Wednesday, December 3, 2014

R.E.M.'s "Country Feedback" = U2's "One." Really?

 Yes. Really.

So Scott recently sent me an email entitled “R.E.M. = U2.”

And the first line read, “'Country Feedback’ = their “'One.’”

At first I wondered if he’d been drinking, which was unlikely.

Then I wondered if I’d been drinking. Which was all but a certainty. But then I am getting off-topic.

But really, at first I thought he was nuts. “One” equaling “Country Feedback?” In terms of quality and import? The two tracks being similar enough to equate their places in the band’s respective (and expansively amazing) catalogues?

“One” and “Country Feedback,” essentially brothers of other mothers? Impossible!

Or was it?

I mean, sure, for all their differences the bands have run remarkably similar paths. They are arguably (not here, of course—here there is [almost] no argument) the two greatest bands of their generation, as well as the two most important and successful of that same era. Both had big personalities out front—no one in the game is as big as Bono in that sense, but Michael Stipe has surely (and surprisingly) become one of rock’s more outspoken and articulate spokespeople over the last 30 years, making a rather shocking transition from his days as a shy, barely audible art student. And both emphasized the band as a unit, more than the personalities within it, better than any band since The Beatles. R.E.M. and U2 are filled with talented and innovative band members, but the band always always always comes first. Berry-Buck-Mills-Stipe and Bono-Clayton-Edge-Mullen Jr. are inseparable forces that make R.E.M. and U2 what they are.

There are plenty of more similarities from two bands that really came to be rock’s standard bearers in the 1980s and beyond. Monstrous albums, a commitment to sound and style that really remained unwavering and identifiable throughout (you know the sound of an R.E.M. or U2 song—you just do) and ability to keep evolving yet staying true to their roots and core mission.

There were differences as well, of course. They sound very little alike, even as they both fall so decidedly into the rock-n-roll genre. R.E.M.’s sound was firmly rooted in their southern backgrounds and leaned as much on the Byrds and other folk-rock ancestors as their beloved post-punk peers and punk-era forerunners. Meanwhile U2 emerged from Ireland birthed by both the new wave-crazed British movements of the late 1970s as well as the same blues heroes who inspired like the likes of Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, and blended it with unbending political intuition and a certain Catholic stridence. In the case of both bands, these innovative and unique backgrounds and influences—Southern Gothic with punk leanings, Celtic Fire with blues leanings—created their sound and made them who they are.

So all of that is good, great, super. Their best albums (War, The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby and Murmur, Document and Automatic For the People) from their first decade or so all belong, at the very least, on any Top 100 of all time list, likely much higher than that. Both bands hit and hit and hit. And they did it almost in direct parallel to each other, at least until Bill Berry left R.E.M. in 1997.

But back to the initial premise here. “Country Feedback” being the R.E.M. equivalent of “One?” And vice versa? What the who?!

In this corner we have “One.” A modern epic from Achtung Baby that easily stands as one of the five best songs U2 ever did. Even its title—“One”—seems huge and important. It was a radio and video success. Peripheral fans and hardcores hold it in similar reverence, and my guess is it remains one of the first songs you think of when you think of U2. At least I do, and I don’t think I’m alone.

And in this corner you have “Country Feedback,” the penultimate track from R.E.M.’s Out of Time album that came out the same year as Achtung Baby (1991). It practically has a working title – “Country Feedback” just screams “placeholder,” doesn’t it? Obscure and oblique, it had virtually no radio or video presence and is known mostly to just the hardcores. Yet…hmm…among those hardcore fans, list after list of R.E.M.’s finest songs always seem to include “Country Feedback” way up at the tippety top of the best the band ever did.

So there is that similarity. Hmm. Hmmm. Let’s look further.

Both songs sound wholly unique for their respective bands. Both abandon the trademark sound of each—“One” loses the reverb, “Country Feedback" loses the jangle—and instead goes the quiet, more introspective route. And both belie the larger sounds that surround them on their albums—“One” has none of the heavy industrial pulse that beats through so much of Achtung Baby, while “Country Feedback” loses the mandolin and genteel breeziness that dominated so much of Out of Time. So there’s another one.

Here’s yet another, this one a huge one. Both songs start quiet but quickly, declaring their intentions from the first 15-20 seconds. And both songs keep building, building, building to something much bigger, grander than their hushed beginnings indicate at the outset. “One” soars louder and higher, “Country Feedback” keeps gaining dirge-like menace as it plods along. And most important, neither ever break down in the middle only to start again (like, say, two of their other greatest songs, “Losing My Religion” and “Bad” do) and neither ever retreats to the quieter beginnings. Both songs end high and big—“One” with Bono’s melodic howling, “Country Feedback” with Peter Buck and Mike Mills filling the studio with the funereal moan of the guitar and organ. Both songs end and almost literally the opposite place where they began.

And here’s one more, which convinced me that Scott’s initial assertion of the equivalencies of these two songs was, in fact, right on the money. (Whereas initially I thought he was nuts). Both songs are dominated, first and foremost, by the vocals. Which is odd for two songs instilled with such precise and intricate musicianship.

But “One” is Bono’s forum and “Country Feedback” is Stipe’s. I have talked about the epic nature of “One” and I mean it, but it felt funny declaring something that runs only 4:36 as “epic” in the rock oeuvre. After all we’re talking about a category that has longplay standards like “Free Bird” and “Hotel California” leading the “epic” parade, right?

Not really. Had “One” added an extended intro and outro, sure, it would have fit easily into the same six-minute-plus form as those two songs. But that would have defeated its purpose. “One” is about the vocal and needs to have the vocal as its center. “Free Bird” and “Hotel California” each feature wonderful vocal turns from Ronnie Van Zant and Don Henley, respectively. But is either the first thing you think of when you think of those songs? Or are you more aware of Gary Rossington’s gorgeous minute-long slide lead in and Allen Collins’ mindblowing five-minute finishing solo? The same applies to the dueling guitar work Joe Walsh and Don Felder offer at the beginning and end of “Hotel California.” Those guitars, in both songs, are the set-pieces, despite the awesome vocals.

In “One” it begins and ends with Bono. While Henley and Van Zant take on either side of a minute to start singing in their songs and finish up several minutes before the end of the songs, Bono first shows up a mere 14 seconds into “One” and stays virtually until the end. His plaintive lyrics—fracture and loss and who we are and what we do to each other – take hold for more than four minutes of a song that runs just 4:36. (Conversely, Henley is only heard for about 3 ½ minutes of the 6:30 “Hotel California,” and Van Zant only 3:45 of an almost 10-minute “Free Bird.”) Perhaps more than any song in U2’s magnificent canon, “One” belongs to Bono, and showcases his voice as instrument better than any.

The same can be said for Stipe in “Country Feedback.” His singing starts in the first 10 seconds and keeps up, becoming more and more desperate by the second and remains, pretty much, until nearly the end. He is still heard moaning a “Crazy what you could have had” as the song winds to its discordant and unsettling close. Like “One,” the backing music is mesmerizing and superior. But this is Stipe’s show. I cannot think of an R.E.M. song where Stipe is more in command, more out there in front and overpowering, than “Country Feedback.”

And again, the song runs just 4:10, nowhere near the traditional “epic” length as mentioned above. Sure, it could have been. It could have started murkier, with 30-40 seconds of lead-in, and it could have stretched out at the end to the six-minute mark if it had to. But why? “Country Feedback” accomplishes all it needs to accomplish in its tight 4:10 time-frame. Just like “One.”

“Country Feedback” shows an entirely different direction for the band, just like “One.”

“Country Feedback” builds and builds and never comes back down. Just like “One.”

“Country Feedback” is a part of a groundbreaking album that launched the band in the 1990s. Just like “One.”

“Country Feedback” is an epic experiment in understated, unnerving lyrics that allows its singer to stretch his range and let his voice become the very embodiment of the words he is singing. Just like “One.”

And lastly, “Country Feedback” stands easily among the very best songs R.E.M. ever did. Just like “One” does for U2.

“Country Feedback” is R.E.M.’s equivalent to U2’s “One.”

Scott was right.

Scott. Was right.

Damndest thing, huh?

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