'We are thrilled and terrified': With 'Document,'R.KM. confronts success
Obscure to Oblique
Sure, you can make out the words on the new
R.E.M. album, but what do they actually mean?
in a rock-and-roll montage. Images, puns
and narrative chunks often don't fit togeth-
er cleanly. It's then up to the listener to
create explicit meaning, if possible. Some-
times the wordplay comes together power-
fully, as with "Oddfellows Local 151," a
foreboding character study of a raving
drunk who "preaches" behind the fire-
house. But "Disturbance at the Heron
House," described by Stipe as a "dire out-
look on free will," is impenetrable. (Maybe
someday a graduate student will explain it
all. Or maybe not.) The first single from the
album is, appropriately enough, the sim-
plest song on the album, "The One I Love."
Here is the only verse, which is repeated,
almost verbatim: "This one goes out to the
one I love / This one goes out to the one I
left behind / A simple prop to occupy my
mind / This one goes out to the one
I love." The chorus is one word, "fire,"
sung, with Stipe's melismatic phrasing, as,
The garage door never went up: Some of
R.E.M.'s iconoclastic approach to rock can
be traced to environment. The quartet-
Stipe, Buck, bassist Mike Mills, drummer
Bill Berry-came together in Athens, a
town that encourages rockers of every type.
Mills and Berry had played together pro-
fessionally before, but Buck had never
played guitar. Stipe says he'd played in "a
number of garage bands where the garage
door never went up." The four musicians
got together to play a birthday party in
1980 and just kept going. Through relent-
less touring, R.E.M. built a loyal following
in the Southeast and then gradually devel-
oped a national audience. Now they threat-
en to break out of their reputation as a cult
band or, as Buck says, "It's getting to be a
fairly large cult."
And success has come without compro-
mise. From the beginning of their adven-
turous career, R.E.M. has controlled such
things as cover art and music videos. Which
explains why covers and videos are often as
perplexing as the music. The front of "Doc-
ument," for instance, has a WPA-like
painting in color on the left side and a
multiple-exposure, black-and-white photo-
graph on the right-not the same as a cute
picture of the guys. "If we do something
stupid," says Buck, "at least it isn't because
we took the advice of some guy in an office."
So far, "Document" looks to be the most
successful of all R.E.M.'s records. It took
four months for "Lifes Rich Pageant"-
they don't like apostrophes-to go gold
(sales of 500,000 copies), but "Document"
reached that mark with its first shipment.
Of this achievement, Michael Stipe re-
marked in a record-company press release,
"We are thrilled and terrified. We are
ver since R.E.M. put out its first rec-
ord, the single "Radio Free Europe," in
1981, people have admired the band's
music and puzzled over the lyrics. In fact,
indecipherability became such an issue-
printed lyrics have never been available-
that the band sardonically issued a video
with subtitles. But with each successive
record, the audio mixes have become clear-
er and lead vocalist Michael Stipe's phras-
ing more distinct. Now, on "Document,"
R.E.M.'s latest and best album, the words
and music have come into sharp focus. Still,
there's an ironic punch line: now that you
can hear the words, it's possible to discern
just how hard they are to understand.
What was once obscured is now oblique. On
"Fireplace," what does it mean when Stipe
sings, "Sweep the walls into the fireplace"?
Then again, nobody would ever classify
R.E.M. as easy listening. And that, un-
doubtedly, has been part of the appeal. Lis-
tening to the band's ringing melodies and
surging rhythms is certainly a pleasure,
but many also enjoy breaking those lyrical
codes. "We get the kind of people who are
willing to invest some time and thought,"
says lead guitarist Peter Buck. Perhaps
that's why R.E.M.-started in Athens, Ga.,
home of the University of Georgia-has
found much of its popular support on col-
lege campuses. Critics have been substan-
tial boosters of the band; R.E.M. has won
reviewers' polls over and over again. All
this despite the verbal roadblock.
So, why the new sonic clarity? "It seems
like the material needed to be more imme-
diate-lyrically as well as the way the vo-
cals sound in the mix," says Buck. Still,
"immediate" means something different
for R.E.M. "Welcome to the Occupation,"
for instance, has a political purpose. But it
takes persistence to figure out that the song
is an attack on American foreign policy in
Central America, since it has no specific
geographic reference. The only direct accu-
sation concerns Congress, "where we prop-
agate confusion, permanent and wild."
Stipe uses a combination of list and meta-
phor to describe the capitalistic interest
in Central America: "Sugar cane and cof-
fee / Copper, steel and cattle / An annotat-
ed history / The forest for the fire."
On "Document," phrases are juxtaposed
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