Sunday, April 27, 2008

Not all '80s college rock sucked
Foresight isn't anything at all

R.E.M. has been on the hype trail lately to promote their new album, Accelerate. I've enjoyed reading and hearing about the Athens, Ga. band, especially in a great segment on NPR's "Fresh Air" a couple of weeks ago. R.E.M. was very important to me when I was a lad of 15 or so, and the release of the new album has been an occasion for me to listen to my old R.E.M. albums and reminisce. (It has not, so far, been an occasion to buy the new album.)

The track I'm highlighting here is from the group's 1986 album, Lifes Rich Pageant. I had fallen hard for R.E.M. the previous year, when they released their third full-length collection, Fables of the Reconstruction. I admired that release's muffled, inscrutable lyrics and -- rock critics always used this adjective to describe R.E.M. in those days -- murky sound, and I looked forward to more of the same from Lifes Rich Pageant.

It turned out to be a slicker record, and although I liked it very much, it was the beginning of the end of R.E.M.'s reign as the greatest quirky Southern college rock band not many people had heard of. As a young, disaffected Southerner I appreciated R.E.M. because they were, like me, from Dixie, but weren't about bass fishing or Earl Thomas Conley.

But although the lyrics of Lifes Rich Pageant were easier to make out, they were still largely abstract, and provocative but not quite political. That's certainly true of "Fall on Me," a great track to listen to in this season of Earth Day. It is about an eco-nightmare, apparently, but the lyrics don't get into many specifics -- the watchword is vague dread. (Though the lines about buying and selling the sky do seem eerily prescient of the recent vogue for carbon credits.)

I love the arrangement -- the ethereal organ and dreamy, Byrds-esque 12-string guitar. The mid-tempo beat is nice, too; this is the first single in a string of mid-tempo rockers that made R.E.M.'s reputation as hitmakers ("The One I Love," "Losing My Religion").

What I like best musically about "Fall On Me" is that although it is in the key of C major, it takes its sweet time finding its way home to that chord. The verse and prechorus are a succession of minor chords (C major does make a brief appearance in the prechorus), and it all builds to the glorious climax that is the chorus, which is announced by a big country-and-western walk-up to C from a dominant G chord. (R.E.M. was always a great crypto-country band.) With the chorus, the melody leaps up a giant interval, almost an octave, and soars and falls and soars. It's exhilirating.

Here's the clip on YouTube. Unlike most music videos, this one emphasizes the lyrics. I guess that was the band's way of letting us know that, all of a sudden, they wanted us to understand the words, or at least be able to make them out.

No comments: