Monday, August 31, 2015

Life and How to Live It

A meandering Rickenbacker guitar plays at the outset, faint and distant, echoing through the studio. It sounds like the lonely notes that play over the opening credits of a movie or television show about to introduce us to someone, or something, solitary and secluded. It evokes emptiness and absence. And hangs out there like morning mist draped over that oh-so-familiar southern kudzu.

But then we're blasted out of it by that same guitar, now suddenly triple-timing it with a series of chords that are, stunningly, not only in a major key, but also, dare we say, kinda popp-ish?

This is how "Life and How to Live It" starts. And 15 seconds in we think, "Where in the hell is this song going?"

Where it's going is into R.E.M.'s deep reservoir of southern gothic yarnspinning, where we are about to become acquainted with the first of several strange figures that populate Fables, all of whom are disconnected from the linear world and, seemingly, from society itself. Soon enough we'll meet eccentric and mercurial Old Man Kensey, we'll learn about Lawyer Jeff and we'll see a tree farmer named Wendell Gee. All conjured out of the baroque central casting where Berry-Buck-Mills-Stipe always were so at ease to use as a playscape.

But first, with "Life and How to Live It," we'll meet an author who literally divides his house into two sides and takes turns living in each. And writes about it in an eponymously named book that no one will ever read.

Simple enough, huh? Hell, for early-era R.E.M., this practically passes for straight-on storytelling.

Burn bright through the night, two pockets lead the way
Two doors to go between, the wall was raised today
Two doors, two names to call your others and your own
Keep these books well stocked away and take your happy home

My carpenter's out and running about and talking to the street
My pockets are out and running about and barking to the street
To tell what I have hidden there

Burn bright through the night, two pockets lead the way
Two doors to go between the wall was raised today
Raise the wall and shout its flaws, the carpenter should rest
So that when you tire of one side the other serves you best

The hills listen hear the voice in time, listen to the holler
Listen to my walls within my tongue
Can't you see you made my ears go tin?
The air quicken tension building inference suddenly
Life and how to live it

Raise the wall and shout its flaws, the carpenter should rest
So that when you tire of one side other serves you best
Read about the wisdom wall, a knock-knock-knock
A secret knock, a hammer's locked, the other wisdom lost

My carpenter's out and running about, talking to the
Listen to the holler
My pockets are out and running about and barking in the street
To show what I have hidden there

Listen to the holler
If I write a book it will be called
Life and How to Live It

So. Now that that's cleared up!

What we hear in "Life and How to Live It" is a band from the south embracing it's southernness, but on their own terms. A band built in the tradition of storytelling telling a story, but on their own terms. And a band whose members were raised almost entirely on 1960s-70s rock-n-roll and pop—one of the first American rock bands to be able to say that—giving us their interpretation of what post-punk pop sounds like. Only, again, they do it on their terms.

Like the fable (there's that word again) of the blind men and the elephant, it can be what you and you alone think it is. There is no wrong answer and there really is no right answer. This songs sets an odd premise in motion and uses odd imagery and word placement ("...the air quicken tension building inference...") to roll it out. What you make of the finished product is up to you. That, to a tee, is "Life and How to Live It," and it also on a much larger basis what R.E.M. was all about from the start. And that is what makes this one of the most fascinating tracks not only on the record, but in their entire catalogue.

After all, what better way to tell an open-ended story than by having literally two different sides to it. So that, as the man said, "when you tire of one side the other serves you best."

We'd be remiss if we didn't quickly mention the musicianship on "Life and How to Live It," because all four of them just bring it on this track. From his opening arpeggio wrapped in mystery, Peter Buck is in command of his jaunty, very-nearly-but-just-not-quite pop guitar lead throughout. The interplay between him and Mike Mills' bass, particularly coming as as the "chorus" line ("My pockets are out and running about") heighten the pulse as the song propels along. Stipe's voice rings with confidence and manages to navigate some of the most offbeat phrasing of his career with particular aplomb (listen to how commanding he sounds on the "Read about the wisdom" lyric).

And as for Bill Berry, well...if you didn't know who was playing drums yet had a working knowledge of 1980s drummers, you just might think this was the work of another southern-based drumming prodigy who was rather huge at the time. As in Stewart Copeland.

It's almost taboo to compare rock drummers to Copeland because his playing style was so damn unique. But if you listen to what Berry does on this track—the razor's edge he cuts throughout, the resounding crack you hear when he hits the snare, the propulsive splash of the cymbals during the chorus and and that clipped, heightened urgency he lends from the moment he makes his entrance—is Stewart Copeland Incarnate.

"Life and How to Live It" is on its surface the epitome of a classic album deep track, buried on Side 1 on the LP and in between early pop nuggets like "Driver 8" and "Can't Get There From Here" on the CD. And the nice thing about deep tracks is they give the band room to roam, to stretch it out a bit and see where the mood and the story can take them.

With "Life and How to Live It" R.E.M. roams around plenty, and the journey takes them to that most familiar place. They sing about an oddball lifestyle and a life divided in two, but they also sing about their ability to bring something wholly unique to the table and to then leave it to the listener to sort out. It wasn't the first time and it wouldn't be the last time, but "Life and How to Live It" showcases this ability at its highest heights.

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