Thursday, January 10, 2008

Arts

R.E.M. CONJURES DARK TIMES ON 'DOCUMENT'

Published: September 13, 1987

LEAD: ''THERE'S ENOUGH MEDIA and there's enough music that presents itself to you as 100 percent complete,'' said Michael Stipe, R.E.M.'s singer and lyricist. ''We've been trained to accept that and not question that. If you're blasted into the public eye, you're supposed to be one-dimensional. But I'm pretty big on people contributing to things that they take in - not just accepting them on face value.

''THERE'S ENOUGH MEDIA and there's enough music that presents itself to you as 100 percent complete,'' said Michael Stipe, R.E.M.'s singer and lyricist. ''We've been trained to accept that and not question that. If you're blasted into the public eye, you're supposed to be one-dimensional. But I'm pretty big on people contributing to things that they take in - not just accepting them on face value.''

From the beginning, R.E.M.'s face value has been a fascinating blur. The four-man band from Athens, Ga., is the epitome of what Marshall McLuhan defined as ''cool,'' drawing its audience in by making them complete the picture. R.E.M. has shrugged off most of rock's accepted ways and means of songwriting and career-building.

In the six years since R.E.M.'s first single appeared, the band has built a dedicated audience - one that is likely to fill Radio City Music Hall when R.E.M. arrives next month, on the heels of its new album, ''Document'' (I.R.S./M.C.A. 42059, album, cassette and CD). R.E.M. has become the model for independent rock bands in the 1980's, proof that a band can follow its better instincts, ignore pop-world indignities and still reach a huge listenership. ''Document'' is both confident and defiant; if R.E.M. is about to move from cult-band status to mass popularity, the album decrees that the band will get there on its own terms.

A line from the 1985 song ''Feeling Gravity's Pull'' - ''It said, you can't do this/ I said I can'' - could describe R.E.M.'s musical tactics. Its songs gather guitar riffs from 1960's folk-rock and psychedelia (and elsewhere) and cram them together behind Mr. Stipe's voice. They fracture pop's ordinary verse-chorus-bridge structures, staying with a single riff as long as they want, stretching or shortening a chorus when (or if) it recurs, suddenly breaking into a new melody. The guitar lines are catchy, but the structure they create is wayward; anyone who listens regularly to pop is likely to feel the unfamiliar breaks and recurrences as a subliminal agitation.

R.E.M.'s album covers tend to be unsettled, noncommittal images. The order of songs is often scrambled, and even album titles are up for grabs; R.E.M.'s third album, a group of songs about the South, was called either ''Fables of the Reconstruction'' or ''Reconstruction of the Fables,'' depending on which side was up. Not that the album covers don't have ''little clues,'' as Mr. Stipe put it, to suggest theme and mood. The spine of ''Document,'' for instance, says, ''File under Fire,'' where the 1984 ''Reckoning'' said ''File under Water.'' As for the band's video clips, the pictures are likely to be out of focus or, as with the one directed by Robert Longo for the new song, ''The One I Love,'' sharp-edged but inexplicable.

Such cryptic visuals fit right in with Mr. Stipe's lyrics. On R.E.M.'s early albums, and at concerts, Mr. Stipe's singing was set equal to the guitars, not louder as on most rock albums; in his craggy, nasal voice he would slur or draw out words until they were all but indecipherable. Sometimes, multiple vocal lines tumble over each other, like voices heard from the bottom of a well. After repeated hearings, the lyrics might become intelligible but not exactly clear. True to the band's name (from rapid eye movement sleep, indicating dreaming), Mr. Stipe generally uses disconnected, associative images rather than narratives or simple declarations. Just as the band toys with riffs, he'll toy with a phrase, shifting a word or changing a context. Listeners can decide for themselves what Mr. Stipe means by a phrase like ''inside the moral kiosk.''

 

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