Earlier this week I finished editing for New Haven Review an essay by a friend/colleague from my grad school days, Kasia Jerzak, about hearing R.E.M.’s single “Überlin,” from their final album. The essay brings together the places Kasia has lived and times in her life and the kinds of associations she pulls out of the air—to Rousseau and Benjamin and Baudelaire and Rilke—to create a running commentary on the chronotope that was “the R.E.M. years.” It was inspiring to work on the essay and it inspires my choice of song today.
With their fifth album, Document (1987), R.E.M. for the first time released an album that, to me, wasn’t “better” than the previous album. Now, the album to beat, for me, contrary to the views of most Remmers, is Fables of the Reconstruction (1985); that was my R.E.M. and everybody else can just fuck off, all these johnny-come-latelys that jumped on the bandwagon with this album’s hit, “The One I Love,” or its even more anthemic “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine).” That’s when it became unmistakable that R.E.M. was destined to leave the world of alt-rock for the fabled lands of frat-rock. So be it. Squeeze that berry, it’s more buck for the mills, so no need to stipe about it.
The thing that kept me with R.E.M. even as this album led to the even more unprepossessing (and even more popular) Green, is that every album featured at least one song that was as good or better than anything they’d already done. On Document that song is this song, “King of Birds.” The rest of the album has stood the test of time and I like it much better than I did back then—the last album for I.R.S. The first with Scott Litt producing, the album has vision and isn’t a feel-good record, and it shows—which later albums would build on—the powerhouse aspects of the band. Still, give me the pre-Litt R.E.M. any day.
“I am the king of all I see / My kingdom for a voice,” sings Michael Stipe, possessor of one of the best voices around. But it’s not about saying that he’s struggling to sing, so much as it’s about finding what to sing, and how to have “a voice” or a say in what goes on, “a mean idea to call my own.” The recurring line “Standing on the shoulders of giants leaves me cold” references the notion that every later generation in the long cultural stream of which we are a part is standing on the shoulders of giants, their predecessors, the ones who built what you use almost without thought. This song takes thought, and says, I’d rather I didn’t have to. I’d rather make my own way. Because pretty much everything we’re standing on is fucked. It was easy to feel that way in Reagan’s America, which is something that gets lost sight of when we talk about how much better things were then, compared to W.’s America and its aftermath, but no matter, it’s then that things—for the liberal-minded anyway—really started to slide.
The address to the “old man” who is “not yet young” offers the claim that there’s time to teach. I like the idea that an older person is “not yet young”—which makes me think of all the elders who only too easily capitulate to youth in a kind of “can’t teach 'em, let’s join 'em” (or exploit 'em) turn. The song speaks to me, obviously, because it’s all about an agon with the ages.
And not only that, Bill Berry’s almost martial drums really get the blood up, and the whole thing is so brooding, and those steely string sounds of Peter Buck on dulcimer make a sound almost like a banjo but not quite. It feels like a variation on an older, down-home sound that’s being whipped into shape. And the song really takes off on those long-held notes that Stipes keeps extending, like birds on liftoff straining for the blue. “A hundred million birds fly a-waayyyyy, a-wayyyyyyy, a-waay-ayyyyy-yyyyy.” Gets ya right where you live, earthbound clod that you are.
|Stipe, Berry, Mills, Buck|
Apart from the political mood R.E.M. was in on this album, the song resonated with me personally as, in 1987, I was getting acclimated to formal study and that meant getting with the view that “a mean idea to call my own” was the way forward. Every paper had to be a new idea, and the study of Art History (my major) gave plenty of evidence for the “standing on the shoulders of giants” claim. “Singer, sing me a given / Singer, sing me a song.” Every day, another battle with the given. Until it gives.
“Everybody hit the ground.”
|Acadia National Park, ME, 1987|