Ruminations on TV Shows, Comics, And Music
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.