Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Certain Songs #1691: R.E.M. – “Pilgrimage” | Medialoper

Album: Murmur
Year: 1983

. . .

File Under Momentum

“Pilgrimage” just might be my favorite R.E.M. song.

One of my sillier rules is that the second song on an album is the one that tells you exactly how great that album is going to be. Anybody can do a killer lead-off track, but if the second track is as good or even better, then you know that it’s time to dig in and enjoy the record. And I defy you to come up with a second song on an any album that’s any better than “Pilgrimage.” I guess maybe “Bargain,” or “Sway.” Maybe.

Though ironically, it was probably one of the weird, slower songs that initially put me off that first time I listened to Murmur, which is, of course totally and completely insane in hindsight, because “Pilgrimage” is clearly an absolute fucking masterpiece, an object lesson in both dynamics and vocal arrangements.

Fading in from the far reaches of the universe after the bell-ringing end of “Radio Free Europe” you might initially wonder if your volume somehow got cut off, because at first, you really have to strain to hear Michael Stipe’s ghostly vocals singing “take a turn / take a turn / take a fortune” before Mike Mills overdubbed piano and vibraphone start doubling back on themselves over Bill Berry’s kick drum and some random percussion.

They called the club
The two-headed cow
Your hate, clipped and distant
Your luck with pilgrimage
Rest assured, this will not last
Take a turn for the worst
Your hate, clipped and distant
Your luck, a two-headed cow

There’s almost no guitar here at all: you really have to pay attention to realize that Peter Buck is playing the same thing as Mills. In fact, you really don’t hear the guitar at all until they start the chorus, with Berry finally providing a backbeat as Michael Stipe sings “Pilgrimaaaaage has gained momentum” accompanied by Berry’s amazing “thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-whappity-whap” drum fill right into the rest of the first chorus.

Take a turn
Take a turn
Take a fortune
Take a fortune

At this point, Peter Buck is fully engaged, jingling and jangling in the background during that first chorus only to disappear on the second verse, which is essentially the same as the first verse except that the first two lines are “Speak in tounges / It’s worth a broken look”.

Which is fine, because it’s the second chorus where Murmur becomes Murmur.

Lyrically, it’s exactly the same, but this time, Mike Mills and Bill Berry are all over it, harmonizing and ahhhhhing and singing response vocals as Buck jangles and jingles in the background.

Pilgrimage . . . has gained momentum

Take a turn (take a turn)
Take a turn (take a turn)
Take a fortune (take a turn)
Take a fortune

I’m not kidding when I say that from the second chorus forward, “Pilgrimage” is one of the most beautiful things ever recorded by anybody, period. A endless roundabout of voices and guitars and drums, each one perfectly placed for maximum effect. There’s even a bridge, which is utterly drenched in “ooooooooooooohhhhhs” and “ahhhhhhhhhhs” as Buck slashes on an acoustic guitar and Berry doubles his snare.

And they repeat that bridge twice, which sets up my favorite moment on Murmur: where the percussion that’s been darting in and out of the song — sounds like somebody banging on an upside-down plastic buckets, to be honest — goes utterly batshit crazy as Stipe sings one last “Pilgrimaaaaaage . . . has gained momennnnnntummmm” and they do one last extended chorus that I never ever want to end, I just want the to sing with and around each other forever.

I’m not doing it justice, I’m never doing it justice, but I can tell you that it is so powerful, so transcendent that I love it beyond understanding, measure and belief. I’m not kidding when I say that I’ve probably heard “Pilgrimage” hundreds if not thousands of times, and I’ve never even come close to getting to the bottom of it. It’s beyond time and space.

And while I was 20 fucking years old when Murmur came out, I was sure that I’d never ever heard anything that sounded so lovely and so powerful as “Pilgrimage,” and all of these years later, I’m not really sure I ever have.


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