Michael Stipe has taken to answering Pop Songs readers’ questions about his songs/lyrics over the course of the next few days (weeks? seems to be until whenever he wants to stop). This one comes from the first installment:
those songs were mostly written to be sung live. The pa systems were so crap that no one could ever really hear the singer anyway, including the singer. We just never intended to make records, and then suddenly we were making records and the songs were in my head like that, so we just blurred the vocal and turned it way down. The songs that do have words don’t really make any or much sense, it was about creating a feeling and emotion in the room in the moment. As it turns out the records turned out pretty great too, just inscrutable. I had to learn pretty fast how to write a good or great lyric after that. Please don’t analyze them, there’s nothing but feeling there. Sing along and make it up, that’s what I still do.
This is a pretty good explanation for why I've always had trouble fully embracing the first few R.E.M albums, as someone who came of age around the time Green came out. I've always known the earlier albums in a kind of archival way, only able to process them from the perspective of what came later. Fables of the Reconstruction and Lifes Rich Pageant are, too these ears, bridges from the first albums to the later period: still some of that inscrutable material but also more signs of Stipe stepping forward. For me, everything really moves to the next level with Document. That's when Stipe's voice and lyrics were finally, boldly up front in the mix.
Not that I needed Stipe himself to point it out—though it's always nice to hear it from the source—but Murmur will always feel like a lesser album to me precisely because the production and lyrical content are willfully obscured. Likely the lovers of Murmur will point to those two components as the reasons why it's their best album.
Discussions of R.E.M. often point out how the band is one of those perfect quartets—no member is replaceable; every member contributes something specific that defines the band's identity. Stipe's voice, lyrics, and overall presence; Mike Mills's voice and piano; Peter Buck's Rickenbacker (both those ringing arpeggios and jangly strums); Bill Berry's powerful yet nuanced drumming. What's interesting to me is that on those early albums each is subsumed into the whole. Somehow, by consciously coming together into a kind sonic mass via muddy production, reverbed drums and backing vocals, buried and mumbled lead vocals, and indesipherable lyrics (what is a moral kiosk, anyway?), they made records that at least some of the time sounded like less than the sum.
- R.E.M., Laughing
In some sense that's exactly what Stipe says above: "...it was about creating a feeling and emotion in the room in the moment.... there's nothing but feeling there." This recalls something I wrote a while back, about separating the song from the sound in a band's songwriting aesthetic:
It’s a balance any band worth their salt has to achieve. It’s elementary: if your sound—the aesthetic quality of the noises produced by guitars, rhythm section, keyboards, voice, and combinations therein—is strong, then you’ll stand apart from the rest. But if you’ve got no song—the skill of lyric, structure, emotion, and delivery—then you’ve got no foundation.
If all bands had to be positioned on some sort of spectrum—song at the extreme left, sound at the extreme right—the most rewarding, most the time, would be somewhere in the middle. Sigur Ros skews toward sound, but then again their best album (Agaetis Byrgun) is the one that wraps their sonic textures around chord progressions and vocal melodies (just listen to "Sven-g-Englar": its two best qualities are the melody of the chorus and the sudden chord change 2/3 in). Bob Dylan is considered by many to be the greatest songwriter in pop history, yet many find him unlistenable: it’s his sound, not his song, that repels.
For most of R.E.M.'s career, their trajectory could be seen as a movement across that spectrum, a progression from sound toward song, as if each record pulled one more layer of sound back, becoming slightly less inscrutable than the previous record. Some might cite Lifes Rich Pageant as the turning point, the full embrace of a perfect balance between song and sound, but I place it one record later. The opening track on Document, "Finest Worksong," is a statement of progression like nothing they'd done prior. All those essential ingredients necessary to define R.E.M.—Berry's drums, Buck's guitar, Mills's voice, Stipe's presence—are not only there but are perfectly, crisply identifiable. Nothing blurs, yet everything coheres.
- R.E.M., Finest Worksong
The next string of records saw them get more and more comfortable with that balance of song and sound, culminating in their most perfect execution of song—the antithesis of Murmur—Automatic for the People. When I think about R.E.M. in this way, as a journey from one aesthetic perspective to another, that is the journey: Murmur to Automatic. Automatic was the final destination. So what to make of everything that came after?
- R.E.M., Find the River
It's routine to point to Berry's departure as the beginning of a new era for the band, but I personally place the beginning of that era at Monster. Their journey from sound to song completed, it was time to venture back. Not to regress, but to reframe their songwriting in new textures. You could think of Murmur to Automatic as the band's Iliad, and Monster to Reveal as their Odyssey. (More on post-Reveal in a moment.)
Coming off of Automatic, the band had to be as confident in their skills as songwriters—able to erect interesting pop structures, to evoke tangible lyrical imagery, to deftly spin any instrument into their music as needed—as they were in their skills as purveyors of mood, feeling, or aura during their earliest years. Keeping the image of that spectrum in mind—sound at one end, song at the other—you could argue that the band had begun to move too far down the line. The only way to remain interesting—both to themselves and to their fans (at least theoretically)—was to move back in the other direction. You can see that the band clearly made that choice when you think about the kind of limitations and/or options they gave themselves for the following records. Stipe freely distorted his voice and Buck refused to pick up an acoustic guitar during the Monster sessions. What's more, he took a new approach to the electric—all fuzz and vibrato, no chiming arpeggios. The choice is a clear indication that the band sought to reconceive their sound. For New Adventures in Hi-Fi, the band forced themselves into a unique songwriting and recording process, doing a bulk of the work during their soundchecks on the Monster tour—a forced limitation to their songwriting methodology.
- R.E.M., Crush with Eyeliner
For Up and Reveal, they went even further, making the drastic decision to bring in wholly new sounds via drum machines and other electronics. Up's opener, "Airportman," is as much a statement of direction as "Finest Worksong" was eleven years earlier. Even if the rest of the record wasn't as aggressively different as that track, it nevertheless signaled the band's renewed interest in mood and texture. It was the first song in years on which Stipe put his voice back underground—not to mention every other defining characteristic of R.E.M.'s sound had been stripped away, once again aiming for feeling as the primary end.
- R.E.M., Airportman
Considering the band in this way (and this is the first time I've articulated this idea to myself or to anyone else), I think that's why I was always on board with every choice they made all the way through Reveal (an unfairly maligned album). Admittedly the last two records don't fit squarely into this Iliad/Odyssey concept—both seem to be a retreat to song, an abandonment of sound, as I've defined them here. Perhaps, not coincidentally, that's why I find them to be the band's two least interesting albums. (I'll grant that Accelerate is leagues better than Around the Sun; the songs are solid, but I don't feel like a new dimension of R.E.M. has been revealed—something I did feel on every one of their first twelve albums.)
I would love the band to get back on track with this second journey—their Odyssey, returning to sound over song. No, not a regression toward Murmur, nor an album's worth of "Airportman." Accelerate demonstrated that intentional regression is not ultimately satisfying; the album sounds as if the band was trying to shoehorn it into an earlier part of their discography. No, I want an R.E.M. album made by R.E.M. model 2008. But their guiding principle could be just what Stipe said above: "it's about creating a feeling and emotionin the room in the moment."
Nothing more. "There's nothing but feeling there."