Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Certain Songs #1721: R.E.M. – “Exhuming McCarthy” | Medialoper

Album: Document
Year: 1987

. . .

File Under Acumen

Hey kids, that sound you hear at the beginning of “Exhuming McCarthy” was made by a thing called a “typewriter,” which basically was a computer keyboard where the monitor was made out of paper instead of pixels.

Out of the clacking of the typewriter comes another R.E.M. faux-soul song, along the lines of “Can’t Get There From Here,” but somehow even weirder, at least in terms of musical structure. At first, it’s a mid-tempo stroll, with Berry doubling his snare beats while Michael Stipe addresses — in his own way, of course — Capitalisms place in late-80s America.

You’re beautiful, more beautiful than me
You’re honorable, more honorable than me
Loyal to the Bank of America

Then there’s a bass-filled breakdown, Mike Mills and Bill Berry getting almost funky while Buck plays some spidery leads and Mike Mills nods to Prince by singing “its a sign of the times.”, which meanders into the horn-flecked chorus.

You’re sharpening stones, walking on coals
To improve your business acumen
Sharpening stones, walking on coals
To improve your business acumen

Lotsa cool stuff going on in that chorus: Buck’s power chords, the horn bleats, Mike Mills harmonies, all of it. While “Exhuming McCarthy” is dealing with serious subjects, the music itself is catchy, dancey and fun as all hell, a perfect foil for lyrics like “Look who bought the myth / Buy jingo / buy American”

And then on the bridge, in lieu of any kind of lyrics or solo, they haul out the tape of McCarthy getting his final comeuppance during the HUAC hearings, as if to say that if he came back in 1987, it wouldn’t happen the same way, because a quarter-century later, not having decency was just how his people rolled. (And, of course, it’s that much more worse now.)

And so Michael Stipe chants “exhuming McCarthy” at the end as almost an incantation, while Mike Mills sings the even more chilling “meet me at the book burning”, (unless he’s singing “bup bup bup bup”). In any event, “Exhuming McCarthy” is an incredibly fun song about some pretty serious shit, and somehow R.E.M. has it both ways.

“Exhuming McCarthy”

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