Friday, September 11, 2015

Auctioneer (Another Engine)

What is at the other end I don't know 
Another friend, another wife, another morning spent

Although the automobile gets the most press, the train has been a central image of rock and roll since its very earliest days, with Elvis Presley's haunting yet triumphant cover of Junior Parker's "Mystery Train" and Chuck Berry's joyously ambitious "Johnny B. Goode," up through the Rolling Stones' rapacious yet amazing cover of Robert Johnson's "Love in Vain" and even the punk-pop perfection of The Clash's "Train in Vain." It's not exactly surprising, given the earliest rock and roll tended to be made by poor, largely rural artists, for whom trains were often a way of life—if not the traveling on, then the driving rhythms and long, low lonesome whistle.

It's also not surprising trains would appeal to the defiantly outsider southern R.E.M., even if there's a certain humorous irony in it figuring so prominently in the first album they recorded outside their native south. There's a literal and figurative power to the train in American folklore and history, and it's been argued that the sound of the train was a large factor in first the blues shuffle and later rock and roll's related rhythms. Naturally, then, "Auctioneer (Another Engine)" would bear absolutely no resemblance to the blues and instead be the closest the post-punk band would ever come to an outright punk song.

The pounding four on the floor throughout most of the song is closer to a Black Flag song than any of the other classic rock train songs, and much more aggressive than any other song on Fables of the Reconstruction of the Fables, even the acidic "Feeling Gravitys Pull"—in fact, it's the second fastest song the band would ever record, and an odd, jarring filling between its two far more sedate and seemingly introspective neighbors to either side, "Kahoutek" and "Good Advices."

And yet. This is R.E.M., so naturally things aren't quite what they seem. For all its sonic fury, the lyrics betray the same concerns Stipe's been wrestling with for the entire album.
She didn't want to get pinned down by her prior town
Get me to the train on time, here, take this nickel, make a dime
Take this penny and make it into a necklace when I leave
What is at the other end I don't know, another friend
Another wife, another morning spent
Looked at out of context, one would expect this to be a typically moody, atmospheric R.E.M. number, especially given that it's on Fables of the Reconstruction of the Fables. And yet, of course, it's just the opposite. And yet, if one looks past the speed and focuses on the themes, one sees how it relates to the tracks which bookend it:
Home is a long way away
I'd like it here if I could leave and see you from a long way away
At least it's something you've left behind—like Kohoutek, you were gone
Fever built a bridge, reason tore it down
R.E.M. went on to make better albums, but not even the great and powerful Automatic for the People was more unified tonally, and that's an under-appreciated trait. Also, as this song and their earliest shows show, it turns out R.E.M. might have made a half-decent punk band. But it's probably for the best that they didn't go further in that direction and chose a very different route instead.

Listen to the bargain holler

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