Sunday, December 8, 2019

Certain Songs #1699: R.E.M. – “HarborcOat” | Medialoper

Album: Reckoning
Year: 1984

. . .

File Under R-E-A-C-T

How do you follow up an album like Murmur? How do you follow up one of the greatest debut albums of all time?

In R.E.M.’s case, they decided to take their next batch of songs, walk into Reflection Sound Studios and just bang ’em out, wham wham wham! And so Reckoning was straightforward where Murmur was elusive, effusive where Murmur was reflective and — to me, at least — was kind of ground zero for their sound, especially in concert, where they were always far more rockin’.

I should point out that this is kind of backwards: usually a band’s first album is indicative of their stage act, and after that, they start experimenting in the studio. Compare My Generation or With The Beatles to what came later. And in fact, history is littered with bands who put out a mighty debut and never quite got near it with any of the follow-ups. But this wasn’t to be R.E.M.’s fate, as Reckoning came roaring out of the gate showing all of its cards with “Harborcoat,” which explodes with a quick Bill Berry drum roll and bright, shiny Peter Buck guitar chords.

“Harborcoat” was definitely more rocking and ragged than anything on Murmur, while at the same time more sophisticated than anything on Chronic Town. Still, it was still recognizably R.E.M., right down to the unrecognizable lyrics, which heard as:

The crowd turned to metal with their noses worn out
A handshake is worthy if it’s all that you got
Metal shivs on wood, pushed ’em on back
There’s a splinter in your eye and it reads react

As usual, there is a lot going on here: not only is Peter Buck responding to every line with a gallumphing guitar riff, Bill Berry is continually changing his beats, especially on his hi-hat in the second half of each verse, where he doubles up while keeping his near-disco kick-snare pattern moving every forward.

Things get even weirder in the second verse: Mike Mills starts singing his own lead vocals, a la the Velvet Underground’s “The Murder Mystery,” making it even harder to parse what Stipe is saying – “we did do subvertics with the miniskirt out” what? — but also goes to just how much confidence Murmur had given them, especially on the chorus, sung again by both Stipe and Mills, but I’ve only ever

Set up with some jangly guitar scrapes and swirls, the chorus of “Harborcoat” is an absolutely “hey everybody, it’s all going to be fine” moment, pure uncut R.E.M. to inject directly into your veins, accompanied by a sigh of recognition.

Please finddddddd myyyyyy harrrboooorrcoat
Can’t go outisde with-ouuuuu-wooowwwwww-it
Finnnnnnnnd myyyyy harrrboooorrcoat
Can’t go outisde with-ouuuuu-wooowwwwww-it

As to what Mike Mills is singing here, outside of “harborcoat,” I have no clue, though I do remember him saying on Twitter that during his counterpoints, he wrote his own words. Meanwhile, on the bridge, there’s some almost dissonant guitar and Stipe blows on a harmonica because why the fuck not at this point.

There’s also a really cool point on the third verse — same as the first, of course — where after Stipe sings “there’s a splinter in your eye and it reads react” he follows it up with the aside “r-e-a-c-t”, just in case you didn’t know how it was spelled. There’s no real need for it, I guess, but it’s both fun and funny at the same time.

All in all, for those of us who were worried that Murmur was going to be unfollowupable, “Harborcoat” went a long way towards assuaging those fears. And it was only just the beginning.


“Harborcoat” live in Passaic, 1984

“Harborcoat” live in Germany, 1985

“Harborcoat” live in Dublin, 2007

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