If you listen closely with your headphones at the very beginning of R.E.M.’s “Stumble” (off their debut EP Chronic Town) you can hear Michael Stipe laughing into the microphone. He then mumbles the word “teeth” and begins clicking his mouth together several times as Peter Buck begins the jangled arpeggio guitar line that begins the song. Bill Berry bangs his drums a few times in reply, and the song officially begins with a quick bass slap by Mike Mills.
Up until “Leave” off of New Adventures in Hi Fi in 1996, “Stumble” was R.E.M.’s longest song at just 6 minutes. Like most of the songs of Chronic Town, “Stumble” is a mixture between R.E.M.’s love of post-punk, chiming guitars, and art-rock. Buck’s guitar line is hypnotic but it’s really the rhythm section of Mike Mills and Bill Berry that drives the song, like much of R.E.M.’s early work. Berry holds the beat tightly as Stipe repeats the lines “we’ll stumble through the yard, we’ll stumble through the a-p-t” but explodes during the pre-chorus and chorus, which is a rarity for R.E.M.’s usually constrained songwriting. Even as Stipe loudly wails “ball and chain” on the chorus, it’s still indecipherable. For a long time, I was convinced he was singing “by chance”.
There’s a small fast-break down between the second and third verse, but it’s after the 3 chorus that things really weird. “Stumble” lo-fi production is broken by a bunch of tape loops sounding like wind and Berry’s wild drumming. Over this wall of sound, Stipe recites a barely audible poem where the only phrase to be heard is “it’s round about midnight”. Buck repeats the guitar line heard at the beginning of the beginning of the song, and it’s one more run through of the verse.
“Stumble” isn’t usually mentioned in the list of great R.E.M. songs from the beginning of their career. It’s too weird to have made an impact like other songs of the period such as “Radio Free Europe”, “Gardening at Night” or “So. Central Rain”. But it’s has a distinct sound containing many of R.E.M.’s early trademarks.
“Stumble” is one of the first songs I listened to over and over as a teenager with my headphones on. At a family trip to the beach one year, I borrowed my older brother’s walkman and copy of Chronic Town and listened to the tape constantly. “Stumble” might have been long and repetitive, but it pulls you along and Berry’s drumming creates just enough tension to keep things interesting. It became an obsession to kept to figure out what the hell Michael Stipe was saying as he recited the poem. I never did figure it out, and at this point the fact that I can’t understand it only adds to the beauty of the song.
Check out “Stumble” from Chronic Town: