Strange Currencies

July 17, 2007

The most important part of the chorus of “Strange Currencies” is not that Michael Stipe is singing a line as painfully straightforward as “you will be mine,” but rather that he’s openly acknowledging that what he’s uttering are in fact words. I don’t want to say “just words,” although that’s the implication at least of half of the time; that there’s a rather large gulf between what he says and what he does or what he feels or how reality interferes with his desires. On the other hand, there’s a sense that words are magical things that have the power to give shape to our psyches and our lives.

Michael’s character is doing his best to nudge his fantasy into reality, and his best plan is to focus on his desire, to repeat it over and over like an incantation. It’s a last ditch effort, and he’s feeling vulnerable and desperate, but not quite defeated. Maybe he should quit, maybe the object of his affection is way out of his league and there’s just no chance of it ever working out, but he’s still hanging on to that one last shred of hope. The sentiment of the song is both beautiful and absolutely pathetic, and as such, it’s the ideal midpoint for the Monster album.

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34 Responses to “Strange Currencies”

  1. David Says:

    God, I love this song. The best part, if you ask me, is the toy piano that accompanies the second verse. Such a subtle touch on an album generally lacking subtlety.


  2. Well, what kind of subtlety are you talking about? I would argue that Monster is actually one of the most subtle records. I mean, there’s certainly a boldness, but all of the songs are quite nuanced in terms of lyrics and arrangements.

  3. adam Says:

    what about the music? simple.. reminiscent of everybody hurts.. fits perfect on the record.. yes.. every breath you take meats the one I love


  4. Wait til I get to “The Flowers of Guatemala,” okay?

  5. jim jos Says:

    okay, that was strange (no pun intended). I was doing some things behind the computer, listening to Monster on the IPod, and I had “Strange Currencies” on when I checked back here and saw that it was the latest blog. Strange Currencies, indeed.

    I have read that it was so similar, musically, to Everybody Hurts, that they had some doubt about including it on Monster. I, for one, am so glad that they did as SC is one of my favorite songs on Monster.

    To me, while of course the songs are similar in chord progression, they are so different in overall melody and emotion that I don’t really focus too much on what’s similar, instead, I can, thankfully, enjoy them both independently, liking them both for completely different reasons.

    To me, musically, the essence of SC is the raw, desperate, emotion of Stipes’ voice and the almost, 50’s doo wop feel about the songs structure, which I think works so well for the mood of the song.

    Lyrically, it walks the same kind of lines that the Temptations sang about in “Ain’t to Proud to Beg”. Yeah, it might be foolish that the singer is doing what he’s doing, but what would be more foolish would be to not pursue these feelings, to not say these words.

    And while his actions might come off strange and awkward, his appeal, his defense is the depth of his feelings behind them.

  6. Theresa Says:

    I love this song so much. It took me a while to like most of the songs on Monster, but now they are some of my favorites. I’m listening to this song right now, and Matthew’s right; Michael does sound desperate and, I think, maybe a little confused. The music video is just incredible, too. You can watch the video here: http://video.yahoo.com/video/play?vid=1116829293 if you want to.

  7. maclure Says:

    Hey Theresa, I like the music vid too – good call.

    Continuing from a discussion on Driver 8 – I think this has a great bridge too: chunky, relevant and leads us nicely to the start of verse 3 – arguably, the lyrically most important section.

    I also think this has some of Peter’s most imaginative guitar work. Sure, the arpeggioed chords of F and C (with added G on the high E string) are not complex, but its the sounds I like. Great feedback and overdrive that successfully toes a fine line between being too schmaltzy (like a romantic pop ballad) or too heavy (like a power rock break-up song). And that tinkling noise is created by him strumming/picking the strings BEHIND the bridge (ie. where you’re not supposed to!). Who says Peter Buck ain’t a guitar innovator?

  8. Ignis Sol Says:

    At that time, a co-worker, musician and R.E.M. fan said this had an “Everybody Hurts” vibe, but still called it a great song. I agree.

    For me, the tone of “Strange Currencies” is burgeoning on explosion. This matches the raw emotion of the singer. He/she is both defenseless and defensive (the fool might be my middle name). Ahh, such ARE the strange currencies of love, or so I have been told.

  9. morewordsaboutmusic Says:

    Gorgeous stuff. Underrated. REM’s third-to-last brilliant love song.

  10. Kirsten Says:

    I always thought the “I want to turn you on, turn you up, figure you out, I want to take you on” line could’ve been refering to other’s view of Michael himself and how that makes him feel. (People like me with nothing better to do than strip down all the outer layers of REM songs and Michael’s general mystique.)

    I also love the desperation in “I need a chance, a second chance, a third chance, a forth chance, a word, a signal, a nod, a little breath, just to fool myself, catch myself to make it real”. As if she only needs to blink and he’ll see it as a sign of acknowledgement.

    “These words – you will be mine” remind me of a stuborn child throwing a tantrum. They’re just said so matter-of-fact.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that I just love this song – the desperation and determination.

  11. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    Although I like this song as thought it was an obvious single choice for Monster I have never loved it musically. It is such an obvious re-write of Everybody Hurts that the band should have sued themselves for plagiarism! REM have reused songs and sounds before but I have always felt that this was the first time they blatantly recycled. I could even deal with it had it copied a song that was not a hit, but intentional or not by copying Everybody Hurts (one album later no less) it sort of feels like a desperate grab for radio play or at least to hang on to an audience of casual fans that they knew were giong to be alienated by Monster.

    All that said, the lyrics are amazing. The lines quoted above by some of you are among my favorites in any REM song. Overall, I like this song, but mysically its hard to love or respect too much.

  12. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    I gotta start proofreading these things! My spelling and grammar suck!


  13. Guys, it’s waaaaay more “The Flowers of Guatemala” than “Everybody Hurts.”

  14. transformerdog Says:

    yeah BWD , and your a literature teacher , did you say …:) A literature teacher talking about 16 year old virgins in a previous post :).Here’s to the anonymity of the net ..I’ll be sure to think of you the next time I hear a story about the disintegration of the American education system :)..Note to Utah authorities … :)

    This song to me is “alright”, but I could live without it, never made the Everybody Hurts connection until now…note to Kirsten , I think he is singing to a he, just a gut feeling I have about the song , same gut feeling I get from You’re In The Air …

  15. transformerdog Says:

    oh yeah , Matthew , the guitar definitely .(the new Matthew , feisty and prolific)
    Enjoying the new digs , eh?

  16. Paul Alferink Says:

    Actually, another nice bridge.
    “I tripped and fell. Did I fall. What I want to feel, I want to feel it now.”
    And the fact that the title of this song comes near the end is nice. It’s almost a revelation. Like, “Why is this song called “Strange Currencies?” Oh, I get it. Now with love, comes Strange Currencies.”
    It’s certainly has that Everybody hurts Vibe to it, what with the four notes ascending followed by three descending, with the bottom note of the descending being the start of the next chord. A lot like Everybody Hurts, the song never grew on me as much as some others did from this album. I rarely feel the need to hunt this song down to listen to it, unlike Tongue, Star 69, and “I Don’t Sleep I Dream.” from Monster.

  17. Figgy Says:

    Way back when Monster was released I’m sure I read a quote from Peter Buck saying this song is written from the viewpoint of a stalker. The lyrics certainly take on a creepier meaning if you look at them that way, even from the opening line: “I don’t know why you’re mean to me when I call on the telephone”.

    So I’ve never really seen this as a regular romantic love song, but it can obviously work as one too.

  18. Kirsten Says:

    Either way, transformerdog, I don’t think it makes any difference to the song whatsoever. Can’t believe you didn’t pick up on Everybody Hurts – it’s the same tune. Desperate attempt at a repeat hit? I hope not, but I’m not sure why else they would have done it, especially on the next album. Maybe if they waited a few years in between…

  19. transformerdog Says:

    hey maclure, here’s to hoping you weren’t on that Brazilian airliner, well , at least it would be quick after a couple moments of sheer terror

  20. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    Hey, I am actually a history teacher (who occasionally teaches a lit class) – and yuck! You make me sound so gross! I was thinking of my OWN high school experiences way back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth and God was a boy. Didn’t even think about my own students. Anyway, I know you were just kidding! (I hope, I think!)

  21. transformerdog Says:

    BTW,of course , I was kidding but I come across the wrong way at times –this I know-sorry, probably shouldn’t have said that …….one can probably sense my overbearing qualities even in cyberspace.

    I wonder if Stipe still smokes and how much / I remember reading in Q mag (the one with his face colored blue) back in the fall of’03 and I got the impression that he was quite the heavy smoker (!!) /I remember being really surprised by that, and I remember him talking in the interview about how he can’t keep weight on , is even skinnier now than he ever was and how he’s been to three doctors and gotten a clean bill of health from all of them ….That was 4 years ago already…..

  22. Scott Says:

    The Temptations feel–the Motown feel generally–comes from that great syncopated bass line in the chorus under “These words … [da-duh … duh duh da dum] you will be mine.”

    As for the lyric, this is another in Stipe’s line of ironic devotionals in which vanity is mistaken for love. If there’s any merit to the trope that you gotta love yourself before you can love someone else, then Stipe’s narrators in songs such as this, “Be Mine,” “The One I Love” and even “Losing My Religion” are ready for love in a big way. Which is to say that their fascination with the way that love makes them feel far outweighs any interest in the ostensible objects of their affection. Really, what affection? What romance? As a chronicler of the false highs accompanying deluded ardor, Stipe has no peer. I mean that as high praise–there can never be enough good songs about the way that the hope for validation corrupts desire into obsession.


  23. Scott, that is an excellent comment.

  24. maclure Says:

    Yeah, some awesome comments flying about on this one. It seems there is a sense of rejuvenation about following the “High Speed Train” thread…

    “This Everybody Hurts thing, I don’t get it. I wrap my hand in plastic…”. I think Strange Currencies and Everybody Hurts are very different songs. The picking up and down chords at mid-tempo is there in many REM songs, not just these two (right back to “We Walk” on Murmur). The lyrical themes, sounds chosen and chord progressions are sufficiently different to make me think SC was not a copy of EH intended to be a hit.

    transformerdog – thanks for the concern. Just been checking wi family to see if anybody was affected but we seem to be in the clear (which doesnt make it any less tragic for those involved of course). I will be flying into and out of Sao Paulo next week, but I am a praying man with eternal destination assured (I’ll let you guess where) so I’m not worried…

  25. kirkl Says:

    probably my favorite of all.
    i always leave the opening on my wife’s voicemail when i’m in the dog house.
    thanks matthew!

  26. Scott Says:

    Thank you, MP. And thanks for the blog(s).

  27. wolfy Says:

    I love this song! It just reflects a wonderful mix of hopelessness and desire that only Michhael Stipe can pull off. In any other bnand’s hands, this song would have been run-of-the-mill.

  28. narcizo Says:

    IMO, this song fits perfectly into the concept (yes, a concept) of this album: “Monster” is a gallery of negative, even misanthropic characters, and this song is no exception. Scott nailed it: instead of a true love song, try to think of someone srcrewing up and dissapointing the other; yet, this person’s plea for forgiveness is not sincere. In other words, he thinks that the strength of his words alone will persuade the other, although they may not be true – “baby, I made a huge mistake, but hear me saying all those pretty things, I can’t be wrong, can I?”.

    The most annoying thing of all is the fact that I ‘ve actually been in this character’s shoes.
    When the time comes for “I don’t sleep, I dream”, I ‘ll write down a whole essay.

  29. Clive Says:

    It’s worth mentioning that musically this is very similar to the Velvet Underground’s ‘Femme Fatale’ which, of course, they covered on Dead Letter Office. I’m a great fan of SC but thought this was worth a mention.

  30. karen Says:

    this is probably not interesting to anyone who’s not me, but my first boyfriend put this on a mixtape for me in high school (which was before we dated, when we lived in different states). i think it was for the line “i don’t know why you’re mean to me when i call on the telephone…”


  31. […] arpeggiation and ambient distortion make it an ancestor of “Everybody Hurts” and “Strange Currencies.” It’s a gorgeous, graceful tune full of little details that give it a strange, spectral glow […]

  32. ScottMalobisky Says:

    Scott, “Was it love or the idea of being in love?” One Slip

  33. johnny Says:

    the bridge of this song is stunning. when the feedback notes ring…so subtle but bringing the song to a peak..beautiful.

  34. Sigrid Says:

    Well, this song sounds like obsession. ‘You will be mine’ says everything. Give just one sign and he will take it as response to his “love”. Oh, there are so many people like this in real life. For example fans who keep chasing they idols.


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