Thursday, December 12, 2019

Certain Song #1703: R.E.M. – “camerA” | Medialoper

Album: Reckoning
Year: 1984

. . .

File Under Remember

Out of all of the songs of Reckoning, “camerA” was initially the most difficult for me to grok at first. After all, not only was it a slow one, it was well over five minutes, and kinda sad-sounding to boot, a bit jarring when compared to the mostly up-tempo rockers that dominated Reckoning.

That said, it wasn’t like it was a return to the lushness of Murmur; indeed, not only was “camerA” sad and slow, it was also sparse, starting off with just Mike Mills and Michael Stipe — not even a guitar riff — and Bill Berry clacking his rims.

From the inside room
When your front room green becomes your special book
It was simple then
When the party lull
If we fall by the side
Will you be remembered?
Will she be remembered?

As it turns out, the “she” in the song was Carol Levy, a friend of the band and ex of Stipe’s who’d taken the photo on the back of the original Hib-Tone “Radio Free Europe” single. In the spring of 1983, the night after Murmur was released, Levy was killed in a car crash. And “camerA” is for her.

Once again, I didn’t know any of this for a very long time, instead what ended up getting me was the chorus, rising on shiny, swelling Peter Buck chords and a straightforward Berry backbeat.

Alone in a crowd
A borrowed lantern borrowed
If I’m to be your camera
Who will be your film?

The first time around, it’s just Stipe singing this alone in a crowd, but the second time, there are exquisite “ahhhhhhhhhhhhsss” in the background, as well as a lovely Mike Mills bass hook, and it is utterly overwhelming. And as someone who would often go to concerts by himself, and stand in the back drinking beer and just watching the bands, “alone in a crowd” had an extra bit of resonance to me.

Of course, when I started going to shows and taking pictures, I realized the that was kind of a photographer’s lot: being alone in a crowd.

Also alone: Peter Buck’s guitar solo halfway through the song. Buck never took many guitar solos — it just wasn’t his thing — so his tentative, meandering solo halfway through added an extra level of weirdness to the proceedings, though luckily he was saved by Stipe coming in and singing the first verse again.

Apparently, because so much of “camerA” was sparse, Mitch Easter wanted to get a take where Stipe sang it technically “better,” but Stipe was having none of that, preferring the rawness of emotion and sadness over everything else, and in the end, Stipe won out.

There’s also a weird short fake funk — fauxnk!! — instrumental at the end of the track of “camerA,” with Stipe exhorting “come on, you got it” that’s over in an instant, but was clearly meant to clear the air of the accumulated sadness and set you up for the next song, which was also an anomaly for R.E.M. But we’ll get to that tomorrow.


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