It’s been 40 years since four guys from Athens played a birthday party in a crumbling church and began a journey that would lead to R.E.M. becoming one of the greatest American rock bands of all time. And if you’re of a certain age, you probably fondly remember those early days, full of youthful, spit in yer eye energy and maddeningly undecipherable lyrics presented with a coy smile and an Elvis hip swing. Or maybe you came along later after “Losing My Religion” turned our indie darlings into MTV powerhouses for a while. But for me, my heart belongs to the later things, the quiet ones that I discovered while a teenager in the early 2000s.
I see today with a newsprint fray
My night is colored headache grey
Don’t wake me with so much.
The normal routine doesn’t exist now. We’re in between times (out of time some might say). Every day is melting into the next like a fever dream. We’re staring into the middle distance with the news of the world in our palms, updating our nightmares in real time. People are being traumatized with every new dawn and the future seems an impossible task. But there’s a tendency in times of sorrow to gravitate towards the things you loved when you were a child. You find some comfort in the familiar sounds of youth. Revisiting that sonic well and borrowing that strength from your younger self becomes necessary to move on. To dream. To hope for a tomorrow.
I’ve found myself re-listening to my own R.E.M. “holy trio” of New Adventures, Up, and Reveal. Of the three, Up was the most inscrutable to me. It starts with a subdued electronic bit, rams full force into a slinky, jerky “Lotus” and then back into these mid-tempo melodies about various sad sacks and their issues. There’s not much there for a thirteen year old to relate to. But I’m lying on the floor, staring at the ceiling at thirty-two and whispering “holy shit” to myself as Stipe’s lyrics lay out not only where I’ve been but where I could go.
Open the window
And lift into your dreams
you can barely breathe.
What do you do when your entire world has been thrown off its axis? When the people you’ve come to love and depend on and collaborate with are suddenly half a world away? For R.E.M., the only option was to move forward without Bill Berry. Better writers than I have covered this transition period for the band (and the music that resulted) but for all the anxiety and sense of unease that Up puts off, it brings me a certain peace in the grey area we all find ourselves.
Rolling Stone’s review of Up touched on “the sometimes mystical, sometimes desperate solitude enforced by the crowded anonymity of modern life.” I’ve found myself drowning in this record, picking apart the little lyrics and motifs of separation that have been weaved into my own machine. The music is lush and spacious to the point of being overwhelming, like an open beach where you dare not walk for fear of understanding how tiny you really are compared to the ocean. It’s where we are now, all alone together. An entire planet put on pause, save those unfortunate enough to have to deal with everything head on, every moment of every day.
You want to climb the ladder
You want to see forever
You want to go out Friday
And you want to go forever.
And you want to cross your DNA
To cross your DNA with something reptile.
And you’re questioning the sciences
And questioning religion
You’re looking like an idiot
And you no longer care.
We’re in solitude by deliberate choice and unfortunate circumstance. Much like the characters of Up, we’re lonely and questioning everything from religious beliefs to scientific studies. There’s a tension throughout the entire record, Up vs Down, Religion vs Science, and on and on, but it never gets fully resolved. Up is a liminal space, meant to be passed through, a place to transfer or transform. It is an airport, an empty garage, an elevator with no one else on it. The record is thrown into the air like a ball being juggled and instead of coming down it just . . . hangs there. And it is supposed to. The release, the next thing, the movement will all come later. But for now all is suspended in time and place.
Here in Athens many of us are on our third and fourth weeks of physical exile from the places and people we hold dear. There are times when we want to throw open our doors and scream in sheer despair. We mourn those we’ve already lost. We mourn those we’ve yet to lose. We mourn our ways of life and mourn our collective and ingrained ignorance that led to this point. It seems overly dramatic because it IS overly dramatic. It’s the most dramatic thing most of us have ever had to deal with and it is overwhelming. And if this were where we stopped, there would be nothing left of any of us.
But it’s not. We will not stop here. Here is just a pause, another uncomfortable but necessary liminal space. Our place between one way of living and another. It is not easy. It is not to be taken lightly. But it will resolve somehow. There is a tomorrow. There is a way forward. There is a way up.