Saturday, November 23, 2019

Certain Songs #1687: R.E.M. – “Wolves, Lower” | Medialoper

Album: Chronic Town EP
Year: 1982

File Under Suspicion

So let’s begin the begin.

I may have read about R.E.M. prior to opening up the issue of Trouser Press that contained a flexi-disc that had “Wolves, Lower” on one side and the Lords of The New Church “Russian Roulette” — after all, the original Hib-Tone” Radio Free Europe” single came out in 1981 to some critical acclaim — but I sure hadn’t heard them.

I’d only recently become a subscriber to Trouser Press magazine, though I’d been buying it from the newsstand since 1979, as their focus was on the punk and post-punk music that was rocking my world in the early 1980s, and while they weren’t as wild as Creem, as august as Rolling Stone, as cerebral as Musician, that focus more than made up for it.

And it was kind of cool they were letting me actually hear some of the music they were excited about. Even if both artists on the flexi happened to record for I.R.S. records. So I put it on. And while “Russian Roulette” was fine — I’ve always preferred “New Church” or “Holy War” — it was “Wolves, Lower” what totally blew me away.

All of the this guitars jangling away gave me instant flashes of The Byrds, who I’d spent much of 1982 fully discovering, but it was also incredibly modern-sounding. More of a band. What made the Byrds unique was the sound of Roger McGuinn’s 12-string guitar and the exquisite vocal harmonies.

But on “Wolves, Lower,” the 12-string guitar and vocal harmonies were just the beginning of what was going on with that song. R.E.M. was a fully integrated band: each person utterly crucial to what was happening in their music, and it was that way from the get-go. So while I was looking for The Byrds, what I got was so much more: music I’d been waiting my whole life — which to be honest, was only 20 years, I know — to hear.

Check: “Wolves, Lower” opens with the sound of Peter Buck’s 12-string circling around itself like liquid gold, while Bill Berry pummels his kick drum. Then as Mike Mills starts playing counter melodies on his bass, Michael Stipe does a weird strangled “AHHHH” and a few seconds later, starts singing.

And I don’t know what the fuck he’s saying, but here’s what I’ve learned to sing along with.

Suspicion yourself, suspicion yourself, don’t get caught
Suspicion yourself, suspicion yourself and let us out
While the lower wolves
Here’s a house to put
Wolves at the door

OK. Time out. Let’s us now address the wolf at the door: Michael Stipe’s lyrics, and the enunciation thereof. What I just wrote there is somewhat different than what the internet tells me he sang. And so what: the point was how beautiful that voice and the other two voices — Mills & Berry — sound singing over, under, sideways and down each other.

What a sound! But before we get to that, let’s talk about Bill Berry’s drumming on “Wolves, Lower.” Check out his weird drum fills on the verses: at the first half of each line, he’s building, and on the second half, he’s practically harmonizing with fills as Stipe sings “don’t get caught,” adding emphasis to the sound while also distracting from the actual words.

That said, he lays back on the long, long chorus.

In a corner garden
While the lower whyyyyyy
(House in order) Ah-ha-ah-hahhhhh
(House in order) Ah-ha-ah-hahhhhh
(House in order) Ah-ha-ah-hahhhhh
(House in order) Ah-ha-ah-hahhhhh
Don’t live around me a long street to run

Once again, there’s so much going on here: Peter Buck’s twisty arpeggios that introduce nearly every line; the exquisite way that Berry & Mills sing “house in order,” the way the bury Stipe way down deep so that I’m still guessing at what he’s singing at the end, and even the way it immediately goes to the second verse, which is pretty close to the first verse, absent some small changes.

Two-thirds of the way of “Wolves, Lower,” there’s a weird, dissonant freak-out: Buck slashing at his guitar, Berry randomly slapping his drums, Mill bending his bass around his back. It’s like they’re either trying to call the wolves or send them away. Either way, they’re back to the jangle so fast, it almost seems like a dream; it’s weird and surprising every time.

And so, I loved “Wolves, Lower” so much and so instantly that I went out and bought Chronic Town the day after I turned 20, because I needed to hear more of this, stat. It was one of the greatest musical things I ever did for myself. But more on that tomorrow.

“Wolves, Lower”

“Wolves, Lower” Official Video (muddy sound)

“Wolves, Lower” live in Raleigh, 1982

“Wolves, Lower” live in Dublin, 2007

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