Nightmare Town, Richard Grabel, New Music Express12/11/1982
A town is chronic because we are fated to revisit it time and time again. A chronic town might also be a carny town, jammed full of colour, with incomprehensible barkers and terrible secrets stowed away behind the tents.
This chronic music revisits us, reminds us of the wonderfully, excitingly familiar but of nothing in particular. There are of course precedents, influences if you like. Ringing and chiming '60s guitars are part of it. Voices and harmonies that are distinctly American, not by being any kind of nostalgic throwback but inherently, deeply, are a part of it; as is a modern English pop sensibility, an openness to the possibilities of what pop music can carry or suggest.
Chronic Town is five songs that spring to life full of immediacy and action and healthy impatience. Songs that won't be denied.
Mystery is a thing that is lacking in run of the mill pop product. Michael Stipe's voice comes close, gets right up next to you, but his mumblings seem to contain secrets. Intimacy and distance. The voice tells of knowledge but doesn't give too much away. The songs have mystery but are in no way fuzzy. No, they have a cinematic vividness, they paint pictures.
Sometimes the pictures are clear and particular, but shaded and shadowed by the singer's mumblings. Sometimes the pictures are made of sharply seen fragments whose composition is a puzzle. This is the way Stipe scrambles language, plays with it like a dyslexic poet, scatters loaded words around like leaves in the wind. Pete Buck's chord ring memory bells, push buttons of good feelings. Stipe's voice vibrates with wonder, too. It's a voice that is guarded at times, astonished at others. Voices and chords and melodies form rhymes with each other.
"I Could Live a Million Years." Stipe makes such outrageous promises. And makes us believe them. The construction of these songs is classic. There are bridges and balances, put to original use. The logic of these songs makes me smile, makes me want to sing along.
You can read all sorts of things into these songs. Like the thematic balance in "Wolves" between outside and inside, which are also suspicion and relaxation, danger and safety. The verse tells us what's creeping in the garden: "wilder lower wolves." And the chorus invites us in, with a group harmony that is airy and open, to a "house in order," a-a-a-a.
"Carnival" makes us imagine a movie, its entire plot outlined and its scenery suggested in seven short lines. "Diminished carnival...stranger to these parts...boxcars pulling out of town." Perfect economy of expression, a perfect puzzle, perfect enchantment.
Well, not perfect, of course. I suspect these songs could have been mixed better, the guitar given even more of that clearly pitched sound, the voice given even more presence, some extra force. But R.E.M. ring true, and it's great to hear something as unforced and as cunning as this.