Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Old Man Kensey

"There's more of a feeling of place on this record, a sense of home and a sense that we're not there." So said Peter Buck of Fables of the Reconstruction of the Fables.

Despite being one of the greatest quartets in the history of rock—and considering their competition (hello, Beatles), that's a pretty select group—in many ways, R.E.M. was instrumentally more like a power trio (albeit the least powerful of power trios). Whereas the Fabs and the Who and Led Zeppelin and the Clash and the Replacements all more or less followed (or, originally, set) the traditional guitar, bass, drums lineup and structure, R.E.M., like the Police and, later, Nirvana and Green Day, reimagined a band's musical architecture from the ground up. Rather than the guitar being clearly the most important instrument, R.E.M. (especially early R.E.M.) upended things, building songs around either the bass or the entire rhythm section, with the guitar contributing the kind of counterpoint the bass normally provides, standing, as the lyrics would have it, the conventional arrangement on its head.

Nowhere is that more obvious than on "Old Man Kensey." One of the only songs the band wrote well ahead of time—in fact, it first debuted on their previous "Reckoning" tour—"Old Man Kensey" is as atmospheric and mysterious as R.E.M. would ever get, and that's saying something. What's more, given that it was one of the first songs on the album to have been written, it can be seen as a key track, sonically.

It opens on Mike Mills' ominous bass. We'll soon realize that ominous mood is somewhat deceptive, as we haven't inadvertently stepped into a horror film. Rather, we're simply taking tea with an absolutely bizarre, disturbing family of outcasts, none of whom are actually violent, but who simply wish to be alone, taking no part in polite society. And good for them.

Peter Buck's guitar joins the scene, slightly metallic in tone, but a thousand lightyears from metal in approach, instead opting for minimalist lines with (in a very different context) a slightly country bent, albeit country as if Chet Atkins were playing a session for Brian Eno in a Chicago blues joint.

Almost immediately Bill Berry's drums come in, almost all primal drums, with almost the only cymbals being the awesome choice of using a trashy Chinese cymbal for a crash, emphasizing the outsider, folk art quality of the setting.

Michael Stipe enters, singing about...well, who the hell knows. Transcriptions abound on the internets and it's entirely possible they're right. But that's not important, other than Mike Mill's echoey backing vocals, singing "That's my folly." Is it a coincidence that that's one of the clearest lines of the entire track? Not likely.

Nor is it a coincidence that Stipe's plaintive "I'm ready to go" is another crystal clear line, but ironically so—rarely has a band sounded less ready to go, unless its not so much in the "ready and rarin' to go" sense, and more in the (as the Peter Buck quote makes plain) "ready to go home and crawl under the covers and never come out again." As with the entire album, their depression is our gain. 

The song glides along, a bridge lightening things ever so briefly, before returning to the humid status quo. One of the few time time signature changes in the entire R.E.M. oeuvre, with a weird shortened measure that also has a slight ritard, and we draw to a quiet close, things having not changed at all, still where we started, if a bit more unsettled than before.

This is what R.E.M. decided to close the first side of their third album with. (For comparison: their next two studio albums would end their first sides with "Underneath the Bunker" and "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)"). If one still requires yet more proof that this was a band in turmoil yet determined to go its own way, look no further.

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