Daysleeper

January 18, 2008

I wonder if, when the band settled on the name R.E.M. back in their early days, Michael Stipe had any idea that he’d end up spending the rest of his adult life writing a body of work overflowing with references to sleeping and dreams. The topic comes up in a huge number of the band’s songs, and though there’s no clear message to the motif, it’s pretty clear that Stipe finds the dream state to be a source of endless inspiration. I’m right with him on this — dreams may be our only window into the workings of our unconscious minds, and their content is arguably the result of our most intuitive, creative, and deeply mysterious thought processes. We spend a huge chunk of our lives sleeping and dreaming, and it may be foolish to write off all that time. It’s an essential part of our existence, and when we fuck up our sleep patterns, there is a clear physical and mental consequence.

“Daysleeper” is essentially a song about what happens when dreams cease to complement or complicate our lives. The character is listless and emotionally drained, and forced by circumstances to work through the night, and sleep through parts of the day. It’s a forced, artificial sleep — the blinds are pulled down, he’s got a machine to create a comforting sonic ambiance to cancel out the world outside his home. All of his time is spent moving against the nature of his body and the culture around him, and so he feels isolated and lonely. The song’s most poignant line — “I cried the other night, I can’t even say why” — suggests that he’s even become removed from his own emotions. The poor guy is a wreck, but he’s barely got the energy to notice.

The prominent crisp acoustic arpeggios and plaintive lead vocals make “Daysleeper” the most traditional song on Up, but the most essential element of the song’s arrangement is actually the droning keyboards that create the hazy ambiance of the piece, and convey the lethargy and disconnected mental state of its protagonist more effectively than any of the lyrics. The keyboards push what would have been a lovely yet sorta ordinary folk pop song into something more remarkable: A character study that places the listener right into a cramped, fluorescent-lit cubicle in the far corner of its subject’s mind.

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36 Responses to “Daysleeper”

  1. Kirsten Says:

    Wow, from 700th to 1st – what a ride!

    I always thought this song would’ve fit nicely on Reveal – it just has that lazy sort of feel about it. (In a good way, not bad).

    The line “I am the screen, the blinding light” has a lot of strength and power in it and makes you sit up after the rest of the song has you in a dark, miserable, depressing place. (aka work)

    Brilliant song (as always) and a great video clip to match.

  2. Mr Cup Says:

    A strange calm takes over me when I hear the lyric
    ‘the ocean machine is set to 9…’
    I can almost feel the surge of the ocean which ties into the sliding guitar (?) sound throughout.

    A beautiful song about a horrible state of being.

  3. Mr Cup Says:

    Who the f*** would write a song about someone with irregular sleeping patterns?

  4. stipenut Says:

    Who’d write about it? YOU!!!!
    Seriously, it’s a great song……….

  5. thetomer Says:

    I really love the line “my night is colored, headache-gray”. Seems to somehow quite sum it up.

  6. milesy Says:

    The combination of cheerful sounding song with upbeat chorus with quite depressing lyrics makes for a beautiful song. Sometimes the obvious ones just grab me- this one is a highlight of the last decade. A must.

    Blinds on the windows and a pain behind the eyes.

  7. beonetraveler Says:

    “I’ll squeeze into heaven and valentine…” sounds like the unintended gibberish that might go through your mind as you’re contemplating your “day” and what you need to do tomorrow whilst you’re drifting off to sleep (“…with your teeth in your mouth…”). Like, you’ll try to squeeze in a meeting, or a workout, but the bed is pulling you…gravity…

    Great observations about the disconnectedness and the personal travails that come with a grinding work schedule.

  8. maclure Says:

    “headache gray” is a nasty colour. I thought that was a great write-up too, MP. Any thoughts anyone on this being the first single? It was typically R.E.M.-sounding, but it is still quite a subdued number and didn’t really launch the new sounds of UP onto the world.


  9. It was the best choice they had, definitely. It’s a pretty, accessible song, but as I said in the write-up, it’s really guided by that sorta zonked-out ambiance, so it doesn’t read as a straight pop song. That, and I’m reasonably certain it has a somewhat atypical time signature, which is another thing that subconsciously tells the listener “this isn’t quite normal.”

  10. ScottMalobisky Says:

    I never realized until now what the ocean machine was, it’s quite literal, eh? My friend has one of those ..I’ve worked the graveyard shift although , oddly perhaps , I didn’t really have a hard time sleeping during the day as long as it was dark enough in the room , but I did feel totally out of sync with the rest of the world..no doubt.

    My fav lyric :
    The bull and the bear are marking their territory
    They’re leading the blind with their international glories

    ….I remember reading somewhere (though once again I am not 100% sure of my facts) that Salvador Dali would sit in a chair when he was on the verge of drifting off to sleep while clutching loosely a set of keys , which would fall from his hand waking him up just as he was crossing the threshhold into sleep and then he would paint like the madman he was whatever was in his mind at that point of awake-sleep-transition. It was his creative method at times.. I remember this (this).

  11. ScottMalobisky Says:

    The Beatles–‘I’m Only Sleeping’ “please don’t spoil my day I’m miles away
    and after all I’m only sleeping” now that’s a trippy ZONKED OUT AMBIANCE to the hilt, but in a more energetic and alert sorta way. Like the Daysleeper just got his hew prescripton filled. I wonder if REM took any inspiration from that. Man , you talk about a cool song..

  12. ryan Says:

    I first heard this when I was working an afternoon to late evening shift in a darkroom – needless to say, it resonated.

    It was solid introduction to the three legged dog that R.E.M. became after Bill’s departure…

    I always thought it had a vaguely Hawaiian/South Pacific feel to it, especially in the O-wee-o-wee background vocals and instrumentation…. Is that a ukelale in there?

    Also, It segues nicely into Diminished, which sounds like it could have come off of Trading With The Enemy by Tuatara…

  13. maclure Says:

    The song is in 6/8 – the only one on UP that is – but with some funky chords in the pre-chorus which give it even more of a disjointed feel. Love it. Malobisky – I heard that Dali story (he had a spoon instead of keys) but am not sure if it’s an urban myth – anyone?

  14. David T. Says:

    > The song is in 6/8 – the only one on UP that is

    During the chorus, it seems like the drums (esp. kick and snare) are playing in 4/4 on top of the 6/8 (seems like I remember either Michael or Mike tsaying something about that in an interview around the time UP was released)…anyway, there’s definitely something herky-jerky there.

    Great song…and this may be my favorite of all of Matthew’s write-ups. Kudos, MP!

    (Back to lurking…er, working.)

  15. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    I think that the key element that gives this song its uneasy, almost queasy feel, is the time signature – I always feel almost motion sick, like I am rocking. This song does an amazing job of capturing the feeling of fatigue and disorientation.

    As to it being the lead single, despite the fact that it IS the most traditional sounding song I think it was a poor choice as it is such a gray feeling song. I saw an interview with Michael where he said this was the first CD where the band simply let the record label choose the lead single. I think Walk Unafraid, Hope, Lotus, Why Not Smile or Suspicion all would have been much more radio friendly single choices that also would have been more indicative of the tone and direction of the CD.

    Finally, in a (maybe) interesting personal side note – I don’t dream. I know that I really do as everyone does but I almost never remember them. I’ve had like maybe 20 dreams I could remember in the morning in my entire life and when I do remember dreaming it usually means I slept poorly and will be tired all the next day, so I don’t usually like it when I wake up and remember my dreams.

  16. wolfy Says:

    One of my favourites. It describes a lot of us-sleep deprived creatures that we tend to be.


  17. I’m glad you liked this one, David T. I’m sorry this site has slowed down a lot recently — I’ve been extremely busy with work (I’m the new music producer for a PRI show called Fair Game, I encourage you all to listen, the site is http://pri.morefairgame.org), and at this point, almost all the songs I have left are ones that I want to write up as well as possible, so I don’t want to dash them off just to be on schedule.

  18. lightaugust Says:

    I just wonder if ‘daysleeper’ was the excuse Stipe gave for not being able to be on jury duty the other day.

  19. adam Says:

    the guy is a wreck.. but with a keen sense of melody. classic REM

  20. ScottMalobisky Says:

    Binky , gotta blast that one into space , Baby !!!

    BWD , I rarely have dreams that I can at least partially recall either but I am the opposite of you , when I can recall snippets of a dream it means that I slept very deeply , at least for a short while. And isn’t it always so interesting the way that totally unrelated people and places and time frames come together in dreams ? And isn’t it weird and frustrating how if you don’t take a moment to capture what you can recall from the dream , like immediately , 99% of the time it’s gone forever , irretrievable from the bloody mish mash ?

    always thought it was “ocean machine is saturnine” :)

  21. ScottMalobisky Says:

    Stipe on jury duty , eh ? where ?
    Diminshed from a different vantage point

  22. Elliot H. Says:

    It’s “I’m the screen”? I always thought it was “I must scream”, and I really connected with it.

    See I used to work the night shift at an office, and eventually the lack of sleep mixed with constantly being around annoying people and a disconnection with real world events really gets to you. You pretty much end up saying everything with your mind and nothing with your body. Think of most of the office scenes from Fight Club as an example

    Somebody’ll give you a long lecture or tell a long story and in your head all you’ll hear is “AHHHHHHHH!!!!!!” while your body is completely silent with a vacant gaze.

  23. Ignis Sol Says:

    “Daysleeper” is a wonderful song. I like the “wee-ooh/wee-ooh” vocal and the final verse containing “ocean machine” and “squeeze into heaven and valentine.” They are the perfect marriage of imagery and melody that only R.E.M. seems to attain. This song is the epitome of Michael’s magnificent obsession of sleep and dream.

    Great write-up Matthew. I like how you describe this as sort of the antithesis of the “dreams they complement/complicate our lives” idea from “Get Up.”

    I recall most my dreams and I write them into my poems, songs and other writings. I have dreams with reoccurring specific themes (such as melodramas and thrillers), certain people (composite friends) and repetitive situations (long hallways, abandoned warehouses).

    My dream world is like my second life. I once willed myself into dreaming of a friend I dearly missed so that I could have a conversation and spend some time with him. Some of my dreams are haunting with disturbing elements. Some are reassuring; while others just plain bizarre like the one with post-apocalyptic monkeys invading my childhood home. Dreams they illuminate/incriminate my life!

  24. Mr Cup Says:

    I have gone through periods of dream recall and journalling. Once you get going though it’s amazing how much you do dream and can remember. I would often have a memory of 8 or 9 a night. Then I would wake in the middle of the night and feel compelled to jot things down to be finished in the morning. It became too time consuming though. I was always running late.

    Elliot – I too think of Fight Club and this character. Each day being a photocopy of the previous.

    I want an Ocean Machine now.

  25. ScottMalobisky Says:

    but you need a microcasette recorder

  26. jim jos Says:

    once thought that Mr. Stipe said “I’m the scream” which always made me chuckle a bit, because with him loosing his hair a little bit at this point, its not like he couldn’t pull off the Munch look just a little bit.

    this is a fantastic song, paints its images really vividly. I am sure all of you know the boots story of Stipe walking down a flight of stairs in NYC and seeing a sign that said “daysleeper”

    This word has become such a common phrase for me it is kind of interesting that it is not listed in the dictionary as an actual word yet. One word “daysleeper”.

    Always have to laugh a little bit when I hear people who are unfairly critical of post New Adventures R.E.M.
    “and then they started to make songs like…Daysleeper” Oh really? Daysleeper is a great song! What more could one ask for? Well written lyrics? Check. Classic R.E.M. sound (with just a touch of drone to enhance)? Check. Wee ooo weee oooos? Check. A unique and compelling subject matter? Check, Check.

    Also a note,
    Matthew great, great write up. You really did the song justice, I don’t think anyone could put things any better than that. Now that you have been doing this for a while, one would expect you to dash these things off, but major “props” or “kudos” to you for solidly hitting the nail on the head once again.

  27. jim jos Says:

    also, because my last post wasn’t long enough, my favorite line of the song is “don’t wake me with sooooo much” great line and song with just the right amount of weary emotion.

    Who doesn’t hope when they wake up that the day (or night) won’t hold too much too bear, too many problems, etc.

    also, I think it made a great first single from up. It is a great first sample of Ups very late night, neon sound and subject matter.

  28. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    Just curious since nobody has really agreed or disagreed, was Daysleeper a good choice for the first single? I still say no despite being sort of the traditional REM sound.

  29. ScottMalobisky Says:

    I don’t know
    I guess so

  30. ScottMalobisky Says:

    come to think of it BWD I do vaguely recall seeing an advertisement for UP, something like “REM at their rocking finest” just before it came out , and then to hear this as one’s first exposure to the record… probably left quite a few of us rank and file flummoxed.

  31. 2d Says:

    i love the metropolitan, antiseptic feeling of this song. all the little sounds and instruments mesh together in a hazy fluorescence that portraits very well the sleepless, mechanical feeling mirrored in the lyrics. it’s gentle and sweet and sad at the same time; quite a heartfelt song, but the protagonist tries to reach out to a world that is moving too fast to stop and actually help…

  32. jim jos Says:

    bwd I believe it to be a good first choice for a single. I question whether any R.E.M. song would have been a big hit in 1998.

  33. milesy Says:

    To be honest, I like a song with fairly obvious hooks as a lead-off single for an album. Ideally a song with hooks, but also with hidden depths to keep you satisfied when you’ve heard it many times. Other songs on Up have the depths without the hooks (too many to mention…). Daysleeper is a great song and was the right choice. As jimjos says, REM were not the right band image-wise for big hits in 1998- and don’t we love them because they opted for great music over commercial success? (Incidentally on this, I see truth in Dave Buckley’s suggestion in ‘REM: Fiction’ that it was almost as if REM deliberately retreated from U2-esque world and stadium domination after their massive success of the early 90s).

    I guess also that it’s one thing to go for a left-field choice of single when you’re as popular as REM were in 1993 or 1996… but almost crazy to do so when airplay is proving harder to come by. So I’ll take Daysleeper, Imitation and New York- but Daysleeper is the outstanding one.

    Some great comments above, on night-shifts, and dreaming, love it. So that’s what an ocean machine is. The song is even better than I thought…

  34. Kirsten Says:

    I thought it was “the ocean machine is set tonight”.

    Just to wade into the “first single” debate, I think it was the obvious choice. Accessable enough to the general public, whilst still being typical, not-quite-right REM. And looking at the track list, there really wasn’t any other choice. Maybe “At My Most Beautiful”, but that’s probably a little too sappy and doesn’t represent the band or the album particularly well.

  35. CtraK Says:

    Good review, although apparently (I source from biography “Fiction”) the protagonist of the song is female.

  36. Alex Says:

    This song goes in contention for Stipe’s best vocal performance. Also, those bells, two tones, that show up at the end of the song and ride out on the chorus…listen for them on your headphones. Like an automatic sound for an elevator or some other man-made device, but here they are shimmering and hopeful tones despite the theme…and they make the song.


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