Saturday, September 16, 2006

Strange voices in my head

It had been a while since I'd heard REM's "Automatic For the People", but three songs into the album I could effortlessly remember the main reasons why I love(d) it so much. Sometimes you can look at just one photograph taken during a two-week vacation, and even though you haven't looked at or thought about that picture for months, you suddenly remember everything you did that day, what you did immediately before and immediately after it was taken, or what you were thinking about that compelled you to make that goofy face. I think that's the mark of a fun, memorable vacation.

I never thought much of Michael Stipe as a vocalist before this album came out, to me he was always the nasally geek from "Superman" and "Shiny Happy People". I was awed to hear his voice carry nearly all of "AFTP", dominating and conducting nearly every track like few albums I've heard before or since. Make no mistake about it -- Stipe's weathered, gravelly voice is the lead instrument throughout the record, making 100X more of an impact than any guitar lick or bassline on every one of its twelve tracks. Fourteen years on, all this jumps out at me immediately, far removed from the spectre of grunge-era seriousness (when for a split second, it seemed as though mopey, depressing albums might be 10M sellers on a routine basis) and all the "REM aren't touring, ergo, Michael Stipe has AIDS" faux-poignancy rumours that made headlines at the time.

In a similar way, I found it easy to write off Daniel Johnston's voice as a gimmicky curiosity. He was the guy who sang the demos that other artists would polish up and sing properly. Johnston sings like a twelve year old pubescent kid, so there's a sizeable adjustment period when first hearing him, during which his voice progressively grates less and less. It's one thing to hum along to his pained thoughts about love, but learning something about love from Daniel Johnston is another thing entirely. He had to complicate matters by writing and singing one of the most beautiful love songs ever. "True Love Will Find You In the End" neatly sums up most of what you need to know about the subject (in less than two minutes, amazingly enough) by confidently assuring you that Your Special Someone needs you as much as you need them, so get off your ass and go find that person before it's too late. A song with such simple, childlike words could only be sung by someone with a simple, childlike voice; which is why the cover versions (e.g. Spectrum) get it completely wrong. Johnston's characteristically sloppy musicianship is entirely appropriate here, because what is the search for true love if not sloppy, disorienting, and occasionally fruitless?


Dr. Morbius said...

dude, Mike Mills did the vocals on "Superman."

what about Stipe's mumbly-grumbly growl on Murmur?

Barry said...

He did? OK, my bad, but I could have made the same point by mentioning "Orange Crush" or some equally stupid song.

I think that Stipe had a neutral presence on those early REM records. You could hardly hear the guy, so you or I might as well have been singing on those songs.