Sweetness Follows

April 6, 2007

Automatic For The People is commonly labeled as R.E.M.’s “album about death,” but it’s more accurate to say that it is a set of songs primarily concerned with being alive with the awareness of mortality. The tragedy of “Sweetness Follows” isn’t the death of its characters’ parents but rather the way petty grudges and self-absorption have either damaged or completely severed the connections of the surviving family members. The singer laments this condition and clearly wants to make things right, but he also seems resigned to the stubborn will of his siblings.

The lyrical drama plays itself out in the instrumental arrangement. The stiff rhythm of the acoustic guitar seems cold, stoic, and removed from the other elements of the piece — “distanced from one, deaf to the other,” in other words. Meanwhile, a somber cello moan, a funereal organ drone, and distant electric guitar feedback stand in for different stages of the Kübler-Ross model of grief.

The guitar feedback is the most emotive element in the song. The part threatens to break out into a solo during the bridge, but it chokes on its own emotion like a person fighting to hold back their tears. Peter Buck’s performance is subtle but exceptionally moving, and lends a gentle complexity to a song that might be nothing more than a cloying tear-jerker in less capable hands.

17 Responses to “Sweetness Follows”

  1. Lisa Says:

    Good choice for Good Friday. I enjoy your site.

  2. David Says:

    Easily one of my favorite songs in the entire catalog. Only song it continually falls to is “Perfect Circle.”

  3. Ambrose Chapel Says:

    This is one of my favorite R.E.M. songs. Wonderful description of Peter Buck’s playing on it.

  4. satisfied75 Says:

    i have actually cried while listening to this one. this whole CD is emotionally charged.

  5. Designate Says:

    You write well and this blog is quite interesting. I just put on this song, one of my favorites by them.

  6. Annie Says:

    Makes sense that Peter’s performance seems especially poignant – as I recall the song was written about his father’s death (?).

  7. Eclipse Says:

    This is one of my all-time favorite R.E.M. songs. It is exceptionally moving, and for me, is forever linked with “Find the River” and even ties back to “Belong” in my mind.

    Thanks for this blog – I’m an old fan and am enjoying this discussion. It’d be great if someone did this for Robyn Hitchcock, too.. Keep up the good work!

  8. EK Alex Says:

    Automatic is REM’s best record on solely musical terms, and this is one of my favourite REM tracks. Stipe’s vocal is sombre, moving and uplifting.

  9. jim jos Says:

    sometimes this song is too painful for me to listen to.
    It hits really close to home and Stipes lyrics are both direct and surreal. Brilliant.

  10. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    How can you described “Sweetness Follows” other than by saying powerful? Maybe haunting? This is a song that stays with you and has real emotional weight. An obvious stand-out track on one of the great CD’s of my lifetime. Like Eclipse said above this song is in my mind connected to “Find The River” and for me, also, to “Everybody Hurts”. I have always thought that “Sweetness Follows” has even more power because for so many years Stipe’s lyrics were so mumbled, indirect, and obscured, that for him to be so clear and direct only adds to the emotional power of the song. Finally, the glory of the song truly is that despite its subject matter, in the end, it is a song of hope and peace.

  11. kirk Says:

    just found your brilliant site. thanks doesn’t say enough for what you bring to this community. without a doubt my favorite song which stirs haunting memories.

  12. Scott Malobisky Says:

    Peter Buck admitted, “This song would be too saccharine if it didn’t have that discordant cello back there.”..and on the fortuitous accident of John Paul Jones being in the studio collaborating on the strings, “Scott Litt met him one night and just asked him. I’d liked his stuff since I was a kid. It’s easy to hate Led Zeppelin because of their imitators but for me they were a psychedelic blues band.”…I liked how this song was used in Vanilla Sky…

  13. Scott Malobisky Says:

    Hey Eclipse , when I saw Robyn Hitchcock (went to the show to see Peter Buck) he comes out walks up to the mike and deadpans , “Shame about the universe.” then rips into a power chord; the show was very punk-like to me.

  14. DJ Says:

    This is one of my all time favorite REM songs. The music lyrics and melody flow together in such a beautiful way. It is also the example I always when talking to guitar players about curtailing the solo and serving the song. The simple but beautiful feedback is certainly better than an overworked guitar solo, and in my opinion this is one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard.

  15. […] from Automatic For The People’s running order, and then note just how abrupt the beginning of “Sweetness Follows” feels coming after “Everybody Hurts.” The two songs aren’t exactly jarring side […]

  16. Melonie Says:

    This was one of those songs that I thought was pretty, but it didn’t really touch me. Then I listened to it after I buried the last member of my family, and I cried for half an hour. It really hits the gamut of emotions I felt, whether it was just the aloneness and disconnection from everyone around me, or the knowledge that when my family died, so did the dysfunction that had kept me stuck. Those “little things that pull you under…” It really comforted me in both feeling the pain of losing them, and the freedom of not having to live by anyone’s inflicted standards or belief systems. Sweetness follows.

  17. ...Troubled About This Song Says:

    This song is a weird one…
    I’m someone who is really into more progressive rock and alternative music. Bands I like are Rush, Green Day, Kansas, Killers. I do like R.E.M., they’re one of my favourites, but I’m more into their “Ignoreland”, “End of the World”and “Imatation of Life” stuff. I do like all their stuff but those are my favourites.
    When I first heard Sweetness Follows, I didn’t think much of it. I considered it another album filler.
    Then it came back to me, and i thought about it more and more, and realized how this much overlooked song is really an emotional, and wonderful hidden jem.
    Now it’s just eating away on me on how good it is. I can’t get it out of my head, it’s so deep and fascinating. When I listen to this song I picture a wounded Gaelic solider, from the william wallace era, alone and dying in a lush Scottish forrest, regretting his ways of treating people in his life. Always pushing them away, and now in his hour of need, there is no one to aid him. I guess I have quite an imagination 😛
    If I ever had the chance to sit down with R.E.M. I’d ask about every detail about this strange yet amazing song. I have to say this is my favourite song…ever.
    Thanks for shedding light on it’s meaning 🙂

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