down. "That's not an album. It's product." It is, definitively, my least favorite of the IRS years, as it's a collection of C-sides and live tracks with a few unusual covers thrown in. But I've always loved The Voice Of Harold where Michael Stipe reads liner notes over the music of "Seven Chinese Brothers". I prefer the lyrics in this version, as well as enjoying that Stipe's voice is more forward in the mix. Plus, it ends with whistling. How do you say no to whistling?
Driver 8 starts a mini-journey within the album. With my own writing, I sometimes struggle to find a narrator who isn't quite like me, and doesn't have my experiences. I'm intrigued when musicians are able, in three minutes, to tell a story that is unlike their own and also isn't trying to tell some Important Fable Of Our Time, a la Billy Joel. This story of a train conductor watching the landscape go by, while his coworker lets him know he has time to take a break.
"Driver 8" ends with we can reach our destination, whereas Maps And Legends beings by letting us know he's not to be reached. I enjoy this contradiction, especially as it gives the previous song the connotation that the driver wasn't just trying to get to the train's destination, he was trying to get to someone who is now unattainable. What happened? Did he take his coworker's advice and fall asleep and the person got tired of waiting for him? This song seems to hint that he arrived where he was supposed to when he was supposed to, but the person he wanted to meet wasn't there, and the coworker is trying to comfort him with the possibility that the other person just got lost.
Therefore, the ghosted train conductor replies with You Can't Get There From Here. No matter the maps either party used, the world wasn't built for their meeting. I like to imagine this trio of songs (which is not at all a trio, though they all come from Fables Of The Reconstruction) is about young Michael Stripe trying to come to terms with his sexuality, but not having the energy for it.
Taken from their Chronic Town EP, Gardening At Night is a song that I enjoy purely for the music. What is Stipe singing about? Go to Wikipedia, or an interview. It is nigh impossible to decipher the lyrics of this song your first ten or fifteen tries. as it is ankled up the garbage sound. Having looked up the story behind the song, I had a bit of a chuckle, but I think it's superfluous to enjoying the track, so decide yourself if you'd like to know what Night Gardening is.
Crashing through the chord dissolution of "Gardening At Night" is Disturbance At The Heron House, a song that Stipe talks about being part of his decision to have more direct political lyrics. But, go ahead, and try and tell me what this song is about without looking up interviews with him, or people looking back at the album ten or twenty years later with the benefit of those interviewing. Oh, you KNEW it was an Orwell reference, and that the song was about Reaganomics and Animal Farm? Fuck off, liar. It's a song that stands well on its own, but does seem a little more Important than the average 80s REM song ... once someone explains the references to you.
The One I Love is a classic 80s medium rock ballad. In typical closet case fashion (this isn't a call-out, coming out is difficult and should be done at the most comfortable time for a person, whether they're famous or not), the subject is gender neutral, and has no discernible features (another prop to occupy my time), making this song available for anyone to sing about anyone! Except the prop line suggests this is less a love song, and more a takedown of love songs. And did you know that the chorus is just the word Fire sung so incomprehensibly that, for over twenty-five years, I thought it was I am? For a good time, go check out other peoples' interpretations of what this song is "really about". I've seen pyromania, the destruction of a beloved restaurant, a response song to The Police's "Every Breath You Take", and a few other wild takes. All of them mention this being about Stipe's girlfriends. So ... uhh ... their theories probably weren't well researched.
Who doesn't have a song about not wanting to back to where you're from? Well, REM tweaks it, as it's more about telling someone you love not to go back where they're from. (Don't Go Back To) Rockville was Mike Mills (the bassist)'s song about not wanting his girlfriend to move back in with her parents. Not a single Orwellian reference or indistinguishable lyric in the whole song.
But there are indistinguishable lyrics aplenty in Green Grow The Rushes, another song I love purely for the instrumentation. Apart from the chorus, I couldn't tell you a single lyric. I haven't looked up the song's backstory. And that's fine. This is a perfect murmury early REM song.
Closing out the album is So Central Rain. Before I ever heard the studio version, I heard the live version of "Time After Time (Annelise)", "Red Rain", and "So Central Rain" that will appear on the next album. I actually prefer that version, but it wouldn't exist without its studio counterpart. and I do like the buried vocal sound on this particular track. Plus, listening to a grown man singing I'm sorry over and over again, prepared me for twenty years of poetry slam.