R.E.M.: “Carnival of Sorts (Box Cars)”
Okay, so I know that I said that after the Beatles, my favorite band/artist was either XTC or Elvis Costello, but for quite a long time, throughout the ’80s and well into the ’90s, those two would have had to have given up that spot to R.E.M. Beginning in high school with the release of their Chronic Town EP, they held a fascination for me mostly unmatched by any other band of the ’80s. Luckily I found other like-minded friends in college (Cornell, in Ithaca, NY), and in the mid-’80s (beginning in 1984) we traveled everywhere in New York state that they would play — R.E.M. still holds the record for the band I’ve seen the greatest number of times. These shows were most often in college gymnasiums, and as the band still hadn’t reached their later level of superstardom, they would often hang around the stage after a majority of the crowd had dispersed to talk with the fans; they were all very friendly and mostly chatty — particularly Peter Buck — although predictably Michael Stipe was somewhat less forthcoming in his conversations (this was still mumbly Michael Stipe, not outspoken-spokesperson-for-his-generation Michael Stipe). Their accessibility and great shows hooked us in completely. As with all good things, it couldn’t last: I continued to be a huge fan for years after college, but R.E.M. finally started to lose me in the late ’90s. New Adventures in Hi-Fi, from 1996, is the last album I can say I really loved; after that, they just haven’t put out an album that’s really grabbed me enough to get to know it well, although I did find 2008’s Accelerate pretty enjoyable. And it shames me to say that I…I…okay, I’ll say it: I don’t even have, nor have I heard, their most recent album, Collapse into Now. Not that I won’t…I just haven’t, and it isn’t bothering me too much at the moment.
But long ago, when I first heard “Carnival of Sorts” in 1982 (pardon me if I just drop the parenthetical part of the title), I was taken by a need to hear more. Its haunting, reverberant sound — due in part to the somewhat lo-fi production of Mitch Easter and Don Dixon — was like a siren call. Thankfully, a like-minded high-school friend of mine who often seemed to find these things just before me lent me the Chronic Town EP on cassette. All five songs were incredible, so I immediately purchased the vinyl version myself, and the rest is history. I played it fairly constantly until the subsequent release of Murmur. “Carnival of Sorts” remained my favorite on the EP: it was immediate, incredibly catchy, and mysterious, yet still as approachable as the the band turned out to be after those shows. The cryptic lyrics add to its depth — I have trouble imagining that the EP would have been as fascinating if I knew everything Michael Stipe was saying or what it all meant. Sometimes having to figure these things out for yourself is half the fun, and makes the song your own in a way — I don’t think any two R.E.M. fans I know would have the same “translation” of those early songs, but we’d all be certain that we were right and that our attached meaning was the correct one. Then there’s the music, led by Peter Buck’s Byrds-y Rickenbacker guitar chiming away, underpinned by the energetic and melodic rhythm section of Mike Mills and Bill Berry. It’s all tightly played, yet ragged around the edges in a very good way — power pop of a very different variety. With the same basic tools of the trade that bands had been using since the earliest days of rock ‘n’ roll, R.E.M. brought something completely fresh to the song: it’s filled with an unpretentious drama that keeps you coming back for more.