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.