Having established themselves as a somewhat sleeker, cleaner, more strident rock band on Lifes Rich Pageant, R.E.M. exploded in a furious fireball on 1987’s breakthrough Document. Turbulent, chaotic and dark, the album broke the band into the Top 10 and into mainstream consciousness. Coming at a time when the airwaves were ruled by Bon Jovi, George Michael, and Madonna, Document surprised people who didn’t realize that alternative, “college” rock had been brewing so headily for years.

And speaking of fireballs, that is really the element that informs every note and beat of the album — fire. It shows up lyrically in several songs, and seems to be consuming Peter Buck’s guitar throughout. Listening to the album can be exhausting; the ideas come so fast, and the band rages so brilliantly, one can be excused for failing to note that many of the songs are in fact slow and edgy.

But that is exactly what gives Document such power: its guitars are heavy, but sounds nothing like, for example, Def Leppard; it’s uproarious, but each part seems to have been planned and executed carefully; and it’s varied and weird, but bears little resemblance to R.E.M.’s own Fables of the Reconstruction. The album has a unique sound — edgy but controlled, fierce but uncombative, and even the quieter moments shudder with restless energy.

R.E.M. — Document: Track-by-track review

1. “Finest Worksong”
Bang! Bill Berry’s single drum beat leads to what turns out to be the album’s main sound: Buck’s distorted, noisy guitar. Here, he plays a single, ringing note, feedbacking on itself, unsmilingly yanking the song forward.

Michael Stipe sings in his clearest voice yet, having written some of his most direct lyrics: “What we want and what we need have been confused.” Soaring effortlessly with the band, the vocals on “Finest Worksong” are inspired and inspriring, matching the power of the music note for note and featuring a beautiful background harmony from bassist Mike Mills.

This was the obvious choice to start the album, a loud, majestic concoction designed to wake up even the sleepiest ears, and introducing the concepts of change, social realities, and activism that would be explored more intricately on the rest of the album (and on future albums). Musically, R.E.M. is confident here; of attitude and motivation, they are uncompromising and driven.

2. “Welcome To The Occupation”
Over a darkly melodic tune, which features the usual R.E.M. minor chords sped up to double time, “Welcome to the Occupation” sheds the first track’s mayhem for a more subtle, focused point of view. While the band rocks with (slight) restraint, Stipe delivers an impassioned performance that refers to “fallen heroes,” “hang[ing] your freedom higher,” and standing up in the face of brutal oppression.

This song also features the one phrase that most succinctly sums up the album: “Fire on the hemisphere,” a striking, fearsome phrase whose ghost haunts Document as a whole. This, then, is the sound of a whole hemisphere on fire, a claustrophobic behemoth. “Welcome to the Occupation” is the album’s most successful merging of tunefulness and anger.

3. “Exhuming McCarthy”
The band takes a more poppy turn on “Exhuming McCarthy”, although by referencing disgraced, paranoid Senator Joe McCarthy, famous for leading the insane hunt for “Commies” in America in the 1940’s and 50’s, the band takes its most explicit stance yet against fascism and conservatism.

Starting off with the sound of an old manual typewriter, giving the song a kind of psychic connection to the album’s title, this track allows Buck to tone down the guitar chords and concentrate more on melodic passages that float along the top of a funky bass-and-drums break, sounding not unlike music from a 1950’s spy drama, or from R.E.M.’s own instrumental B-side “Rotary 10”.

One of the catchier songs on the album, the lyrics on “Exhuming McCarthy” are fun to sing along to, even if you choose to ignore their meaning. The song is structured well too, with a middle section featuring real audio of McCarthy being castigated on the floor of the senate towards the end of his unfortunate reign, and remains lively and danceable throughout.

4. “Disturbance At The Heron House”
Like a faster, crisper version of “Talk About the Passion” from Murmur, this is one of the songs on this album that don’t really rock per se, but are far more exciting and impressive than much of what traditional rawk bands were formulaically churning out.

Featuring a crazy, high-register guitar solo and extremely well-placed, pounding drums, “Disturbance At the Heron House” moves forward nonstop, providing a beautifully crafted framework into which Stipe adds a great set of lyrics about a group being unsettled by forces out of their control. In fact, Stipe was so proud of the lyrics, he allowed a magazine to publish them in 1987, something seemingly at odds with his concurrent disgust at the idea of putting lyric sheets in albums.

Without songs like this one, “King of Birds” and “Oddfellows Local 151”, Document would be perhaps too exhausting to listen to. These tracks, fortunately, serve to widen the album’s scope, to deepen its impact without dousing the fire that rages across the hemisphere.

5. “Strange”
Having been an occasional feature of the band’s live set during the Pageantry tour of 1986, this is a cover of a song by Wire. It fits so well on this album, though, that many would probably be surprised to find that it isn’t an R.E.M. original.

Though Stipe delivers the main vocal, several parts of the song are sung solely by a motley chorus-cum-party, giving this song more of a community feel. Having evolved into a band that, rock ‘n’ roll-wise, could do no wrong, R.E.M. uses this track as a great showcase for their musical unity and power.

6. “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”
The first of two major hits from Document, this one starts off with one of the most famous drum intros in rock history. The band and singer hit at the same time — “That’s great!” — and Stipe’s jumbled-up words tumble out a mile a minute, eventually turning into a lengthy monotone rant while the band two-chords it merrily underneath. This is actually a re-write of a Pageant outtake called “PSA”, which itself would be resurrected years later by the band and released as “Bad Day.”

While having no overt, direct point, the general impression is one of being surrounded by chaos, with lyrical references to earthquakes, hurricanes, and (again) fire emphasizing the maelstrom of the vocals. The frightening blitz of words only lets up during the wry choruses, where Stipe sings the song’s title with a curiously dispassionate pokerface, and the alternate background vocal offers the scale-descending “It’s time I had some time alone.”

The song everyone wants to sing along to but almost nobody can, there are a few moments that became favorites of the ever-growing crowds to shout out at R.E.M. shows, such as “I decline!” and, of course, “Leonard Bernstein.” This is the sound of a mature, experienced band, still taking chances, but overflowing with confidence and courage.

7. “The One I Love”
The breakout hit, catapulting the band into the Top 10 and, of course, being widely misunderstood as a conventional love song.

Document’s most effective use of its favorite element, and probably the most famous line of this song, is simply Michael Stipe’s long, wailing “Fire!!”. It comes during the most soaring, reaching vocal melody of the entire album, and skirts along the froth of Peter Buck’s famous, slicing guitar riff, a marriage made in heaven with a honeymoon in hell.

In a sort of metaphysical, and certainly unintended, way, the subsequent effect of the song’s opening lines upon the album’s release underscores a certain distracted, spoon-fed, intellectually disengaged segment of the society: People heard the first line, “This one goes out to the one I love” and classified the track as a love song, playing it at weddings and dedicating it to each other on radio call-in shows. But what about the brutal lines that follow?

This one goes out to the one I left behind:
A simple prop to occupy my time

Many didn’t catch that part, or didn’t take a few seconds to stop and think about it. It’s not that people were stupid necessarily, it’s just that such emotional honesty and vicious reality weren’t a part of popular music in 1987. There is nothing showy about Stipe’s devastating romantic dismissiveness, so most people missed it.

In the 20 years that have followed, the song has lost none of its impact, a testament to its greatness that not only allowed it to become popular upon its release, but has given it a status as a rock classic.

8. “Fireplace”
As the only song on Document that actually mentions “fire” in its title, “Fireplace” is actually a less rambunctious song than several others on the album. But this doesn’t diminish the sense of bewildering upheaval that runs throughout.

The key lines, repeated throughout, are “Crazy, crazy world / Crazy, crazy times”, and elsewhere the song seems to refer to the Shakers, an 18th century religious sect known (and ridiculed) for their wild, vibratory religious episodes and speaking in tongues.

In this, the lyrics recall the superstition and shamanistic rituals of Murmur. Sonically, the song features a saxophone solo, further adding the R.E.M.’s bag of tricks and managing to yet again infuse a song with menace and turmoil in a rather unexpected way.

9. “Lightnin’ Hopkins”
This is the tightest and in some ways wildest song on Document, if its most slight. Buck erupts with stinging, swirling electric guitar lines that refuse to stay moored to Berry and Mills’s staccato rhythmic undergrowth.

Stipe’s vocal delivery is extremely nasal, sounding nasty and pouting at the same time, and his lyrics are pure unhinged lunacy:

Close-up hands
Silhouette crow…

Hold onto your hat…


The wordlessly chanted chorus, sung in harmony by R.E.M.’s three singers (count Buck out), sounds like a tribal initiation ceremony deep in the woods. Fire makes an apperance here through impression rather than lyric: you can almost see and hear the crackling of the bonfire as the ritual plays out in the primeval forest.

10. “King Of Birds”
From the peculiar “birdman” rituals of the last track, we reach one of the album’s great instrumental achievements, “King of Birds.” Enveloped in the sound of Buck’s breezy, twangy dulcimer and Bill Berry’s processional, military rat-a-tat, Stipe writes an extension of sorts of Lifes Rich Pageant’s “Swan Swan H” — an impressionistic, quick-cut series of filmic scenes involving “a hundred million birds fly[ing],” an old man laying still, and being left “cold” by “standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Despite the highly-evolved skill brought to the intriguing subject matter, “King of Birds” is not a weird, haunting tone-poem in the style of R.E.M. songs of the past; rather, its idiosyncratic artsiness is merely painted over on top of the generally conventional rock grounding. Whereas “Swan Swan H” and, for example, “Feeling Gravitys Pull” (from Fables of the Reconstruction) were given the freedom to float off into the ether as they might, on this album the band keeps a tight rein on its sound, putting its still-wide variety of irons all into the same fire.

11. “Oddfellows Local 151”
“Oddfellows Local 151” ends the album on a slow, edgy note. Consisting of two chords, growling unobtrusively in the background amid slow-motion feedback squalls, the track is all menace, and its execution is flawless.

Lyrically, the destructive but cleansing inferno that engulfs the album makes its final appearance, and in fact the one-word chorus echoes that of “The One I Love”, except that this time the phrase is “firehouse” instead of simply “fire.” Adding an unsettling air to an already frightening album, this song features Pee Wee, falling down and hitting the ground again, and the need to “wash off the blood, wash off the rum.”

Over the song’s long fade-out, with the band grinding through their two chords and Mills’ skillful bass guitar constantly clearing the cobwebs, Stipe repeatedly enunciates the song’s key word, slowly and eventually surrendering to a dwindling, echoing series of grunts and growls. Like fire itself, Document leaves one feeling gutted yet strangely renewed, the music’s seared edges and glowing embers growing, at long last, dim and still.

Document by R.E.M.

“Finest Worksong”

“Welcome To The Occupation”

“Exhuming McCarthy”

“Disturbance At The Heron House”


“It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”

“The One I Love”


“Lightnin’ Hopkins”

“King Of Birds”

“Oddfellows Local 151”

Lifes Rich Pageant

Turning their backs on their formerly inward-looking selves, R.E.M. began tackling politics and social issues on their 4th album, signifying an abrupt change of course, alienating some old fans and garnering many more new ones. The guitars pack a wallop on Lifes Rich Pageant, the drums are loud and forceful, and the entire soundscape has been greatly focused and refined.

No longer for R.E.M. the distracted, sylvan splendor of their past albums, the band finally started leaving solipsism behind in earnest and communicating with their audience more directly about the issues that they shared. Still eminently enjoyable today, Pageant finds room for heavy rock, thoughtful folk, budding environmentalism, and a rousing sink-or-swim message.

R.E.M. — Lifes Rich Pageant: Track-by-track review

1. “Begin The Begin”
Bursting excitedly out of the gate, “Begin the Begin” is an overtly political call-to-arms, buoyed by a relentlessly rocking band. Far different than anything R.E.M. had done before, this song served notice that the group was streamlining its sound, and standing up for what its members believed in. Lifes Rich Pageant kickstarted the “socially conscious rock” movement of the late 80’s, a generally liberal movement that continues to this day.

Musically, the track is built around Peter Buck’s crunchy, mangled lead guitar melody. On top of this, the entire band delivers an aggressive, humorless punch that far exceeds, for example, the blurry fantasy of the previous album, Fables of the Reconstruction. The sound throughout Pageant is loud, fogless, and close, thanks to new producer Don Gehman, who deftly brings a more-mainstream sound to R.E.M.’s idiosyncratic southern ruralism.

Vocalist Michael Stipe’s lyrics focus not on specific political concerns, but the necessity of defending what one believes in in general. “The insurgency began, and you missed it” he warns; elsewhere, he admonishes those who would follow any authority figure blindly, even himself: “Look to me for reason; it’s not there.”

Sonically and lyrically, this represented a sea change in R.E.M.’s perspective. Some fans of the old, “rustic” R.E.M. were put off, and others found it annoying that a rock band would preach to them. But, those fans were, to put it harshly, expendable; R.E.M.’s greatest contribution to the world has been its periodic breaking of its own rules, which abandon even long-held beliefs in the interest of experimentation, learning, and evolving. Stagnation is death, and the band led the charge for change at a time when much of the rest of the rock world was asleep or worse.

2. “These Days”
The second track exceeds even the first in terms of pugnacity and pace. Approaching a deranged mania, “These Days” is hung on Buck’s twittering guitar leads and features some great, powerful drumming by Bill Berry.

The vocals come hard and fast, and Stipe barely allows himself a chance to catch his breath as he announces that we should “carry each his burden,” and declares “we are hope despite the times.” His only break comes in the middle section, which contains some weird buzzes hidden in the mix, as the band relaxes for a few seconds before barnstorming back even louder than before.

This track is maybe not the fastest on Pageant — “Just A Touch” is wilder — but it is perhaps the most resonant, coming from its own depths, like hot ocean vents, to erupt violently into the clear blue sky. It still sounds like R.E.M., but they had never been this focused before.

3. “Fall On Me”
Probably the most famous song on Lifes Rich Pageant, this is R.E.M.’s first specifically political song. “Fall On Me” is about the environment, and the necessity of preserving it. It castigates leaders who “talk around the problem” instead of confronting what should be a basic, self-preserving impulse in all of us.

The song is in a mid-tempo, minor key, but bristles with energy and purpose. Mike Mills’ backing vocals, amounting to basically a second lead vocal during the soaring choruses, give the song much of its dynamism, as does the somewhat busy drumming of Berry.

Released as a single, and with a popular video showing up on MTV, “Fall On Me” was for years Stipe’s “favorite song” and remained both a live favorite and a casual fan favorite long after its recording. The impact of the song on both the environmental movement and on rock and roll in general was profound. Rock activism would never be the same again.

4. “Cuyahoga”
Sounding not unlike a Fables leftover, Cuyahoga is a smooth, choppy little number about a real event, when a river was so badly polluted it managed to catch fire. In a chiming minor key, which had by this time become R.E.M.’s bread and butter, the somewhat opaque lyrics decry the situation from the point of view of the locals who have to live with the decisions of big corporations.

This is where they walked, swam,
Hunted, danced and sang
Take a picture here
Take a souvenir

Extending the message of “Fall On Me”, and musically recalling the band’s past, “Cuyahoga” is a comfortable listen and contributes greatly to the sonic variety of Pageant.

5. “Hyena”
For this track, the writing (and playing live) of which dates from 1984, the band dug into their bag of castaways due to a general lack of new material for the album (several songs on Pageant are adapted from older R.E.M. numbers).

Peppy, but not quite approaching the pace of “These Days”, “Hyena” is a great workout for R.E.M.’s three instrumentalists, being both thrilling and somehow elusive: it’s tough to groove along to, thanks to Bill Berry’s counter-intuitive rhythms, but intriguing enough to keep trying.

6. “Underneath The Bunker”
Recorded as something of a drunken joke, this short (less than 1:30) track features a very inauthentic but fun Mediterranean vibe, inspired perhaps by the instrumental excursions of Camper Van Beethoven, of whom Stipe was a fan at the time.

Two short, nonsensical verses appear towards the end of the song, giving it a little more depth:

I have water, I have rum
Wait for dawn, and dawn shall come
Underneath the bunker

Inconsequential but oddly fascinating, “Underneath the Bunker” would become a surprisingly popular feature of the band’s live sets in the following couple years.

7. “The Flowers Of Guatemala”
The most Fables-sounding song on the album, this lovely, slow lament, driven by a ringing bell, Stipe’s murmured vocals, and Buck’s meandering arpeggio, refers to a graveyard. Like its subject matter, the track appears beautiful and sedate on the surface, but there are stories lurking behind the peaceful exterior, some of them perhaps more upsetting than expected.

The band members pick up the pace for the more strident choruses, and Stipe’s vocals match them by gaining a clarity and confidence, seeming to wake up from the gently sunlit afternoon to hint at the darkness underneath:

Amanita is the name
They cover over everything
The flowers cover everything…
Don’t look into the sun

8. “I Believe”
Led off by a short, goofy banjo figure, the band leap into this one with abandon and Stipe again fills most of the spaces with a breathlessly delivered vocal.

A rewrite of a Fables of the Reconstruction outtake, “When I Was Young”, this track is similar to “Begin the Begin” in that its lyrics address the concept of believing in something, without getting too specific about what. Stipe wasn’t necessarily shying away from explicitness of conviction; more likely, he was telling people that it was ok to think, to have opinions, and to fight for them.

Musically, the track goes around and around, like a merry-go-round, the boisterous cacophony only letting up suddenly at the very end, when the song ends on an unexpected minor chord and accordion hum. Stipe sings one of his more famous lines, a dizzying chain of logic that matches the looping, rollicking rock ‘n’ roll coming from the group:

Think of others, the others think of you
Silly rule
Golden words make practice
Practice makes perfect
Perfect is at fault
And fault lines change

9. “What If We Give It Away?”
Another rewrite, this time of a very early R.E.M. song called “Get On Their Way”, this somewhat minor but pleasurable song contains dramatic, stereotypically R.E.M. chord changes, and a particularly defiant set of lyrics.

Bill Berry plays it safe here, keeping the beat without too much flash, and Mike MIlls’ bass is at its most basic too. Managing to sound hopeful and rather vague simultaneously, “What If We Give It Away?” would prove to be perhaps the least-inspired of Pageant’s twelve tracks, despite a particularly sonorous vocal performance.

10. “Just A Touch”
Another 1980-era song, this was R.E.M.’s most thrashing, brainless number to date. Opened by a feedback wail, and the three chords slashed out by Peter Buck to the rhythm section’s non-stop burbling, “Just A Touch” is really defined by Stipe’s over-the-top vocals.

At times he evolves, or devolves, into a formless, meaningless falsetto wail, reveling in his chance to just let go without any political or social meaning. He ends the song with a howled quote from Patti Smith, “I’m so goddamn young!” From start to finish, this track is a fun rock song and nothing more — inconsequential, but a classic nonetheless, thanks to its panache and lack of pretense.

11. “Swan Swan H”
One of R.E.M.’s most enduring classics, this is a simple, acoustic A-minor song that steals the music from John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” and features perhaps the best lyrics of all of R.E.M.’s mid-80’s work.

If someone objects to the idea that “nonsense” words can evoke real feelings, saying that people like Bob Dylan are meaninglessly babbling, play this song for them. Seeming to have something to do with the Civil War era, the poetry of this song resonates with a strikingly cinematic feel, its camera cutting quickly between close-up scenes, grimacing faces, and odd historical reverberations.

What noisy cats are we
Girl and dog, he bore his cross

Tell that to the Captain’s mother
Hey Captain, don’t you wanna buy
Some bone chains and tooth picks?

I struck that picture ninety times
I walked that path…

Going unplugged for once on the album, R.E.M. helped cement their reputation as musical risk-takers and pop artisans of the first order with the excellent, riveting “Swan Swan H”.

12. “Superman”
Ending the album with a cover of a 1968 song by the mostly-unknown band The Clique, sung by bassist Mike Mills, “Superman” became something of a surprise hit, a testament perhaps to the taste rock fans still had for purely fun, shallow music.

“You don’t really love that guy you make it with, now do you?” the singers chorus, the obvious lack of sincerity serving to throw much of the rest of Lifes Rich Pageant into relief. R.E.M. has always been, first and foremost, a great little rock band, and on both this album and the followup, 1987’s Document, they would find room for fun cover versions, something that always featured heavily in their live shows.

It doesn’t hurt that this is a great little song musically, too: not pretentious, not striving toward Meaning or Culture, just fun. It wasn’t just the band’s detractors (and fans!) accusing R.E.M. of taking itself too seriously; they knew it too, and knew when to temper seriousness with silliness.

Lifes Rich Pageant by R.E.M.

“Begin The Begin”

“These Days”

“Fall On Me”



“Underneath The Bunker”

“The Flowers Of Guatemala”

“I Believe”

“What If We Give It Away?”

“Just A Touch”

“Swan Swan H”


Fables Of The Reconstruction

Having heralded a “new Southern music” revival with its first two albums, R.E.M. made their third album, the classic Fables of the Reconstruction (or Reconstruction of the Fables; it was always intended to be ambiguous), their last major statement about their beloved home before turning their eye to more national and international (and eventually interpersonal) matters.

Musically, it is undeniably dense, even moreso than their debut Murmur. Whereas that album, though, could seem tentative at times, this album has the sound of a more world-weary band, assured of themselves and scaling the heights of their craft. R.E.M.’s songwriting has improved, and the band continues to take impressive (and mostly successful) musical risks.

Lyrically, Fables is steeped in Southern tradition and odd characters, though there is less emphasis on ethereal mysticism and superstition than on previous songs. In fact, this continues the progression represented on Reckoning, moving away from general topics towards a more personal, if still highly impressionistic, set of concerns.

Featuring some of R.E.M.’s best songs, and as their last word on Southern regionalism, Fables of the Reconstruction is a stellar album that, like previous albums, touches on a wide variety of musical and lyrical ideas while maintaining a mostly unified sound.

R.E.M. — Fables Of The Reconstruction: Track-by-track review

1. “Feeling Gravitys Pull”
From the apostrophe-less title, to Peter Buck’s famously jarring 3-note guitar riff, Fables gets off to a rheumy, neo-psychedelic start. A perhaps unlikely choice to start an album, “Feeling Gravitys Pull” showers unbound atmosphere and other-worldiness onto its listeners, setting the stage for an album that refuses to make even the tiniest concession to normalcy or convention.

As stately a song as R.E.M. have ever come up with, this track features Buck at his most atonal, the rhythm section of bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry at its most understated, and lyricist Michael Stipe at his most poetically impressionistic. There is even a string section, unheard of on previous R.E.M. albums, that fits the feel of the track perfectly.

The song’s grooves never seem to gel for long — as soon as something gets comfortable, it is cut off, as chords, tempo, instrumentation and clarity all shift, mostly together, sometimes independently. As always, the lyrics match the sleepy, amorphous music:

Somewhere near the end it said
‘You can’t do this’
I said, ‘I can, too’
Shift, sway,
Rivers shift,
Oceans fall and mountains drift

Referencing such large natural phenomena as oceans, sky and mountains, “Feeling Gravitys Pull” has a thrilling, epic sweep; it’s a performance on a stage both vast and private.

R.E.M.’s earlier songwriting adventurousness reached an uncontestable peak here; this is perhaps why it stayed in the band’s live set for so many years, even when they had moved on from such bucolic languor and honed their rock attack. “Feeling Gravitys Pull” is so majestic, so full of angles and holes, that it summed up everything the band had done up to that point, and served notice that the group would continue to evolve into absolutely new musical terrain.

2. “Maps And Legends”
Coming as something of a shock after the string-section fadeout of the first track, “Maps and Legends” showcases R.E.M.’s more conventional rock stylings, circa 1985. Like the rest of the album, the sound is somewhat murky, and definitely bleary, a testament to the coldness, homesickness and despondent drunkenness that plagued the London sessions with producer Joe Boyd.

The minor chord patterns would become what Buck and others referred to later as R.E.M.-by-numbers; the classic R.E.M. sound. Arpeggiated notes clang up noisily from a mostly-undistorted Rickenbacker, augmented by hidden acoustic guitars and one of the tightest, most appropriately restrained rhythm sections in rock ‘n’ roll.

Over this landscape, Stipe displays his highest-yet lyrical craft. Words are chosen for their emotional weight, not their literal meaning. As such, we get perfect phrases such as “Those who know what I don’t know refer to the yellow, red and green” and “Maybe these maps and legends have been misunderstood”. As he had many times before, he writes about mysticism, magic and loss, but he has become a true master at communicating the subtle complexities of life. At the time, Stipe consciously rejected writing songs about love and other traditional subject matter, and what remained was an uneasy, roiling psychic turmoil, alluded to in its various forms on Fables of the Reconstruction.

3. “Driver 8”
Whereas “Radio Free Europe” from 1983’s Murmur served as a wake-up bomb for the particularly hip, including musicians, of the time, “Driver 8” was the song that brought R.E.M. to the attention of a wider, more casual audience. (Not a mainstream audience, mind you; that wouldn’t come until 1987.)

Buck turns in another legendary guitar riff, and the music chugs along like the trains Stipe sings about. Berry’s drumming is magnificent, matched by Mills’ ever-expanding bass style, which gives the song much of its weird appeal.

For a Stipe lyric, the words are fairly straightforward. Impressionistic, yes, but they deal chiefly with a train and its conductor, who infamously tells Driver 8 to take a break — “We’ve been on this shift too long.” Rolling through the rural countryside, far from big coastal cities (and far from Top 40 mainstream sensibilities), this scene take place on the same line as the Grateful Dead’s “Casey Jones”. It moves of its own accord: at its own pace, and for its own reasons.

The emotional effect of “Driver 8” comes in no small part from the plaintive couplet:

We can reach our destination
But it’s still a ways away

Just as R.E.M. began to lead the world press’ interest in the ‘new’ Southern music of the 80’s, this song seemed to crystallize perfectly the pace of life and incidental concerns of the region: wheat fields, trains, sleepiness, children looking into the sky. It’s no wonder this became the song that blew the lid off the Great Southern Secret.

4. “Life And How To Live It”
Inspired by a real person in Athens, Ga who, it is said, lived in his own detached reality, this song is even named for a book that the man, Brivs Mekis, self-published: “Life: How To Live”.

The character in the song is manic, running around his apartment completely unhinged. Voices call out from all directions, flying around his skull and making rest impossible. Stipe’s lyrics are largely unintelligible, but the panicked state of a sick mind is unmistakable.

The music is also appropriately deranged, though structured. Led by Peter Buck’s interesting riff, the track flies wildly about with the protagonist, as Mills’ bass bubbles and pops. One senses a certain catharsis for the band here, perhaps letting off steam from the difficult sessions by pouring their frustrations into a song about a man for whom everyday life is a tangle of grey frustrations.

5. “Old Man Kensey”
Showing that oddly-constructed melodies aren’t the sole property of Peter Buck, Mike Mills leads “Old Man Kensey” with a slow, brooding bass line over which Buck draws fuzzy-but-straight lines and clustered harmonics. Second only to “Feeling Gravitys Pull” for moodiness, this song is about another interesting Southern character’s bizarre habits and outlook.

Rather than being a straight portrait though, the song is just a collection of weird tales from a unique life. Old Man Kensey wants to be a sign painter, but he can’t read; or a goalie, but he can’t count. The simplicity of the “story” is very reminiscent of the structure of folk tales, where things don’t have to make literal sense to get a point across. The song, in fact, often devolves into nonsensical children’s nursery rhyme language (well, if it weren’t so morose):

Drink up the lake
Kensey’s awake
That’s my folly
That’s my mistake

There is absolutely no judgment here, though: the singer is remarkably dispassionate for such an interesting subject. This again feeds into the idea that none of this is real, technically; it’s just an old tale, retold many times, so much so that the emotion has gone but the conclusions are still solid.

The rub in this tale, of course, is that there are no conclusions. Just a set of ancient-sounding lyrics that may have no currency anymore, but which have survived to a time where it’s too late to change them.

6. “Can’t Get There From Here”
An extreme about-face on the album, “Can’t Get There From Here” is an unbelievably upbeat number that apparently finds R.E.M. trying to channel fellow Southerner James Brown.

In that, it’s a failure, of course; these guys don’t have anything like the chops or mojo to pull off JB. But as a catchy, fun pop song, it’s an extreme (and extremely silly) success. And the band certainly isn’t trying to be something it isn’t; they know what they sound like, and they enjoy it for what it is. Their version of funk.

The title is an old joke about asking directions — “How do you get there?” “Hmm… I’m not sure… I don’t think you can get there from here” — and the song never takes itself seriously. Free of the somberness of much of the rest of the album, the band relished this opportunity to be silly. Even the braying horn section is amusing, as are Stipe’s swirling, nonsensical lyrics: “The dirt of seven continents going round and round / Go on ahead Mr. Citywide, hypnotized, suit-and-tied…”

A video of this song was made, and is every bit as goofy as the song itself, featuring the worst special effects in the history of video, as well as the band members jumping around on hay bales. “Can’t Get There From Here” is a welcome respite from the psychological heaviness of the rest of Fables.

7. “Green Grow The Rushes”
One of the first, if not the first, examples of political (or at least, social) commentary found on an R.E.M. album, this song deals with underpaid workers constantly in danger of being abandoned for even cheaper labor. Musically, it is mid-tempo, relaxed in the usual Fables style, and uncomplicated. (Many would say unfinished, a common criticism of the songs on this album.)

Drawing its main phrase from the old poem “Green Grow the Rashes”, this song manages to straddle the old and the current, and as such foreshadows the overt political stance the band would adopt beginning with their next album, 1986’s Lifes Rich Pageant.

Here, the general air is despondency and fear, as “the compass points the workers home”, and those laborers are warned to “stay off that highway / word is it’s not so safe”. Unlike other songs Stipe had written to this point, this one does not shy away from taking a stance: aspersions are cast on the “amber waves of gain” [sic], the quest for profit at the expense of people’s well-being.

“Green Grow the Rushes” features both the quintessential Fables of the Reconstruction sound and a new sense of social responsibility, and as such is one of the key tracks on the album. The agreeableness of the music may cause one to miss that on first listen; however, the fact that repeated listenings are so rewarded is what makes R.E.M.’s music so appealing in the first place.

8. “Kohoutek”
Continuing on with the sound of “Green Grow the Rushes”, this song is actually that rarest of things on an early R.E.M. album, a love song (gasp!).

At least, it appears to be one, and a fairly conventional one at that. Seeming to deal with a love affair that has ended, or is ending right now, the singer wistfully remembers past scenes, but sees them in a brutally honest light:

We sat in the garden, we stood on the porch
I won’t deny myself, we never talked

He knows the problem, and doesn’t try to sugarcoat it, or even place any blame. In this, it recalls the famously vicious lyrics of what became R.E.M.’s (much-misunderstood) breakthrough, 1987’s “The One I Love”.

Kohoutek was a comet that was going to appear magnificently in the 1970’s, but despite the hype was a visual dud. If your lover is gone “like Kohoutek”, she is gone indeed — Kohoutek will return to Earth in 75,000 years.

9. “Auctioneer (Another Engine)”
Perhaps the strangest song on this album, and certainly some of the most frenzied vocalizing from Stipe (especially on live versions), “Auctioneer (Another Engine)” contains a particularly weird chorus. Peter Buck’s atmospheric but manic drone is assaulted by Stipe’s bizarre vocal melody, popping up and down like a bad dream, before Buck takes over with an equally crazy guitar motif.

The melodies here actually sound like they have their roots in the classic early 80’s Athens sound — one can definitely hear Pylon’s atonal squawks and white-funk pulsations scurrying around underneath.

Overall, the track never lets up its hysterical pace; even as it goes through different sections, there is no chance of a breather during the less-than-three minutes it lasts. One suspects it was draining for the band to play it; it certainly can be draining listening to it.

10. “Good Advices”
Something of a reflective moment for Stipe, as he gives what the title promises — advice. “When you meet a stranger, look at his hands … Keep your hat on your head”. Apparently, he is giving these “advices” to himself, because he eventually addresses someone directly, telling them coldly that he’ll forget even their name when he moves on to the next town. Like “Kohoutek”, he is describing a lamentable situation with a harsh air of finality. Better to cut it off completely than drag it out painfully.

A particularly jangly, even stinging guitar from Buck keeps this poignant song from getting at all bogged down in any oversentimentality. Stipe’s vocal melodies, too, are quite beautiful, and there is real emotion behind his weary “Home is a long way away”.

11. “Wendell Gee”
The goofiest song on Fables of the Reconstruction (at least “Can’t Get There From Here” had an odd air of grandeur about it), this wispy walk through the meadows is pure, rustic folk.

More like a twisted campfire singalong than an alternative rock song, “Wendell Gee” (the name comes from a real used car lot near Athens) features some beautiful backing vocals from Mike Mills as Stipe sings a very strange set of lyrics (almost completely audible, too) about building tree trunks out of chicken wire and whistling as the wind blows through the trees. Again, as on “Feeling Gravitys Pull”, there is a small string section, artfully restrained, and the band keeps it appropriately loose. There’s even a banjo solo!

Fables Of The Reconstruction by R.E.M.

“Feeling Gravitys Pull”

“Maps And Legends”

“Driver 8”

“Life And How To Live It”

“Old Man Kensey”

“Can’t Get There From Here”

“Green Grow The Rushes”


“Auctioneer (Another Engine)”

“Good Advices”

“Wendell Gee”

Reckoning by R.E.M.

When Reckoning, R.E.M.’s followup to their debut Murmur was released in 1984, the record cover spine said “File under water”. It was an apt representation of the music contained within: Reckoning is all about fluid motion, whether hurtling along fierce sluices or eddying lazily near the river banks.

Where Murmur was lethargic sunlight on dense undergrowth and mossy stone walls, Reckoning’s sound is much more sparse and direct; it is an attempt to capture the band’s pure playing ability, honed over four years of virtually constant touring. The guitars still chime, vocalist Michael Stipe still garbles and groans emotively, and the band still interacts with daring arrangements — but there are less overdubs, and the production is cleaner (even cleansing). It’s still R.E.M. though — there are odd, artful dodges and unconventional wisdom here (note, for example, the capitalization of the song titles).

Recorded quickly, during a drunken roughly two-week span, Reckoning finds R.E.M. relaxed and confident, the band bending their unique instrumental syntheses around Stipe’s arch, orotund vocals. Featuring classics like “so. Central Rain” and “camerA”, this album strips down the sound of the first album while expanding R.E.M.’s musical scope.

R.E.M. — Reckoning: Track-by-track review

1. “HarborcOat”
Bursting out of the gates energetically, the first song on Reckoning wastes no time in getting down to business: Peter Buck’s main guitar chord pattern is established over a feisty rhythm section, then Stipe starts throwing his phrases in among the peaks and valleys. As jumbled phrases, his words don’t mean too much by themselves — “A handshake is worth it if it’s all that you got”; “There’s a splinter in your eye and it reads ‘react'” — but add them all up, and by the song’s end you have an abundance of resonant (if imprecise) emotion.

The real story of this song, though, is the music. Aggressive, but not at all violent, it is indeed the very feel of water, an inexorably moving and changing force of nature, probably inspired by the band’s relentless touring in a van.

That is the single most remarkable aspect of R.E.M.’s early career — the way Stipe’s lyrics match the feel of the band’s music, a deep artistic understanding that even extended to the album packaging. Everyone in the band is on the same page here, and even though you may not know what a harborcoat is (except to know that you “can’t go outside without it”), it does seem to have something to do with water. And it does convey something real. This is music from the heart, not the brain.

2. “7 ChineSe Bros.”
Over a cheerful tune from Peter Buck (this is a guitar album, after all) and a twisting bass line from Mike Mills, Stipe once again finds himself in water. Inspired by the old folk tale of five Chinese brothers, this track features seven brothers “swallowing the ocean”, and elsewhere recalls some of the odd pathos found on Murmur:

Seven thousand years to sleep away the pain
She’ll return
She’ll return

Drummer Bill Berry thumps away somewhat leadenly through the verses, but his steady timekeeping and, especially, fills throughout this song (and the whole album) are a big part of the R.E.M. sound — it’s clear why the band’s tack changed so drastically when Berry retired in 1997.

It was tunes like “7 ChineSe Bros.” that began to give R.E.M. the not-at-all undeserved reputation in the 80’s as a jangly, Byrds-influenced guitar band. Buck’s Rickenbacker rings, mostly undistorted, and his busy arpeggio is always perfectly timed, like little chimes on a busy clock.

3. “so. Central Rain”
The album’s most famous song, and biggest “hit”, “so. Central Rain” is driven by one of Buck’s most memorable guitar riffs, as well as an intriguingly unique chord sequence that is downright haunting.

Michael Stipe, however, steals the spotlight from Buck, and what has really lodged this song into the general rock ‘n’ roll consciousness is his appealingly stark cry, “I’m sorry”, repeated four times during the chorus. Bolstered by Mike Mills’ clanging piano towards the end, “so. Central Rain” is one of R.E.M.’s finest emotional achievements, and a deserved highlight of the album it’s on.

The song was partly inspired by floods in the band’s home state of Georgia, and the song is an example of the larger preoccupation with the altering force of water found throughout Reckoning. As usual, though, it isn’t as simple as that — floodwater becomes a metaphor for larger issues of helplessness, desperation, and repentance.

4. “Pretty Persuasion”
Featuring in seemingly nearly every live show the band performed in the 1980’s, “Pretty Persuasion” dates from the band’s earliest days, and as such is a fairly straightforward rock number. It has a somewhat dark edge, with a beautiful minor-chord chorus. The band is allowed to shine, especially Berry, whose drums click along relentlessly, and whose fills again give the song (particularly the bridge) its subtle color.

Peter Buck’s guitar line, featured throughout the song, is another good example of his “chiming” arpeggiated style. “Pretty Persuasion” is not a great song by any means, but the band seemed to harbor a long affection for it. It must have been as much fun to play as it is to hear.

5. “Time After Time (annElise)”
Side 1 of the original LP ends with what is by far Reckoning’s most adventurous soundscape. A somewhat slow, monotonous raga (played, of course, with a buzzing, jangly guitar), “Time After Time” brings a moment of beauty and adventurousness that is often missing from this album.

Which is to say, this is not a guitar-driven pop song. And although the lyrics mention a water tower, the mood here is not necessarily one of fluidity and renewal, setting it apart from the album’s other tracks. It is more like a Murmur song, but with its production falling between that of the debut album and this one. It’s dense, but subtly so. Musically, it almost recalls “Tomorrow Never Knows” by the Beatles, relying less on chord patterns and beat and more on sustained buzz and kaleidoscopic echo.

And all of this with a minimum of overdubs or other flash!

6. “second GuessinG”
Something of a fast, throwaway rock number, “second GuessinG” chugs down the track merrily, giving Berry a real workout and allowing Buck to engage in some busy chord changes.

The lyrics don’t seem to say much, and act more as filler to complete the song than anything else. One gets the feeling that R.E.M. created this one just to have something new to play on the road, and it is this kind of minor lapse that causes Reckoning to never get the respect that some of the band’s other albums get. Competent and enjoyable, but not vital.

7. “letter Never seNt”
With another ultra-simple guitar lick, this is something of a companion piece, musically, to “second GuessinG”. Specifically, although slower and more fully realized, this song doesn’t really amount to much, and appears to have been created for the sake of creation.

But it does pack more of a punch than the preceeding track, thanks in large part to Stipe’s road-weariness and his pining for home. “letter Never seNt” does a lot to contribute to the album’s sense of movement and lack of rest. If the band had had time to work on it more, it may have been a classic. As it is, it shows promise, and contributes to the whole, but seems to be lacking some vital undercurrent.

8. “camerA”
One of the slowest songs in R.E.M.’s entire career (and certainly as of 1984), this immaculate, delicate piece is a loose net, tied together with gently pulsing bass, lovely, swirling electric guitar passages, plaintive drumming, and Stipe’s naked, emotional baritone.

About a photographer friend of Stipe’s who had died in a car accident, “camerA” is purely about the sense of loss felt after her passing. “If I will be your camera, who will be your face?” he wonders, grieving over the fact that he can’t see her face or new artwork ever again. It is probably the most touching moment on the album.

Peter Buck’s famous guitar solo is a perfect musical complement to the track — short, hesitant, but cathartic, it seems to almost be comforted by Mills’ supportive bass. The band then winds up for a thrilling finale, firing on all cylinders as they pay respect to their fallen friend, and struggle to find some peace within the misery.

9. “(don’t Go back To) ROCKVILLE”
Written by Mike Mills in the earliest days of the band, “Rockville” had been a fast, punkish tune pleading with a girl not to leave Athens and move back to Maryland. Dusting it off during the Reckoning sessions, the band transformed it into a half-speed, country song (as a tribute to a member of the band’s management who liked country music).

After the LP’s release, R.E.M. would never play the song in the old style again. (In fact, it hadn’t been a regular part of the band’s set lists for a long time anyway.) Stipe exaggerates a southern accent, and the likeability and warmness of the track made it a live favorite, as well as one of the charming classics from this album.

10. “little america”
Careening through small-town America, passing by towns with names like Greenville and stores with names like Magic Mart, this is an impressionistic reflection of a band on tour, and as a bonus contains a particularly complicated and impressive Peter Buck riff.

One of the most interesting songs, musically, on the album, “little america” features a chorus somewhat reminiscent of the chorus on Murmur’s “9-9”, a relentless, manic monotone chant from Stipe layered over a dramatic two-chord dance. “The biggest wagon is the empty wagon is the noisiest…” begins the curious rant, and it is a harbinger of the most deranged song on the band’s next album, Fables of the Reconstruction’s “Auctioneer (Another Engine)”.

After the song ends with the line “I think we’re lost” (which could be scary, but comes across as merely bemused), there is a short loop of instrumental music, over which Stipe croons wordlessly. It is a weird, and fitting, end to an album that comes at you fast, washes away what gets in its way, and leaves without a trace — except maybe a few puddles and some dislodged memories.

Reckoning by R.E.M.


“7 ChineSe Bros.”

“so. Central Rain”

“Pretty Persuasion”

“Time After Time (annElise)”

“second GuessinG”

“letter Never seNt”


“(don’t Go back To) ROCKVILLE”

“little america”


After releasing a landmark single (1981’s “Radio Free Europe”) and a magnificent EP (1982’s Chronic Town), R.E.M. hunkered down in the studio with producers Mitch Easter and Don Dixon to record their first full-length album.

And what a masterpiece they created. Balancing a sense of studio experimentation with a built-in familiarity with these oft-played-live songs, the four band members and the producers created a thick gumbo of sunless, shifting patterns, bursting moments of clarity, and resolutely secretive magic. Exploring an impressive variety of themes, while maintaining a highly uniform sound throughout, this was startlingly new music. It was certainly as far as possible, both in philosophy and in purpose, from the Top 40 charts of the day, which were ruled by acts such as Hall & Oates, Michael Sembello, and Men At Work.

Opening up the wider world’s fascination with the Athens, Ga “sound”, and providing a blueprint for the rise of uncompromising “alternative” music, Murmur is one of the weirdest, most home-grown albums in rock history, full of divulgence and reticence, of dark and light, of struggle and legend and cobwebs. Repeated listenings are rewarded in spades.

R.E.M. — Murmur: Track-by-track review

1. “Radio Free Europe”
In the early 80’s, this song was the great secret call to arms among the post-punk musical community. A re-recording of their 1981 single, this track was, it is said, the most-covered live song by the new crop of “alternative” rock bands.

“Radio Free Europe” begins quirkily, with a curious amplifier-hum loop which soon dies, before being launched proper with drummer Bill Berry’s 1-2-3-4 intro. Michael Stipe’s lyrics are mixed low (and mostly slurred anyway), which gives this track, like most others on the album, a vague but inspiring sense of purpose. Only occasionally does a word or phrase pop up clearly from the swirl, and the listener subconsciously strings them together and settles on what he or she thinks the meaning of the song may be.

Obviously, it seems to have something to do with radio, and by extension, the new alternative music of the time, including bands like the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, and Black Flag. Unlike most of these bands though, R.E.M.’s studio recordings of the era are softer, more pastoral and full of audio curiosities, thanks in huge part to Easter and Dixon. Drive through rural north Georgia; this is the feeling crystallized on “Radio Free Europe”.

With acoustic guitars and Peter Buck’s jangly Rickenbacker all mixed into a cohesive unit, the instrumental backing is all weird buzz and soft, fuzzy edges, grounded by the nimble pulse of Berry and bassist extraordinaire Mike Mills. It’s summertime in the south — but it’s night, not day, and there are shadows and noises, comfort and dread, a deceptive stillness that quickens the pulse.

On top of all this, the song is enjoyable and peppy, even danceable, so even casual listeners can groove along to the party. As one of the key songs of the 1980’s, “Radio Free Europe” holds up as a bleary but confident message from a strange new beyond.

2. “Pilgrimage”
The band slows down somewhat on the ethereal second track, further exploring the timeless, blurry shadow-world only hinted at on the first track. “Pilgrimage” again sets its mood early, with an unaccompanied Stipe singing the two key lines from the song, “Take a turn / take a fortune” with heavy, distant echo.

Again the rhythm section throbs insistently, giving Peter Buck the opportunity to artfully add color with leisurely guitar plinks. The whole ensemble moves through changes together throughout the song, becoming more melodic and ringing in the bridges and choruses.

Stipe’s lyrics are obtuse references to superstition and myth and shamanistic episodes. He mentions a “two-headed cow”, “speaking in tongues”, and some kind of undefined pilgrimage that, repeatedly, “has gained momentum”.

One of the darker songs on the album, “Pilgrimage” is a masterpiece of understated menace and irrevocable movement. Unlike many rock albums (for example, R.E.M.’s own Lifes Rich Pageant), the first two tracks are not “heavy” and “heavier” — on Murmur, “Pilgrimage” acts to slow down the proceedings, setting the mood for the murkiness and elusiveness that comprises the rest of the album.

3. “Laughing”
A goony, oddly-meandering bass pattern introduces this pleasant-sounding song that seems, lyrically, to have something to do with a struggle for communication, and/or illumination (either literal or metaphorical).

Over Buck’s lushly strummed (and at times punchy) chords, Stipe sings of someone “lighted in a room”, and quotes one of the characters in his shifting, film-noir scenes: “I can hear you / I can hear you / I can hear you…”

Myth is again strong here, as Laocoön, an ancient Trojan priest who skirted convention by marrying, features heavily in the lyrics, although Stipe changes his gender to female. Presumably, this change has no literal or conventional meaning; rather, it just felt right, and the word “her” seemed to fit the instrumental backing better than “him”. As arguably rock’s greatest metallurgist, Stipe’s lyrics mix seamlessly with the music on Murmur. In interviews of the time, he said he considered his voice to be merely another instrument; therefore, slurring and incoherency were ok, as long as the emotional impact of a song could be fully realized.

Lacking a precise meaning, as do virtually all of Stipe’s early lyrics, “Laughing” again paints an impressionistic canvas from which the listener must draw his or her own conclusions — or at least must confront his or her own reactions.

4. “Talk About The Passion”
With Buck’s simple, almost-uplifting guitar riff (sounding not unlike a precursor to “Disturbance at the Heron House” from Document), this “Talk About the Passion” is less overcast than other Murmur songs. Stipe matches this feel with his soaring chant of the title in the chorus, and Mills’ melodic bass bobs happily in the background.

As with most songs on this album, there is hidden mysticism here: for one example, Buck overlaid multiple electric guitars beneath the chorus which have a very southern, weird buzz. Mixed low, though, they serve mainly to surreptitiously augment Stipe’s singing, giving the whole picture a rather twisted framework.

Uncommonly for this album, this song fades out, giving an overall softer impression than the tracks which end suddenly with an unexpected bell or thump or sustained guitar note.

5. “Moral Kiosk”
“Moral Kiosk” is more musically barbed, with both Buck’s irregular guitar and Berry’s unexpected bumps immediately undoing the false sense of relaxation one might have had after the last track, “Talk About the Passion”. Stipe sings directly here, if not coherently, about “scandals in the twilight”, and the energetic Whack-a-Mole call-and-response of the chorus between him and the band’s backup singers (Mills and Berry, never Buck) make this song seem like a not-quite-as-distant cousin to the earlier punk the band were all fans of.

Despite this sharp angularity, the song fits nicely into the general sound of Murmur, thanks to Easter’s production. It’s still rural, and brimming with unseen forces, it’s just less opaque than, for example, “Pilgrimage”. This is the sound of a band letting loose in the studio — to a point!

6. “Perfect Circle”
A strikingly beautiful piano pattern makes up the backbone of this song. Written by the drummer Berry, the piece is played on two pianos simultaneously: a quality, in-tune piano, and an older, not-quite-in-tune one. Together, they provide an almost queasy, intriguingly syncopated melody under which the band augments the sound with class and restraint.

Stipe’s vocals are particularly subdued on “Perfect Circle” — perhaps it was the nervousness of singing a ballad — but they serve the song well. Lyrically, he seems in a warm mood, singing about “a perfect circle of acquaintances and friends”, and conveys a comfortable (if unsettlingly incomplete) camaraderie with the phrase, repeated over the fadeout, “Standing too soon, shoulders high in the wind…”

Thus side 1 of the original LP ends, an engrossing and often incomprehensible collection of impressions, feelings and ideas that acts more like an artist’s palette than a finished painting.

7. “Catapult”
More driving than most of the rest of the album, “Catapult” is an actual rock song, though put through the same appealing production as the rest of the album. The music is catchy, if somewhat simplistic, which goes double for the call-and-response chorus.

Michael Stipe sings here of some time in the past, when “We were little boys / we were little girls” and inquires somewhat worriedly, “Did we miss anything?” Although the track makes perhaps the least immediate impression of all the songs on the album, it does contain one of Stipe’s more memorably ear-catching phrases: “It’s not a clock, don’t try to turn it off.”

Ultimately, this song is a wee bit too cute, and one senses a roteness, which is to say artistic pointlessness, about it. However, as a bridge between “Perfect Circle” and the rest of the album, it works, and the childhood-derived lyrics pave the way for further explorations of the themes of youth, innocence and struggle in both “Sitting Still” and “Shaking Through”.

8. “Sitting Still”
One of the album’s classics, this track features what may be Murmur’s best bridge (“I’m up to par and Katie bar…”) and most dramatic guitar notes from Peter Buck.

There is a sense of urgency to this song missing from even the album’s faster, more upbeat tracks like “Radio Free Europe” and “West of the Fields”. Much of this is due to Stipe’s emotional vocals (the song apparently was inspired by his sister’s work teaching deaf children). In the earliest days of R.E.M., as the singer was finding his voice during countless live shows, he often employed a kind of piercing howl (or growl). Although he’d become more accomplished by the time of Murmur, that arrow-to-the-heart vocal grunge makes its appearance here throughout the bridge and chorus, if not the verses. “I can hear you / Can you hear me?” he pleads with real genuineness. It recalls the similar lines from the song “Laughing”, and acts in part to tie together the themes of the album into a singular juggernaut.

All in all, this may be the most aggressive song on the album, owing to the passion with which all four members attack the song. The production is also somewhat more direct, very appropriately so.

9. “9-9”
A bizarre tone-poem, and probably the weirdest song of R.E.M.’s early career. Driven by an intoxicating, up-and-down bass pattern and a motley collection of haphazardly-strewn drum licks, this almost completely melody-free song features bursts of random guitar harmonics that sting like switchblades, matching Stipe’s alternate mumbling and shouting. Speaking in tongues, indeed; this is “Moral Kiosk’s” lunatic, house-bound younger sibling.

All of this comes together during the melodramatic choruses, with a leaden, descending main vocal melody followed closely by an alternate vocal sung by Mike Mills. There’s even a kind of freak-out middle section, before Stipe finally winds up the song by repeating the evocative, frightening line “Conversation fear”.

In the end, though, the rhythm section does manage to keep this one on track, and so “9-9” (its title as impenetrable as its music) endeavors to keep one foot in the avant garde, one in the rock ‘n’ roll. All in all, it’s a success, and an exhilarating, adventurous piece of songwriting and performance.

10. “Shaking Through”
With particularly soft acoustic guitars, and a lovely pop melody, the phrase “shaking through” might seem to be a good thing — shaking from excitement, perhaps.

Somehow, though, it leaves a distinct aftertaste of something untoward, perhaps deeply so. Is it just the menace found on so much of the rest of the album creeping through? Maybe. Is it the unexpectedly anguished cry of Michael Stipe during the middle section? Probably. Is it the oddly disquieting, unelaborated-on line about “children of today, on parade”? It’s all of these.

Whatever is happening here lyrically, the song is propulsive, and even the dramatic key change toward the end works. “Shaking Through” is a success due to the high level of musicianship of the band and, for better or worse, the pathos of Stipe.

11. “We Walk”
If any song can be agonizingly catchy, but in a good way, this is it.

Written as something of a joke by Peter Buck, Stipe seized the music and wrote a deceptively simple set of lyrics.

Up the stairs, into the landing,
Up the stairs, into the hall.
Take oasis, Marat’s bathing
We walk through the wood
We walk

“Catapult” featured simple lyrics but had a paucity of emotional weight; “We Walk” has even simpler lyrics but achieves a surprising level of sentiment. A lot of this is due to the ominous thunder sounds throughout (actually processed audio from an in-studio game of billiards) and the repetitive minor-key relapses. Even Buck’s silly chord sequence is enjoyable.

12. “West Of The Fields”
Maybe the most dramatic song on Murmur, “West of the Fields” truly transports the listener to a hazy alternate time and/or place. This time, it’s the Elysian Fields, the final resting place of heroes in Greek mythology. This song takes place in jungles, in fields, in cemeteries.

Visually, the song might conjure up a misty, early-morning spot far from civilization, where nothing seems to be happening except the sedate motion of the thick pre-sun fog. But, of course, the real story is happening behind the shadows. Both the music and vocals are so insistent, it is clear that this scene is of utmost importance, even if none of it is explicitly understood. What was that brief commotion in that grove of trees? What are the birds singing about this morning? Who else is here, hiding, listening to the spirits?

As an other-worldly ending to an other-worldly album, “West of the Fields” is the perfect choice. It refuses to give up any answers — it doesn’t even ask questions; it merely presents a mysterious scene and allows you to wander in as far as you dare. Keep your wits about you — and good luck.

Murmur by R.E.M.

“Radio Free Europe”



“Talk About The Passion”

“Moral Kiosk”

“Perfect Circle”


“Sitting Still”


“Shaking Through”

“We Walk”

“West Of The Fields”