Friday, September 4, 2015

Green Grow the Rushes
"Stay off that highway—word is it's not so safe."

Start with, as usual for R.E.M., the guitar. From their very first single, "Radio Free Europe," one of the band's trademarks was Peter Buck's arpeggios. While clearly owing a considerable debt to the Byrds, Buck put his own stamp on the simple broken chord technique. It was featured on song after song, and always effective, and the fact that Buck's skill grew considerably helped keep his style evolving, rather than growing stale. But with Fables of the Reconstruction of the Fables something else happened.

Buck had already begun writing riffs—in its earliest years, apparently most of the riffs, such as they were, were actually written by Mike Mills and taught to Buck. But on "Green Grow the Rushes," note how his broken chords straddle the line between simple arpeggios and actual riffs, until by the post-verse section of each song, as well as the chorus, it falls entirely on the riff side of the ledger. And yet, while clearly a riff, it's not any riff a Jimmy Page or Mick Ronson or Steve Gaines would ever have written, not in a million years. It can be hard for someone coming to R.E.M. for the first time to understand what the fuss is about, so greatly have their innovations, their personality been absorbed and regurgitated by later generations—and no whining, that's simply how popular culture works, and it's a sign of how great they were. But here's a band who's taken something as simple, as elemental, as fundamental to rock as a guitar riff and reimagined it, and how revolutionary is that? And who could imagine a song as unimposing as "Green Grow the Rushes" would be such an exemplar?

The rest of the song follows from there. Bill Berry's drumming is, as always, restrained yet driving. Listen to the way he closes the song out, at the end of the outro—for a drummer not usually noted for his jaw-dropping technique, his playing there wouldn't sound out of character for a Jeff Porcaro or Jim Keltner, and for a rock drummer, there may be little higher praise.

Michael Stipe has held "Green Grow the Rushes" up as perhaps his first overtly political song, but that it's hailed as such feels like rank revisionism to me. It's only thanks to Stipe's hidden hand that anyone thinks of the song as political in anyway:
I rewrote 'Green Grow the Rushes' two times – as 'The Flowers of Guatemala' and 'Welcome to the Occupation' – where I actually ghostwrote the bio that went out to the press, so that they would say that 'this is a song about American intervention in Central America.'" — Michael Stipe, 1989
In reality, the lyrics are Stipe's typical—and I don't mean that in anything approaching a derogatory sense—inexplicable, indecipherable melodious mumble, with only the title and the occasional random phrase jumping out at you. In fact, the one and only line that was every crystal clear to me was the one quoted up above: "Stay off the highway—word is it's not so safe." That incredibly threatening warning, the kind of advise given in a horror story (perhaps of a southern gothic nature), juxtaposed against the relatively benign, yet definitely not cheery, music chilled me to the bone, like finding yourself lost in the woods and stumbling upon a cabin where an old man gives you some water and a little food and casually mentions how no one's ever found out the things he did and it's only then you notice the bones scattered here and there.

In contrast, the backing vocals are among the most traditional the band had yet gone with. Unlike many other songs on the album, Stipe sings neither entirely alone nor with R.E.M.'s distinctive overlapping, unique vocal lines. Instead, Stipe is subtly double-tracked for most of the song, with Mills joining him only on the chorus for the third and final singing of the title each time, until the outro, when Mills and Berry take over singing the title, and Stipe begins singing a series of simple "la"s. But it's the function those las serve that is so interesting, as they essentially take the place a guitar solo would, were this another band's recording.

When one thinks of Fables of the Reconstruction of the Fables, one probably thinks of "Driver 8," or "Cant Get There from Here." Perhaps "Wendell Gee" or "Maps and Legends" or "Feeling Gravitys Pull." It's unlikely the first song to leap to mind is "Kohoutek" or "Auctioneer (Another Engine)" or "Green Grow the Rushes." They're not filler, none of them. But they're also not...well, they're not the first songs likely to leap to mind.

Which is fine. Any album, like any sports team, or any film, needs elements that aren't the ones that immediately grab you or that demand your attention. A team can't have nothing but 11 Jim Browns on offense, a film can't have nothing but "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship," and an album cannot consist of 8 "Thunder Road"s. It just doesn't work. You need the ebb to go along with the flow, the wane to accompany the wax.

And that's where a gem like "Green Grow the Rushes" comes in. Much of the second side of Fables is...well, let's say remarkably consistent. Some would claim monochromatic, or even boring, but such claimants would be greatly mistaken. But it's not inaccurate to say that fully 60% of the side is very much cut from a similar cloth.

"Green Grow the Rushes," Kohoutek" and "Good Advices" are all mid-tempo, atmospheric tracks which, while worthy in and of themselves, largely serve to limn the album's more obvious highlights. They keep the mood of the album flowing along nicely—no mean feat. They are full R.E.M.'s trademarks: punchy, melodic bass, tasteful, incisive drumming, murmured vocals only sporadically intelligible yet always featuring an exceedingly catchy melody line.

And yet it's "Green Grow the Rushes" that tipped Fables into the favorite category for me, in no small part because of its lesser—relative to the album's more famous songs—status. It's unquestionably second tier, even in the context of the LP, much less the band's larger oeuvre, and yet it's an immaculate little construct in of itself. That it's not regarded more highly speaks less of its own intrinsic quality and more of the insanely high standards of the rest of the band's catalog.

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