‘Stumble’ - Chronic Town
R.E.M.’s first EP, Chronic Town, was released by I.R.S. Records in 1982. They had previously put out a single, ‘Radio Free Europe’, on the independent label Hib-Tone in 1981 (b-side: ‘Sitting Still’), re-recorded for an I.R.S. release in 1983 (b-side: ‘There She Goes Again’, a Velvet Underground cover).
Chronic Town is a five-track EP, a little bit shitty in a lo-fi, ramshackle way. The title is spot on, as their lyrics will stay heavily tied to towns rather than cities until the Warner period, and these towns are slightly strange around the edges, running themselves without paying much mind to the world outside.
‘Carnival of Sorts (Box Cars)’ stands out as much tighter than the rest - it’s got a proper chorus, clear lyrics, relentless jangly guitar, the twinkling calliope intro, and the lyrics (“boxcars are pulling out of town”) include the themes of trains and departure that’ll crop up again. ‘Wolves, Lower’ is a clean, poppy relative, taut and sounding until the warmth of “house in order” like it was recorded in a tiny, tense room very close behind you, and like ‘Carnival of Sorts’, also has “don’t get caught” in its lyrics. ‘1,000,000’ is choppy and raw and starts out a bit sneering. Stipe sounds hoarse even during the melodic, singing parts. The bassline reminds me a little of Television, though the song is much poppier. ‘Gardening at Night’ is less remarkable, the vocals sounding neutered.
‘Stumble’ is probably the strangest and the least like their major hits, maybe the weakest, definitely the one I like most. It starts with Stipe laughing, saying “teeth” and clacking his teeth together. The drums are precisely scattershot and jump out, punctuating the steady bassline, cyclical vocals and that very, very distinctive guitar jangle. It gets strange where the spoken verse and loops and insistent drumming break in - “it was around about midnight, hipster town”. By this point, it’s clear that they can make a clean, tight, structured pop song - ‘Carnival of Sorts’ and ‘Radio Free Europe’ both match the criteria and then some - but they’re releasing a clattering, lo-fi, near-six-minute track with an effort at beat poetry stuck in the middle of it. For me, that’s where it gets interesting.
It’s hard to say you prefer someone’s earlier work without coming off like a one-upping snob, but I usually do, and ‘Stumble’ is a good example of why. The band, though playing gigs and writing songs, hasn’t been described much by the world outside themselves yet, and so the difference between the very R.E.M. and bizarro, non-R.E.M. songs isn’t likely all that clear from the inside. They’re fucking about, they’re not burying their influences too thoroughly, and they have all of their ideas and experiences up to that point to draw on, however allusive and abstract. The nascent band’s energy is gut-level exciting, and for all the things that will improve over a career of any length, that chaotic spark will be leveled out.