Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Maps and Legends

One thing that gripped me on a recent re-listen of Fables of the Reconstruction is the overpowering sense of uncertainty that exists throughout the album, this idea of being out of place, even lost.

It's stated over and over again ("We can reach our destination, but it's still a ways away" from "Driver 8," "Stay off that highway, word is it's not so safe" from "Green Grow the Rushes," "I'd like it here if I could leave and see you from a long way away" from "Good Advices" ). Along with pretty much every inch of "Cant Get There From Here."

And for a band that was admittedly the proverbial fish out of water during the often grueling Fables recording sessions, plucked from their Athens, GA comfort zone and thrown into a foreign studio in London with a foreign[ish] producer in (the extremely Britishized American transplant) Joe Boyd, such a sense of placelessness seems to make perfect sense.

Never more so than on "Maps and Legends," the eerie travelogue which spotlights the haunt and the hunt of those roads taken and not taken. If Fables has a true declarative statement it may be found in the ominous, only partly audible warning that repeats throughout this mesmerizing track: "Is he to be reached? He's not to be reached."

Everything about "Maps and Legends" seems to be a bit askew, right from the very first notes where Mike Mills' bass starts three notes ahead of everyone else, like someone in a rush to get to some place but has no idea where. We basically have two chords that follow throughout, leaning heavily in the minor, and this feeling of overarching darkness rides along at each stop of these strange, unfamiliar roads. Michael Stipe's voice is characteristically (for this period, anyway) hard to decipher, yet the low, baroque quality is perfectly suited to the lyrics. Which are typically open for interpretation and based much more on feel than they are on any kind of straight narrative.

Called the fool and company
From his own where he'd rather be
Where he ought to be, he sees what you can't see
Can't you see that?

Maybe he's caught in the legend
Maybe he's caught in the mood
Maybe these maps and legends 
Have been misunderstood

Down the way the road's divided
Paint me the places you've seen
Those who know what I don't know
Refer to the yellow, red and green

The map that you painted didn't seem real
He just sings whatever he's seen
Point to the legend, point to the east
Point to the yellow, red and green

Fascinating here that Stipe (or the lyricist, which may have been him and may have been any of the other three members, depending on whom you ask and when you ask it), leaves the driving to someone else, so to speak. Despite the map of the title and the focus the song has on a journey, there is no direction to it. Lines like "He sees what you can't see" and "Paint me the places you've seen," not to mention the foundational assertion that "maybe these maps and legends have been misunderstood" imply an almost intentional lack of focus. "I don't know where we going, but we're going."

Years after this song and record were released, and years and after R.E.M. hit it big, Stipe told a Rolling Stone interviewer that he wondered if the true spirit of Jack Kerouac, and those romantic road aspirations he brought to the fore starting in the 1950s, weren't living now within rock-n-roll bands, on all those seemingly endless journeys in vans and buses across America to the next potential gig. "Maps and Legends," not unlike it's wordier and more jaunty step-cousin from the previous Reckoning, "Little America," shows just how strong the wanderlust can be, just how powerful the desire for motion can be. Even when one has no clue where to go or why to go there.

I always count "Maps and Legends" as an example of R.E.M. clicking on all cylinders. The musicianship is undeniable; there's a soulful quality to Stipe's voice that shows the singer evolving a bit. Listen to those robust chords from Peter Buck, the pulsing rhythm that Mills and Bill Berry provide, the odd, almost inaudible backing vocals singing who the hell knows what at various parts of the song, and then, at the wordless bridge, listen again to the way Berry echoes Stipe's tuneful moaning with a beat that hesitates, slows and finally kicks back in full-force. Like a driver slowly down, searching for the right place to turn.

But it's the atmospheric urgency—something of a contradiction that shouldn't work and yet by god surely does—that truly makes "Maps and Legends" a standout track, in 1985 and still today. No one knows where the narrator is headed as the final "he's not to be reached" hits at the end. But we know he's on his way. And we sure as hell feel inclined to go along for the ride with him.

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