Saturn Return

April 13, 2007

“Saturn Return” may not sound much like any other R.E.M. song, but it’s a dead ringer for a Tori Amos number circa the late ’90s. Like most Tori tracks from that era, it is essentially a slow piano ballad filled out with ambient noise and looped synthetic percussion. The band had already dived headlong into fully electronic compositions on Up, but for some reason, even though an acoustic piano is foregrounded in its arrangement, “Saturn Return” still seems like a severe departure from their established aesthetic.  It’s hard to say why. Maybe it’s the fact that the vocal melody is as blatantly Tori-esque as the arrangement? Perhaps it’s got something to do with the vaguely aggravating sound of a referee whistle that cycles in and out of the drum loop?

The song has a very lovely melody, and though it works on its own terms, its placement at the center of Reveal does the record few favors. Once it begins, the album’s sluggish pace grinds to a halt for five long minutes. Michael Stipe sings the line “Saturn is orbiting nothing” on the chorus, and the music seems to echo that concept by sitting in a sort of holding pattern for the entire duration. If that’s intentional, it’s rather clever, but to be honest, the effect is rather dull.

28 Responses to “Saturn Return”

  1. Michael Says:

    Strangely enough, this song bothers me a lot less than most of Reveal. The band puts a fair amount of empty space in the arrangement, despite the various twitterings and beeps. The only thing I positively hate is the end where he sings, “Galileo”. The way Stipe delivers those four syllables makes my skin crawl.

  2. Tim Says:

    Another Post-Berry track that I didn’t like at first, but have grown to appreciate, or at least tolerate. I would put it about half way up on my favorite to least favorite tracks off Reveal now.

    Also, Out of curiosity, are you going to write about any of the Dead Letter Office tracks?


  3. I haven’t decided whether or not I will do all of Dead Letter Office, but I think I probably will because I definitely want to cover “Crazy,” “Bandwagon,” “Ages of You,” and “Burning Down,” and from there it’s kind of a slippery slope, right?

  4. Josh Says:

    You have to do “Voice of Harold”!


  5. Sure, but that one could be folded into “7 Chinese Bros.” if I wanted to skip Dead Letter Office.

  6. Michael Says:

    As long as we get “Winged Mammal Theme”, I’ll be satisfied.

  7. 2fs Says:

    The main problem I have with Reveal is its sequencing: the first four or five tracks in a row are all slowish, mid-tempo songs…and they’re all in the same key or a closely related one. I think you can put five songs in a row in the same key if they’re in differing tempos or feels – or five songs in a row of the same tempo if they’re otherwise very different (arrangement, key, etc.)…but not both. I haven’t hit on a better order for the songs, though…


  8. I quite like the way the first three songs fit together.

  9. wolfy Says:

    REVEAL represents a time in my life when I seemed to be wandering but happy. This song speaks to me because I have a strong Saturn in my natal chart and my Saturn wacing square is coming soon. The whole song expresses that feeling all too well.

  10. iamsmitten Says:

    The first time I listened to it, for a brief moment, it seemed that Thom Yorke was glading along the song…

  11. xman Says:

    a longer version of this song was posted on murmurs not too long ago. it’s basically the same, but i prefer it. the tracks seem to have more breathing room from eachother and the longer intro gives the listener a better chance to get into the beat. it’s a better song than i once thought it originally was and it’s definitely a highmark on a misguided album.

  12. MoL Says:

    It took me awhile to come around to this song, but I think it is one of the better songs off of Reveal. I like the juxtaposition between the piano and the ecltronic backing track. I do think that if they did a version with just the piano it would open up the track and give it more air.

    I like how this project has given me an opportunity to look deeper into songs I already love and adore.

  13. Stephen Says:

    One of my favorites from Reveal.

  14. Kevin Says:

    I have to agree with some of the commenters — this is easily my favorite song on Reveal. As I posted in a Top 50 REM piece awhile back, it’s like the band’s minor-key companion to “You are the Everything,” for when after that serene sense of road-trip romantic elation from that song degenerates into a fuzzy, gloomy headache.

    That being said, glad to have discovered this site, Matt. I’ll keep checking by.🙂

  15. dan Says:

    this blog is making me regret not loading ATS and Reveal on the ol’ ipod. “saturn return” and “beachball” are two you’ve written about so far that are, for me, in the “don’t know” category.

    there is plenty of stuff on both albums that i really, really like, but then there are songs like these that i’ve heard multiple times yet have no recollection of.

  16. pgwp Says:

    I like this song–and in fact I like all of Reveal. I’m always bummed when people (generally speaking) too easily write off post-Berry REM, and especially when they write of this album. I think the band was going for something completely new with Up, which they didn’t hit quite perfectly then but they really refined here. Reveal is actually one of my favorite REM albums.

  17. anney Says:

    you are the third person i’ve heard refer to this as a “tori amos” type song.

  18. Mary Alice Says:

    I love a lot of the melodies on Reveal and this one is no exception. I dig it.

    You know what’s wierd…the song that has my favorite lyrics on Reveal, Chorus and the Ring, is the one that I don’t really like the melody!

  19. jim jos Says:

    Reveal is pretty underrated and I think, in time, it will be considered differently. At least I hope so. This is one of the weaker songs on the album for me, but, still, I don’t dislike it at all. When I pull it off of the cd and mix it with other songs, I like it much more.

  20. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    A couple of comments from this chain of discussion. First, I loved Reveal at first but over time have lost some of my feel for it, largely because I have to agree that the sequencing of the album, espeically at the start is poor (although I love “I’ve Been High” as a song. “The Lifting” in particular is flat and unmoving to me. The demo version on In Time is a little less produced and has a tempo I prefer. As to the song “Saturn Return” it is actually one of my favorite on Reveal. I love the dark and menacing drone of the song (sort of a slow sonic cousin to “Leave”). And while I, like many others, feel that this song has a Tori Amos flavor too as well, that is only in the best possible way (I actually would love her to faithfully cover it). To me “Saturn Return” is one of the few songs that really cuts through the production of Reveal – which to me is the real problem with most of the songs on Reveal. It is about time for REM to look for a new producer other than Mr. McCarty as his three albums, while I like them, all generally seem stiff and overproduced (at least at time). Finally, I know this rant is getting very long, but here is an alternate running order for Reveal (since somebody asked):

    1. She Just Wants To Be
    2. The Lifting
    3. I’ve Been High
    4. Imitation Of Life
    5. All The Way To Reno
    6. Beachball
    7. Beat A Drum
    8. Summer Turns To High
    9. Chorus And The Ring
    10. Saturn Return
    11. Disappear
    12. I’ll Take The Rain

  21. Kirsten Simpson Says:

    I can’t believe what I just read!! Saturn Returns is absolutely BRILLIANT!! It is undoubtably my favourite song on Reveal and, for the record, I love the whistle.🙂

  22. David T Says:

    I concur with Kirsten. More than the lyrics, the melody and the sound of Michael’s voice in the higher register at the start of many of the phrases make this song memorable for me. And I, too, love how the production of this recording allows it to “cut through” in a way that many others on Reveal do not (when I first bought Reveail in ’01, I’d fall asleep at night listening to it, the sound of Michael’s voice singing the first line would nearly always startle me from my slumber).

    Brilliant site! Kudos, Matthew.

  23. Scott Malobisky Says:

    ” You’ve found a ladder in the pattern of your wrist.”..referring to stictches scars from a suicide attempt ?

  24. Adam Says:

    OK, so I was at Home Depot with my Dad and he asked me to get some screws with a Neoprene washer on them. I had no idea it was a real thing and thought it was a word that Stipe had made up. Still don’t know what the lyric means but at least I know what Neoprene is…

  25. gluefoot Says:

    this, for me, is reveal’s stand-out track and one of REM’s finest ever songs.. the vocals are yearning and intense and the cluttered aggressive arrangement is a refreshing diversion from most REM tracks.. i’m not aware of the tori amos material mentioned but it would make sense.. regardless, when the band step out of their comfort zone, it’s really thrilling and this is a manifest example

  26. Imitation of Life Says:

    This one really is a grower; I once had this on the MP3 rated as two stars, but it’s gone up to three and four’s a definite consideration, considering that I’m going to the effort of commenting on it here.

    Firstly, I’ll say that as weird as it sounds, I actually like the whistle; as a musician myself maybe I should grab a sample of one from somewhere. The other great thing about it is that if you give the song defocused attention, it sounds vaguely like a chirping cricket, which adds to Reveal’s summery theme even whilst it’s in its weirdest moment.

    I think the other thing is this: I have a bit of a theory (not much of one, but all the same) that great songs balance opposites, and here we have some essentially live elements (Stipe’s singing, the piano) balancing the mechanics of the drum loop, and even also the general unnaturalness of the intro and outro.

  27. RedParakeet Says:

    I like this song a lot, and when I read the back of the CD when I bought it, the name called out to me straight away, and I couldn’t wait for it to come on. I guess since it was growing on me, I always had a soft spot for it. It’s a very yellow song, on the outside, and the piano arrangement is wonderful. Quite mellow, but quite mysterious. Quite an interesting combination. I think it would have been better for Reveal’s closing track.

    1. She Just Wants To Be
    2. The Lifting
    3. I’ve Been High
    4. Imitation Of Life
    5. All The Way To Reno (You’re Gonna Be A Star)
    6. Summer Turns To High
    7. Beat A Drum
    8. Beachball
    9. Chorus And The Ring
    10. I’ll Take The Rain
    11. Disappear
    12. Saturn Return


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