The Wrong Child
March 30, 2007
There’s a good chance that “The Wrong Child” would be nothing more than a tear-jerker about a troubled little kid if it didn’t have its skewed, vertiginous arrangement. In its way, it seems like an attempt to approximate the aesthetic of Cubism in the format of a pop song, presenting its emotional content from multiple perspectives simultaneously in order to provide a greater context. Michael Stipe sings two contrasting leads on the verses — the foregrounded part is highly earnest and expressive, and the secondary vocal is dispassionate and monotone, lagging behind enough so that they barely overlap. Much of the band’s approach to background vocals involves the secondary lyrics implying a dialogue by commenting on or challenging the lead, but “The Wrong Child” makes a point of remaining self-contained in order to emphasize the character’s sense of isolation. The arrangement is filled out with a slow drone of acoustic guitar, a mesmerizing high pitched lead figure played on a mandolin, and a strangely reassuring piano part on the bridge that marks the most obvious dynamic shift in a piece that purposefully obscures its own structure. The only moment of clarity in the otherwise disorienting song comes on the chorus (“I will try to sing a happy song…”) which sounds hopeful and optimistic in the most emotionally gutting way possible.