Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Cant Get There From Here

 Back in the day 30 years ago when it was still mostly LPs and tapes, Side 2 of Fables of the Reconstruction kicked off with a song like none other R.E.M. would ever do. "Cant Get There From Here," with its country stomp, funky strut and honking horns, is and was sui generis in the band's vast catalogue, from the descending crash of the four notes which opened it to the loose, lingering end ("Thank you Ray").

And Lord was it polarizing. R.E.M. hardcores, and that's really all we had back in 1985, had been weened on "So. Central Rain" and "Talk About the Passion" and "Laughing," and many of them greeted "Cant Get There From Here" as if they'd been serenaded by aliens. One early(ish) book about R.E.M. called it unequivocally the worst song they ever did. And lest we forget, the song was the album's first single and charted higher than any other R.E.M. had up to that point, so the first, faint cries of "Sell out!" began to bubble up here and there.

But you know what? Screw all that. "Cant Get There From Here" is one hell of a fun ride. Thematically it was another sideways travelogue of R.E.M.'s limitless sojourns around this great land of ours, this time paying particular attention to a place on the map known as Philomath (it's in Georgia and, honestly, is one hell of a melodic name). To that end the song isn't that different from, say, "Little America," which seems to lend "Cant Get There From Here" some of its roadsy roots as well as lyrical ancestry:

Lighted in the anvil yard,
Green shell back, green shell back.
Skylight, sty-tied, nero pie-tied
In tree tar black brer sap.

—"Little America," 1984

Hands down, Calechee bound, land-locked, kiss the ground,
The dirt of seven continents going round and round,
Go on ahead Mr. City Wide, hynotized, suit and tied,
Gentlemen, testify.

—"Cant Get There From Here," 1985

It's the style that's completely different. "Little America" is a pure post-punk rocker, probably the most flat-out rock song they would do until 1986's Lifes Rich Pageant came awash in them. "Cant Get There From Here" was mindless country joy, the first song they did that used horns and the first time Michael Stipe truly let loose with his vocals, yawping out yowls at the start of each chorus and adding some marbles to his traditional warble. (Sorry for that one).

The rest of the band is along for the ride on this one; (save for Mike Mills, whose dominant bass is close to a John Entwistle impression, particularly on the fills) Peter gives us a nice scratchy rhythm line and, yep, gets all jangly with it at the end of each verse, and Bill lends some bristling cymbal work while keeping time as steady as the clickety-clack of a train. But this is the song where Michael airs it out, making good on the promise he started to make on "Driver 8" and "Life and How to Live It" and emerging as a true, bona fide rock-n-roll front man for the first time ever (though nowhere near the last).

"Cant Get There From Here" is pokey, punchy fun from start to finish (as is the video, where the band actually prints some lyrics on the screen, dons giant duck-heads and, get this, smiles a few times!). It sounds like nothing else on the album, yet still manages to fit the narrative of bringing us this southern experience. Lawyer Jeff and Brother Ray have their own place in all of this, just like Old Man Kensey and Wendell Gee do. It's the way that its presented that's wholly unique, a trick R.E.M. loved to play throughout its 31 years of existence. Maybe because they were so damn good at it.

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