Sunday, May 26, 2013

Southern Space Monkeys Sell the Sky

R.E.M. weren’t the first space monkeys of indie rock born in the South, but they most certainly were the first ones to land on the moon. Love ‘em or hate ‘em -- and there’s plenty of justifiable reasons for either -- Michael Stipe & Co. changed what was possible for Southern rock music more dramatically than any other band of their era. Before R.E.M., the South was Skynyrd and Nashville. After R.E.M., all was possible.

I hereby follow Bob's Favorite 10 R.E.M. songs from yesterday with 10 of my own. These are in order from 10 down to Number One With A Bullet, but were I to compile this week three years ago or hence, it most decidedly would change.

"7 Chinese Bros." - This one's thick with meaning. The primary inspiration is this children's book or the original Chinese fable. The secondary inspiration, if rumors (and Spin Magazine interviews) speak true, is Michael Stipe's involvement in a love triangle where he broke up the couple in question and then managed to romantically involve himself with each separately. R.E.M. songs never tried making sense in the early days, so it's fun trying to suss out all of this drama apparently going on inside the song.

"So Fast So Numb" - Is this about River Phoenix? I'd like to think so. This is the kind of anger an overdosed friend -- and maybe lover -- deserves. Any true friend of such a personal tragedy should struggle with guilt and rage. Some prefer ballads like Sarah Maclachlan's "Angel" when lamenting an OD'd friend, but this feels more my speed.

"Be Mine" - This is a love song. This is a scary love song. It's "Every Breath You Take" in a minor chord. It is about an all-consuming relationship, about owning another person, about seeing no reason for connection with anyone other than a single other human being. If you're 15 and have never dated anyone, this sounds romantic. If you're over 30 and have seen enough possessive relationships eat away at friends like alien acid blood, this sounds horrifying.

"These Days" - Anyone who heard this in concert between 1986-1990 knows why this is on the list. Three things, to be exact. (1) We are young. (2) We are concerned. (3) We are hope. And when you're sitting in a large venue with thousands or tens of thousands of young adults and teens, it's an empowering moment. Here's a band that isn't worried about our love life or our homework stress. They push us to bigger thoughts and insist we can do something about them. Cynically, I'm not sure my generation has lived up to the promise of this song, but we still have some days left.

"The Wrong Child" - When Green was unleashed upon the world 25 years ago, many of my acquaintances -- not quite friends, definitely not enemies -- were Goth types and Modies. They swam in dark sounds, mumbled lyrics marinated in despair and bitterness. I, on the other hand, and most of the people I hung out with, were outsiders not because we rejected society, but rather because we just didn't quite get it. We didn't understand the gears and knobs of the social contract, of winning friends and influencing people. It was all Greek to us. "The Wrong Child" is the outsider as yearning rather than bitter, as lonely rather than solitary. It's not so much a desire to fit in as to find acceptance. It's for those of us who aren't supposed to be like this... (but it's OK).

"Orange Crush" - Vietnam, Agent Orange, misery, panic and the smell of death or napalm or both in the air. Precisely because this doesn't sound like the themes and subjects of a catchy pop song, this is on my list.

"Radio Free Europe" - Sock hops. This is the first song that gave me, an awkward kid with zero confidence, the freedom to walk out on a middle school dance floor and dance in the presence of other kids. It was a song our entire school (or so it seemed) wanted to enjoy by way of ‘80s group dance, dancing simultaneously with no one and everyone, much like Michael Stipe's entire life story. This song is here due to its place in my own biographical soundtrack more than for any other quality it possesses, although it’s still arguably their finest pop song.

"Finest Worksong" (Mutual Drum Horn Mix) - Dammit I’ve always loved good production. The version of “Finest Worksong” that found its way onto Eponymous is a cleaner and more carefully-crafted musical creation. Most rock fans likely therefore find it less enjoyable. Rock lovers love mess and muddle. Is the song a cry to the zombied masses of employed miserable souls to rise up, or is it a call for all of us to find the purpose and meaning in what can often feel repetitive and numbing? Can it be both? Is it even more?

"Me In Honey"Out of Time gets a lot of flack, unfairly I think. It’s not their best, but it’s neither a sell-out or a mailed-in effort. It's just glossed with a bit of corporate sheen, a crisper production than most R.E.M. fans appreciate. “Me In Honey” concludes the album and redeems Kate Pierson's participation in "Shiny Happy People" (which really deserves to be considered the most evil earworm R.E.M. ever recorded). There simply aren’t many better or mature songs by any band about the power and pain of truly immersive love than "...Honey." To truly give yourself over to love, to another person, to the experience of a relationship, is both rapturous and horrifying (see: "Be Mine"). You are the icky yucky fly sinking into the luxurious balm of honey, and it seems like a peachy-keen idea until you can’t get back out, until you’re lost in it. This song could arguably be the singular inspiration for all three of Richard Linklater’s Before... movies.

"Leave" - Musically, it’s an iceberg in the path of the luxury liner that had become R.E.M. An acoustic guitar, playing a simple repetitive single-note tune over the backdrop of a synth for an entire minute. Then a pause followed by the bombardment of a siren-sound that persists the duration of the song. Stipe’s first word (“Nothing”) comes 90 seconds in. Whether it was intended as such, it is Bill Berry's swan song and, contains, arguably, all of his reasons for leaving and not wanting to. All R.E.M. fans will agree that his departure crippled the band in ways few of us could have predicted. Like most R.E.M. songs, however, this one is a wonderful Rorschach test from which we take whatever we need and translate however we see fit. To me it is a song of intense yearning, of someone in crisis mode. It is a song of panic, of uncertainty, of living, of passage, of survival. It is long and beautiful and perfect, and it is the last great song they ever made together.

Final comments ala Bob: Although Life's Rich Pageant only has one song in this list, it's my favorite album, and six more songs (including the ones Bob ranked) show up in my Top 25. Neither of us could find a Top 10 song released post-1996, the final third of their career.


Bob said...

How did we both skip "Country Feedback"?

G. B. Miller said...

Funny, when I first heard the song Orange Crush, I though it was about the sodad. Took a couple of listenings to figure out it wasn't.

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