Song of the Day #675: ‘(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville’ – R.E.M.

A year after Murmur, R.E.M. released their first truly great album, 1984’s Reckoning.

This collection of songs was a little less experimental and a little more full-bodied than the tracks on their debut, and while Stipe’s lyrics continued to confound, he managed to slip in some words of real substance.

Reckoning‘s songs were darker than anything the band had recorded before, several inspired by the recent death of a friend.

There isn’t a weak track on Reckoning, but four tracks stand out as among my favorite the band has ever released. Opener ‘Harborcoat’ is a fast-paced pop song that builds to one of Stipe’s best choruses; ‘7 Chinese Bros.’ features a jauntily melodic guitar line but a sad vocal by Stipe, who moans “She will return” between verses inspired by an ancient fairy tale; and ‘So. Central Rain,’ one of the R.E.M.-iest of R.E.M. songs, speaks for itself.

But the highlight of Reckoning, and one of my top three R.E.M. songs of all-time (and therefore one of my top songs by anybody), is ‘(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville,’ a country-flavored serving of heartache with one of Stipe’s most straight-forward lyrics.

To this point it was easier to love R.E.M. for their sound and the occasional snippet of poetry from Stipe, but ‘Rockville’ gave us beautifully poignant lines like this one: “At night I drink myself to sleep and pretend I don’t care if you’re not here with me, ’cause it’s so much easier to handle all my problems if I’m too far out to sea. But something better happen soon or it’s gonna be too late to bring you back.”

I was shocked recently to hear that R.E.M. fans in my family don’t hold this song in high esteem, that it hadn’t made much of an impact on them at all. For my money, it’s one of their very finest moments.

Looking at your watch a third time waiting in the station for a bus
Going to a place that’s far, so far away and if that’s not enough
Going where nobody says hello, they don’t talk to anybody they don’t know

You’ll wind up in some factory that’s full time filth and nowhere left to go
Walk home to an empty house, sit around all by yourself
I know it might sound strange, but I believe
You’ll be coming back before too long

Don’t go back to Rockville
Don’t go back to Rockville
Don’t go back to Rockville
And waste another year

At night I drink myself to sleep and pretend
I don’t care if you’re not here with me
‘Cause it’s so much easier to handle
All my problems if I’m too far out to sea
But something better happen soon
Or it’s gonna be too late to bring you back

Don’t go back to Rockville
Don’t go back to Rockville
Don’t go back to Rockville
And waste another year

It’s not as though I really need you
If you were here I’d only bleed you
But everybody else in town only wants to bring you down and
That’s not how it ought to be
I know it might sound strange, but I believe
You’ll be coming back before too long

Don’t go back to Rockville
Don’t go back to Rockville
Don’t go back to Rockville
And waste another year

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12 thoughts on “Song of the Day #675: ‘(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville’ – R.E.M.

  1. Dana says:

    Well, since some of this post is directed my way, I’ll take the bait:)

    First, for the “record,” I do like this song a great deal. It’s just that in the face of other great REM songs to come–from “Can’t Get There From Here” to “Nightswimming,” I can’t say this one stands out as a favorite. I will admit, however, that some of this has to do with familiarity. I am generally less familiar with this album than I am with Life’s Rich Pageant and albums released after that point. From this album, I am most familiar with the single ‘So Central Rain (I’m Sorry)”

    Also “country flavored?” I don’t think so!

  2. Dana says:

    Slight correction–my entry point with REM was Fables of the Reconstruction, not Life’s Rich Pageant.

  3. Clay says:

    This song absolutely has a country style… they originally recorded it with more of a punk style (a snippet of which can be heard at the beginning of the track) and then did another “country/western” take (their words) as a joke, but liked it so much they decided to stick with it.

  4. pegclifton says:

    I agree that this song has a country style, and it’s nice to be able to understand the words for a change :) I hope you will include my favorite REM song before the week is up.

  5. Clay says:

    Uh oh… I’m not sure I know what it is. :-)

  6. Dana says:

    Sorry about the ambiguity of my last comment. I meant that, because it was country flavored, it would not be amongst my favorites:)

  7. Dana says:

    And I think Peg would like to see “Losing My Religion” as her SOTD.

  8. Flor says:

    This song has always seemed somewhat tongue in cheek to me, as evidenced by Mike putting on a cowboy hat when he sings it in concert these days. Still, it says something about early R.E.M. that even their ‘jokey’ tracks can be this touching.

  9. Clay says:

    I think it might be a case where a very earnest song (lyrically) was paired up (perhaps accidentally) with a very earnest delivery and wound up as something sublime.

    Dana… I’m guessing you’re right about ‘Losing My Religion.’

  10. Amy says:

    I’m thinking “Star Me Kitten” ;)

    What’s not to love about this song? It’s just that there are a couple dozen others I love more. Still, I love the story about how they accidentally happened upon this arrangement. What a happy accident.

  11. Kevin says:

    Oh, yeah, no doubt a country tune and a favorite of mine. As the story goes, Bertis Downs (lawyer/consigliere) was a big fan of this tune which had been kicking around for a bit before it ended up on “Reckoning.” The country treatment was supposed to have been a lark that worked. Also, to my ear the lyric goes “It’s not as though I really need you/If you were here I’d only leave you,” which is a much funnier line.

  12. K says:

    Pretty sure the lyrics to Rockville were written by Mike Mills. Might account for why you find them more straight forward than expected from Stipe.

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