How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us

March 29, 2007

“How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us” is unquestionably the weirdest opening track on any R.E.M. album. Its set of musical reference points are somewhat eclectic (a “hip hop” beat, jazz-ish piano, ersatz R&B and “world music” signifiers) and the composition is deliberately off-center, but the effect is surprisingly intuitive, giving me the sense that the arrangement emerged organically rather than coming out of some formal experiment sketched out on a legal pad by Mike Mills. Actually, it’d be really interesting to know who kick-started the writing process on this particular song — the emphasis on rhythm makes me suspect that it was Bill Berry, but given that the lead instrument is piano and that the only thing I ever remember reading about the track was Mills explaining that he was trying to play like Thelonious Monk on the solo, there’s a good chance that he was the principal author.

Michael Stipe’s lyrics on the chorus allude to the band’s medical tribulations on the Monster tour with a bit of dry humor and some subtle commentary on what must be one of the more disconcerting elements of being incredibly famous — everything about your life becomes a narrative for public consumption. He seems very detached from the events of his own recent past, and more than a little bored by having to hear the story told so many times over in increasingly simplified ways. Each chorus is punctuated by a limp shout that falls somewhere between an expression of half-hearted frustration and the sound you might make if you dropped a filing cabinet on your toes. It’s not exactly a pleasant sound, but it’s the perfect release for a song containing so much muted anxiety.


12 Responses to “How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us”

  1. dan Says:

    i think your hunch is correct — i recall reading that this song began with berry’s drum beat, which mills overheard and came up with the piano for.

  2. shane Says:

    I’m not sure if I think this is weirder than Airportman. Great idea and great writing, though…I’ll be looking forward to these for weeks to come.

  3. Ian Mathers Says:

    Weirdly enough, this and “Airportman” are my two favourite openers on R.E.M. albums (“What’s the Frequency, Kenneth” is close behind). Great work on this blog so far; I’m not going to know half the old stuff you go over, but this is still going to be a lot of fun.

  4. Michael Says:

    How the West Was Won is a great song. The weirdness is legit, but much more unforced than the past couple of records. They sound like they’re stretching themselves, and that’s always a good thing.

  5. Justin Says:

    Mills, Berry and Stipe originated the song in-studio. Mike was doodling on the keys and Stipe followed suit on a synthesizer, as Berry did his thing on the kit. It’s one of the songs Buck might say “took as long to write as it does to play”.

  6. ozon Says:

    Awesome opener, but not all that weird, certainly nowhere near Airportman.

  7. Jerad Says:

    I didn’t recognize the brilliance of this song until I listened to a live version (I believe it was from the Vienna Opera House). Live, it was sped up a bit and was given some real bite. I love both the live and studio versions of this now.

  8. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    I love this song! It is one of my ten favorite REM songs. That repetitive piano riff and off-kilter hip-hop rhythm just get lodged in my brain and make me happy. I like in Utah and the words and mood of this song totally capture the boom and bust feel of western mining ghost towns. There is also something dark and menacing and at the same time glitzy that makes me think of Las Vegas as well. It also sets a near perfect mood and theme for what follows on the remainder of this oft overlooked album.

  9. Elliot H. Says:

    This is my second favorite R.E.M. album opener, after Feeling Gravitys Pull (which probably my favorite song in general).

  10. Scott Malobisky Says:

    some of the later releases of NAIHF also contain a bonus DVD of stuff, including a documentary thing that was recorded as the band was almost finished with this record in which they talk about the recording process and all, interesting, each individual member is seen sitting on a backporch swing in turns (including Scott Litt) –the kind one would know from Grandma’s, I guess outside the studio there ; this song had a very short gestation process, was actually the last song that they wrote and recorded……..apparently , after being like “done for the day” Bill was walking from the lounge area of the studio past the recording area where he encountered Millzy just messing around with this riff and he was like, “ooh, what’s that ” (paraphrasing here)and he joined in on drums and unbeknownst to them some recording equipment was on (do producers do these sorts of things to capture artist’s ideas in less guarded, more casual spontaneous moments I wonder ?) and , voila , very quickly the meat of the song was now in existence , took Mr.Slinky about an hour to add vocals;, the song came to it’s fruition rapidly after it’s first strains were initially experimented with..One thing that they were saying that was sorta amusing was how much they liked this song (at that time) and how that was a direct result of the fact that it was so fresh, new…..PB sittng there on the swing in his frilly tuxedo shirt commenting on how he was pretty much sick of all the other songs they had been recording for a while now , had heard those songs “a thousand times” but this recently created HTWWWAWIGU he had heard only 4 or 5 times.

  11. Scott Malobisky Says:

    one humorous thing about being famous (REALLY BIG-TIME FAMOUS)is that no one believes that it is really you, Dylan writes of this in Chronicles, I’m sure it happens all the time, you know.. “No way. You’re not him !” On and on it goes , I’m sure to the point of exasperation..hysterical situations can develop.

  12. Martin Says:

    Love the part where he states: “ the decline from a hazy distance” 🙂

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