Goddamn Your Confusion

I feel like “Pretty Persuasion” might be the Platonic ideal of an R.E.M. song.

Apparently this is not a new observation, as the Wikipedia page for the song informs me:

According to R.E.M. biographer Tony Fletcher, it is often regarded as “the ‘archetypal’ R.E.M. anthem”.

It’s got the jangly guitars, Peter Buck’s trademark arpeggio style. It’s got Mike Mills’ clean droning backup vocals. It’s got Michael Stipe at his most oblique. And Bill Berry does what he does, which is to serve the song and squeeze in the tightest of drum fills.

It’s also got mystery, in spades. You can find lyrics online and you can read the aforementioned Wikipedia page to get a hot take on what the song means. At this stage of their career, R.E.M.’s songs didn’t mean anything specific–they meant whatever the listener heard. I think that was intentional, and while late-era R.E.M. cleaned up Stipe’s vocals and even gave us printed lyric sheets, there was still the mystery of meaning itself. Stipe’s a poet; what did his words conjure in your brain? Where did they take you? What did they mean?

“Pretty Persuasion” is a deep bright hole of meaning; you bring only what you carry and you find only what you seek. That’s what I love about R.E.M., especially their earliest work. We shouldn’t even bother discussing what any of their songs are “about” because they’re not about any one thing. They’re about anything. You decide.

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Son, Take A Good Look Around

Elvis Costello may have summed it up best: “Home is anywhere you hang your head.”

Many of us grapple with where we came from. It’s the idea of “home” that incorporates just the family and geography we inherit through birth. It’s your hometown.

But it’s not your “home.” Home is really where we hang our heads–it’s where we find comfort in our lives, whatever that means. (Or to continue Elvis’ train of thought, where we feel most comfortable feeling sorry for ourselves.)

Becoming an adult often means disconnecting from the “hometown” where you grew up, with all its memories and assholes and resentments; and finding the “home” you create yourself, from your spouse, your kids, your friends. Springsteen’s songwriting career has charted that journey from the north Jersey gothic of the home he escaped from (“Independence Day”) to the warm, loving embrace of the home he’s created with his wife and kids (“This Life”).

It’s such a universal journey, and Springsteen fills it with the kind of specifics that you know are emerging from his own experiences. It’s entwined with his songs about fathers, about his own father and being a father, but it’s a distinct thread of its own. It’s central to what I think Springsteen means through his meaning, if that doesn’t sound too rockcrit claptrappy–that our personal and political lives, our insides and our outsides, our “home” and the community where we make our homes are all inextricably linked.

So he can sing about loss in “My City Of Ruins,” and it can express his grief over the death of close friends, but at the same time, it can detail his sorrow over the death of American dreams as foreclosures stripmined his hometown of hope.

It’s rattling around my brain as I confront my own family issues, drawing clearer lines between my home and my hometown. You can’t always disconnect from that hometown; it stalks you and nips at your heels and draws blood. But if you’re lucky, you can at least find a little stake of ground to call home, where you feel at peace and in control, and where you can stand stable and strong and loved. It’s the spot behind the wheel of that big old Buick, not whatever’s happening outside its windows.