still in thrall to outdated obsessions

I just finished reading J. Niimi’s short book on Murmur, part of Continuum‘s 33 1/3 series on rock albums – and I’d say it’s definitely among the better instances of rock criticism I’ve read. Partly (to use the standard everyone actually uses, even if it’s not cool to admit it) that’s because Niimi snuck into my house secretly, used advanced scientific equipment to steal thoughts from my head, and then transcribed them and claimed them as his own. So much of the way that album works for me is discussed here; I’d grossly paraphrase by saying that Stipe’s language is evocative…but whereas that descriptor usually points to something in particular (“evocative of a late spring evening”), what’s curious is that the object of Stipean evocation is essentially that act of evocation itself. Much of the album’s aesthetic – in everything from its cover art to its sound to, of course, its notoriously worried-over lyrics (by critics – not by Stipe) – is about suggestion but not definition, leaving the listener to fill in what gaps arise between whatever thoughts and images initially assemble in the wake of that aesthetic. (Here‘s what I wrote about lyrics, along those lines, a couple of years ago.)

Niimi places some heavy emphasis on an interview wherein Stipe mentioned Walker Percy’s “Metaphor as Mistake,” whose applicability here is more or less that we sometimes get closer to something by accident, by a metaphor, than by painstakingly setting out to limn reality pebble by pebble. (Percy’s example is his own mishearing as a child of the name of a bird as a “blue dollar hawk” – the actual name is the rather more prosaic “blue darter hawk”: the hawk’s blue, and it darts.) Stipe has always honored the interesting accident – perhaps the best-known example is from “I Believe,” whose lyric originally contained the phrase “between the hours of the day.” Someone misread “horns” for “hours,” and Stipe liked the resulting mistake better. This might also go some way toward the band’s reticence to nail down any definitive reading of the lyrics – it allows listeners to make out what shapes they will through the haze of Stipe’s foghorning voice.*

That haze, by the way, is partly the result of Mitch Easter’s and Don Dixon’s sound design work – and Niimi’s book benefits greatly from his having interviewed Easter and Dixon for in-studio detail. Niimi, like both Easter and Dixon (who has a new album coming out soon), has worked as both a musician and a recording engineer, so he knows what he’s talking about – but don’t worry, this isn’t an obsessive gearhead’s enumeration of exactly which microphones, cables, and omnidamped flanged triangles were used in every second of every song. His experience as a musician allows him to render extraordinarily sensitive and insightful readings of the songs’ structure and arrangements: if you never thought what difference it might make when a drummer uses a ride cymbal versus a hi-hat, you will now – and your listening experience will be richer for it.

Probably, not every reader will enjoy every part of this book. In different sections of the book Niimi is pensive autobiographer, music critic, cultural historian, sharp-eyed but unpretentious literary scholar, and philosophical poet; and I suspect not everyone will have all those hats in their millinery. At moments he seems to want to out-Stipe Stipe in weird allusiveness. But at the same time, that diversity means most R.E.M. fans will find at least part of the book interesting. Two of my favorite tidbits: the revelation that in all the lyrics to Murmur, the word “I” occurs in only three places (one of them so buried that most listeners will miss it); and Niimi’s brief disquisition on the contrariness of the word “can’t” as in “you can’t take too many vitamins”: Niimi points out that such a phrase can mean either that “it’s inadvisable to take too many vitamins” or that “there’s no such thing as taking too many vitamins.”

* Which means I can stop being disappointed that some of my favorite lyrics end up being misreadings. In my world, for example, the chorus of “Perfect Circle” is “standing too soon, shoulders high in the wind,” with the first line later substituting “heaven assumes.” Taking off from the “eleven gallows” in the first verse, I interpreted the chorus to be about hanging, and the song itself to address martyrdom – and was quite impressed with Stipe for coming up with such a striking metaphor. Normally, one stands when one is awake, active; to stand is to defy gravity, to assert one’s verticality against the will-toward-horizontality of gravity’s pull. Of course, when a person is hanged, gravity stretches them into a straight vertical line: standing. And “high in the wind” evokes the Western-movie “hang ’em high” imagery. Given all that, “heaven assumes” then becomes obvious: “assume” in an etymological, religious sense (as in the Feast of the Assumption) but also an implication that “heaven” requires a kind of defiance (“shoulders high in the wind”).

Unfortunately, none of that works if you assume Stipe is actually singing “room,” not “wind.” My mistake: I’ll keep it.

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6 responses to “still in thrall to outdated obsessions

  1. Paula

    Preamble and establishment of REM cred: they were my favorite band between the period of receiving the Trouser Press flexi-disc of “Wolves, Lower” (82? 83?) and 1986, and I still had strong regard for them for years after, til it dwindled down to disinterest.

    Anywaze, I have always felt frustrated by the lyric mumbly jumbly thing. When Stipey says, “My lyrics can mean whatever you want them to mean,” I feel ripped off. I want songwriters to know what their lyrics are about, and stand behind that knowledge.

    I am more disappointed than amused when a misheard good lyric turns out to be stupider than I thought, as often happens with REM.

    And I get irritated when someone misreads one of my songs–no, sorry it’s about something, you don’t get to decide what it’s about.

    Anyway, I admire people who aren’t as demanding of their lyricists, they tend to be less uptight than I am.

  2. 2fs

    Your second-last paragraph is key: your lyrics are about something, so to think they’re about just anything is to misread them. (And to anyone else reading this: fine lyrics they are too!) But if some other lyricist, rather than organizing words into thoughts, phrases, and more or less grammatically functional units that cohere into a narrative, or at least around a recognizable object or situation, instead decides to use words as raw material for, essentially, sculpture, or sound, etc., well, that’s another approach.

    I don’t know that Stipe’s said the lyrics can mean anything so much as they do not have to mean, for all listeners, any one thing. And there is, of course, quite a range between 1 and ∞.

    Not to mention there’s a distinction between the sounds being indistinct or open to interpretation, and the lyrics being so. I actually think one reason Stipe refuses to nail down what words he’s singing for listeners is that he intentionally sings between two words at times, or puns on homonyms. I’d argue that there’s quasi-sense underlying a lot of the lyrics in “Sitting Still”…if you misunderstand what he’s actually singing. Given that the song, apparently, was inspired by his sister’s (?) work with the deaf, this makes sense: if “secret” might be mis-lipread as “see could,” in such a context actually singing “see could” makes sense. Anyway (as I said in an earlier post, or an earlier comment – can’t ‘member which) what’s very clear to me is what that song’s about, even if it’s hard to put into words, or know what words help convey that aboutness. It’s far more in the singing than in what’s sung.

    I prefer a looser textual weave: since we have everyday prose to say things like “I went to the store and bought a pack of gum,” it seems near-pointless to bring songs to bear to say only the same thing. This also means I’m suspicious if not disdainful of the old-school “key to dreams” notion Niimi refers to, whereby a simple equivalence obtained between image and meaning, independent of the dreamer, the situation, and the culture. So, you know, the store is not the church, and the pack of gum is not Jesus. Not only, anyway.

    But as I said, that’s my preference, and certainly not the only way to write, or read, songs. And in that two-years-old post linked in the main entry, I more or less say that a good songwriter cues you in as to what kind of interpretation works best for his or her songs.

    Still and all, I’m suspicious also of writers who claim to know exactly what their lyrics are about! Well, maybe that’s too strong…but I think it’s good to let some wild mystery remain: some phrase hits you, it seems right even if you can’t quite nail down exactly why, and so (this being a song, and not a dissertation or a legal document) you let it remain. Maybe two years later you realize what it meant – or rather, what it it now appears to have meant then.

    Backing up a bit: it’s also inevitable that once something is out there for the public, people are going to attach their own meaning to it whether you want them to or not. Some of that is only loosely, circumstantially attached, such that no one will assume it’s any of the songwriter’s doing: this is the song that was playing when I found out I won the lottery (alas, fictional). But there’s no gainsaying the emotional connection listeners will make to a song, even to misreadings of a song, so it seems to me that leaving some openings (not the whole structure) might be a good approach. Okay: this is probably longer than the main entry…

  3. James

    The real revelation of Nimii’s book, for me, was this nugget of information he learned from Mitch Easter – that Easter sometimes “doubled” Mike Mills’ bass notes with piano. I’ve been listening to Murmur for years and you would think I would have noticed that by the time I read the book. But, nope, somehow that passed through my ears unnoticed. I think I might have thought that Mills’s bass part was overdubbed with extra notes, but I don’t think I ever realized it was actually a piano. Once I read the book I relistened, and, yep, I heard it immediately. You learn something new, etc etc etc…

  4. 2fs

    James – It’s funny that you didn’t notice that – in that it’s one of the very first things I noticed about Murmur, particularly the bridge to “Radio Free Europe.” I stole that idea (which, incidentally, Don Dixon uses on his new CD) for my own R.E.M. tribute/imitation (along with many others…before I’d read Niimi’s book. Reading it I was sort of pleased with myself for figuring out so many of the little tricks they used…).

  5. Tris McCall

    i always use *murmur* as an internal counter-example, because i am usually *much* more into by albums on which the lyrics make linear sense. but *murmur* is my favorite r.e.m. album, and r.e.m. is a band i like a lot. if i am not down with incoherence, what’s my excuse for digging “sitting still” so much more than “shiny happy people”? on reflection i think (and i’m sure the book points this out) that *murmur* does have some pretty identifiable themes in there with the kudzu: so much of the album is about communication failure and the inability to understand people clearly. so the dynamics of misapprehension actually work in michael stipe’s favor — the more allusive and shrouded his meaning feels, the more he ends up extending his metaphor and making his point. i don’t think there’s anything *confusing* about *murmur*, i just think it abandons narrative linearity to better channel the experience of communication breakdown. it ends up cohering and making resonance in spite of itself.

    like paula, i hate it when artists say that their lyrics can mean whatever the listener wants them to mean. i think it’s one of the responsibilities of the author to provide some kind of reading of his own work. chances are, he’ll be totally wrong, but i think that’s a piece of context that’s really good to have, because it gives listeners something to work from. then they can say, “hold on a minute, this record isn’t about spanish elves at all. it’s really about the treaty of paris”.

  6. 2fs

    Tris – I don’t know what you’re talking about; clearly, all rock’n’roll is about the Treaty of Paris. Anyway: your first paragraph really nails it, I think. “Linear sense” isn’t the only kind of sense – and sometimes people imagine that it is. Elsewhere I said that the whole idea of communication, isolation, and fear seems to be Stipe’s main subject for the first several albums, culminating in the relative directness of “Kohoutek”: I think “Michael built a bridge/Michael tore it down” is probably the most direct R.E.M. lyric up to that point in their career.

    Okay: so how come Stipe mentions “pockets” in at least three songs? (I forget his name, but some guy psychoanalyzed Stipe’s lyrics and concluded they were – naturally – all about his dick. So of course we know what the “pocket” thing must be about…)

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