Nature, traps and escape in songs from R.E.M.’s ‘Green’ album (1988)
Like many people 1991 was when I first heard R.E.M. spearheaded into my consciousness via breakthrough single ‘Losing My Religion’, a song that blasted the band into the mainstream. While there had been early TV appearances, they were part of an alternative rock scene that was almost avowedly not mainstream. They’d been forging through the U.S gigging circuit as stars of the college radio scene from the early eighties, although alienating some fans in 1988 when they signed a lucrative deal with a major label for the first time (on the basis they would be keeping control of the material). Kurt Cobain recalled hearing ‘Losing My Religion’ coming from a car radio that was passing his place and being shocked at the realisation that R.E.M were being played out in the street. They had broken out and underground (aka alternative) music had struck a chord as a popular musical force.
As a sixteen year old at the time, my love affair with music had been growing already and I had been pursuing more of my own listening habits for the last few years (having been for so long tempered by my family’s music collection). It still felt like I’d found something underground and valuable at the time and not many peers in my south Wales sixth form were R.E.M. fans. Pre-Internet, British guitar music had recently gone through shoegaze and tripped out on Madchester, but it was the American rock of Guns n Roses (by then tailing off) and the soon to be nascent Grunge scene that was the libidinalised under current in our area.
Back then, I copied the R.E.M. albums on tape from the library and usually played them on walkman. Tapes were ubiquitous currency and this was also the no-cost approach to attain their back catalogue, from the contemporaneous ‘Out Of Time’ (possibly their most sustained collection) through the earlier albums like Bureau, Document, Reckoning, Fables of the Reconstruction and others. There were gems on most if not all of these albums, Fall on me, Driver 8, Pretty Persuasion, These days, Hyena and Cuyahoga stood out (more on Cuyahoga in Part 2). Yet it was 1988’s Green that seemed of the 5 albums that had come before, to most sustain a feeling of something touching upon the exceptional.
When I first saw Radiohead being pushed – as their debut Pablo Honey was coming out in 1993 – it was on an end of shelf promo display in ‘Our Price‘ in Swansea. Its write up comparing the Oxford five piece as ‘Britain’s answer to R.E.M.’ For a long time, R.E.M. had been on the outside edges of the cultural agglomerator, but in a couple of short years they were already the touch-stone name of mainstreamed-indie success.
One of the things that seems clear by the time of Green is that as well as spending years becoming road-honed, the input of each member (Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Bill Berry) had developed into the kind of playing where spareness can ramify the impact and effect together of the musical part and its playing and of the songwriting as a whole.
Peter Buck’s rising and falling mandolin line in the verse of ‘Wrong Child’ (above), which echoes and entwines with Stipe and his harmonic counterpoint vocals. A song with such minimal instrumentation, beautifully achieved and minimally full, a kind of neo-folk dressing for the lyrical rendering of a child with a disability or illness. Stipe takes us through this symptomatic ‘wrongness’ – ‘I’m not supposed to be like this’ with the succour that ‘It’s Ok!’ (and later ‘Let’s play a happy game’) delivered with an impassioned howl.
In fact that sudden transformation in his singing, with a bite and energy which stretches the lyrical affect of the song, assuring that the supposition / “normality” (‘I’m not supposed to be like this‘) the ‘wrongness’ of the child in the title, is given if only this thin passage of Stipe’s exertion through which to be transformed from this space of judged wrongness.
Although the traction of this ‘wrongness’ is given additional dimension by the line ‘Tell me what it’s like to go outside, I’ve never been and I never will’.
The ‘wrongness’ then takes the form of the ill health rendered to the child’s life. But Stipe wants to also invoke the social cruelty of ‘wrongness’ as a tract against difference, ‘Those kids are looking at me, they’re laughing at me…’ but invoking this alongside the inability to withstand exposure to the physical outside, with only the (ultimately) pallid platitude ‘But its ok!’ engenders a kind of helplessness in both cases. The social stigmatisation of being labelled ‘wrong’ is not dealt with intensively (although ‘the happy game.. happy song’ points us towards the potential for intensive mobilisation) and transformed becomings are left outside the space of the song.
It is a shimmering arrangement especially in the verse, and Stipe’s early interlocution of the child watching other childen ‘jump in the tall grass, leap the sprinklers‘ conjures the ethereality of the abstraction of summery days and play, the tall grass is uncut and has this catch of the wild with its ‘tall’ invocation. It is well enough musically to capture this lyric as a kind of dream-induction, an incantation that takes you to its space, but that which you eventually realise is the space in sonic-story form of this child maintained in a socially determined outside while simultaneously unable to actually go outside.
‘let’s play a happy game’ is the line that alternates with ‘…But it’s Ok’ the other space where something can come in and transform this world of our encounter; this child and its life in story. Clearly Stipe feels something must happen in this space, this is where he takes his singing to another level to enforce that ‘It’s ok!’ but it does not (lyrically) pierce the world of the tragic.
Critically, the opportunity to transform the child in implied understanding and also ourselves is missed. Specifically also to transform from a being who only observes the outside ‘I watch the children come and go‘ to one for whom the subtle transformations of an emergent intensive and intensifying abstract are occurrent in how the inside of his environment, the interiorising of the internal; the personified is also always simultaneously the outside that is also virtual, the differenentially energised, the re-dreaming through which new terrains of abstration and perception are encountered to be alternate flanks of the materially understood immanence of the outside, everywhere made membranous – and in a state of constant rupture. Realised also by understanding it is precisely the kind of active stillness and transformation that Stipe has applied elsewhere on the album…
‘You are the everything’ instantiates a story of reaching beyond everyday perception and its instruction to Reality, once again from an interiority at play (the car, the kitchen) but this time composed in the form of a heightened or intensified contact with both a transformative stillness and subsequently the celestial.
‘Here’s a scene, you’re in the back seat, laying down, the windows wrap around to the sound of the travel and the engine, all you hear is time stand still in travel, you feel such peace and absolute, the stillness still, that doesn’t end, but slowly drifts, endlessly, the stars are the greatest thing you’ve ever seen and they’re there for you, for you alone, you are the everything…’
Stipe’s scene is the portal to a moment perceived as being outside time, where the sonic world of the car engine has opened a perception to a stillness and through that stillness to a focus on the stars as a real presence, with which a supportive and loving relation as presence is given ‘They’re there for you‘. A point of the active outside in perception, transformed past structures of pre-thought and explanation, open to possibility.
The song is a sustained achievement of songwriting and playing, beautifully balanced through its changes, lyrical and yet in conversation with itself musically, such that changes and relations between chords and phrases feel like they each form meanings in the story of the song purely as a sonic, expressive entity. A particular vibrancy to the song comes through the intermittent backing vocal of the verse, at first resembling a deeply outré folk melody but that with its extraordinary final notes of vibrato, conjurs a sense of the shamanic in timbre, acting like a lightning charge through Stipe’s vocal and the song as a whole.
Later in the song Stipe has returned to the moment of perceptual escape and contact as a motif, apparently older protagonists including one who is ‘drifting off to sleep with teeth in your mouth.’ The realisation of this moment now gatewayed with sleep, our perpetually routinised transformation of consciousness, covered over with an itinerant absolute of normality and fugue-like slipways of the ungrasped when it comes to our daily minds.
Along with Hairshirt, these songs formed an outcopping on the Green album, away from the electrified guitars. A kind of Radiohead parallel is suggested after all, that each found it neccessary to abandon the primary mode of the rock guitar group (however well they may have been doing it). Radiohead towards the electronic while R.E.M. converted the materials of folk music to the expressive weft of modern pop compositions.
Historically immanent to folk instruments are storifying expressions of human beings and their situations, but also a connection with the planet and with nature reflected in time. If R.E.M.’s rock songs were electrified, bright and acute, now they were moving closer to the stillness that Stipe was lyrically instigating.
‘…the stillness still, that doesn’t end, but slowly drifts, endlessly…’