Low

May 2, 2007

Michael Stipe avoided writing straightforward love songs throughout the ’80s, and though he clearly had a lot of other things on his mind at the time, I suspect that the primary reason for this was that love was a deeply unfashionable subject matter in the post-punk era. As far as love songs go, the lyrics on Out Of Time are rather tentative and guarded, and clearly come from a person who seems unconvinced that he could tackle the issue without ending up with something boring and trite. What we get on the album is a rather common dodge — yeah, it’s about love, but it’s about fucked-up love, man! (The flip side of this is also in evidence on the record — lyrics that express a love so absurdly cheerful and optimistic that the listener is forced to assume that the band is being sarcastic.)

The music and lyrics of “Low” depict a love dulled and obscured by the haze of clinical depression. The arrangement shifts subtly throughout the track, but its gently rumbling percussion and somber organ drone lend the composition a quiet, static quality that approximates the endless, hopeless present tense of severe depression. As the song sprawls out along a bleak grey horizon, Michael mutters his words in a flat, indifferent tone. He says that he’s been laughing, and that he’s “been so happy,” but he couldn’t possibly seem more removed from himself or his emotions. When his voice lifts up on the bridge, he doesn’t sound any more passionate — instead, he just seems annoyed and frustrated, like a man asking you to leave him alone because he’s got a splitting headache.

The most revealing moment in the song comes when Stipe proclaims that he “skipped the part about love” on the chorus. It’s the point when we realize that the protagonist is so numb and miserable that he can barely register (much less express) this profound feeling. He’s not just alienated from the emotion; he feels superior to it: “It seems so silly and low.” The chorus can also be read as a self-aware explanation as to why the band had mostly steered clear of love songs up until the early ’90s, but actually, it seems more like an excuse.

22 Responses to “Low”

  1. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    I have always liked “Low”. It has a gentle, quiet dignity to it despite its darker tone and subject matter. I have always especially loved the percussion in this song as it seems to both dominate the song yet somehow bubble just under the surface as well. I also remember hearing Out Of Time for the first time and after hearing “Low” was pretty convinced that REM was shifting gears and heading in a new direction from their 80’s work. I still distinctly remember hearing “Radio Song” for the first time and thinking pleasant but disposable pop song (but isn’t that the point of “Radio Song”?). Of course, I had already heard “Losing My Religion” when I first heard Out Of Time and it was unique with its tone and mandolin part. Then came “Low” which was sad and beautiful and muted and combined with “Losing My Religion” I then knew that this album was going to be different that anything REM had previously done. Of course, as the album continued I came to see how correct I was! Mike Mills on lead vocals twice?! And how to you describe the weird sing-chant of “Belong” or the utter beauty and devastation of “Country Feedback”? And, to top it all off the album was far more intimate and personal than anything previously done and there was not a “rock song” in site. A gorgeous CD, of which “Low” is one of the standout tracks.

  2. Bandwagon03 Says:

    Low is the most intense song on the record, there IS a dark, dark tone hanging in the air over this song, not really allowing the song to rise up and be light.

  3. James Says:

    Most covers of R.E.M. songs by other musicians tend to be, uh, not very good. But Jawbox cut a phenomenal version of “Low” about a decade ago, for a tribute CD.

  4. corduroy13 Says:

    The new “Finest Worksongs” tribute is quite good. No “Low” cover there though, methinks.

  5. Adam Seddon Says:

    Sorry to be pedantic but despite sombre tone song is not actually in a minor key, indeed there are no minor chords in the song. The verse gets it’s strange droning quality from the use of 5th chords. Indeed the chord sequence of ‘Low’ suggests a punk song (albeit one played very slowly!)


  6. Really! Thanks for mentioning this. I’m not much of a musician, and I kinda go on gut instinct when I’m identifying minor keys. I’m wrong, a lot.

  7. doppelg Says:

    I played Low on a cd jukebox at a Greenwich Villange poolhall one afternoon right after Out Of Time was released. The other pool hall regulars coughed “faggot” as it played. Didn’t matter. It’s a great song to shoot pool to.

  8. jim jos Says:

    anyone have a take on the line

    “morning suits me fine”

    or is it “Mourning suits me fine” ?

    Or both?

  9. The Effort Says:

    And then there’s also that ending: “I like your hands/All full of glory…” Is he actually making a reference to the “hand of glory” — which was the hand of a dead man, used as a candle-holder, and believed to have magic powers?

    Or does he just, you know, like that person’s hands?

  10. zozoe Says:

    I love that line, methinks he just really likes that persons hands : )

  11. Jasper Says:

    I seem to remember an interview with Stipe where he stated, in effect, that the key part of this song to him was the line “You and me, we know about time”, in the bridge. Why he said this, and where it was printed, I cannot remember. Michael has never been one to explain his lyrics very much.

  12. tomer Says:

    it’s very much the counterpart to Up’s At My Mosy Beautiful, which could be the skipped part about love.

  13. chinese brother Says:

    i think he has covered his (male) lover’s hands in glory

  14. John Says:

    WHFS played a Sonic Youth cover of “Low” the year “Out of Time” was released. I only remember this because it was so goddamn awful. I loved it.

  15. Michael Black Ph.D. Says:

    Seems ridiculous to me to say it’s logically “about” anything. Moreover, how it “feels” or what it “suggests” is entirely personal. Despite what Stipe always says (I don’t trust him, for his stock is in secrecy, obscurity, and irony), the feeling I get from Low is that it is about a drug-induced experience; naked, meandering through a garden at night, backlit, climbing trees, crawling through the mud, watching the sunrise, and staring dumbfounded at the human hand as if understanding it for the first time.

  16. Scott Malobisky Says:

    I especially like and agree with your comments ,BWD,..(MR. Michael Black you sound like a man who has experienced the glorious dumbfounding temporary devolution of LSD, or perhaps your patients have?, torn asunder,stupified and rebuilt as a newly more enlightened man who’s seen the alpha and the omega , I LUV IT !!..and fucking awesome observation about Stipe’s “stock being in”.. )……As I get more into Matthew’s posting I find myself more and more resisting the temptation to talk too much, i.e., to ramble on about each song AS IT PERTAINS TO MY LIFE –some more than others like this one for example– to talk about their personal significance to me and where I was at at the time literally and figuratively, blah blah blah..(that’s especially tempting because I have been really neglecting my journal lately as a result of being so addicted to this blog, especially in the morning when I should be writing but what am I doing ?, coming straight here, It’s like why write for myself whenI can write for the world?:))..And out of respect for Matthew and all you hopefully shiny happy people I will continue to try to resist the urge to extrapolate on these songs in terms of my personal experience with them ….Anyway , that said, if I did babble on about exactly that this song would occupy a very special place of transition between phases …And what a daggone cool song , you know ??, shit , what can I say that hasn’t already been said,,,,just so subtlely interesting and mesmerizing, one just can’t help but fall under the spell of that patented REM mystique

  17. Scott Malobisky Says:

    BTW , what an excellent and evocative description of this song, Matthew !! Sounds like something Sylvia Plath would have written ………….

  18. Kirsten Says:

    I LIKE YOUR HANDS, THEY’RE ALL FULL OF GLORY. ALL FULL OF GLORY.

    I always took this more as the inner beauty of this person, maybe with some added jealousy.

    This is such a beautiful song. It makes me want to cuddle up to something, hide in a nice warm, safe place. Great to listen to in the dark.

  19. Paul Alferink Says:

    Best Lyric: I can see your lines.

  20. beonetraveler Says:

    My interpretation was a bit different in the sense that the singer, with this song, was coming to grips with “the part about love.” It’s as if, to my ears, the “silly” thing is that he “skipped” it earlier.

    In other words, “It seems so silly (now) and low (rather than high-minded, to have foregone thinking/writing/singing about love. I used to think it wasn’t worth my time, but I’ve kinda gotten over it. But things change, as they always do. Time is funny that way. Now, I realize this love stuff is intense, fun, complicated, delicious, difficult [cf. “Me in Honey”, “Belong”, “Near Wild Heaven” etc]. By the way, I like your hands…)”

  21. Robin Z Says:

    (Found the blog searching for info on “Shiny Happy People” – good stuff!)

    I wonder if the singer is expecting the relationship to fall apart. Time destroys all, and all that. It’d be a part with love seeming silly – here in the anglophone world, love is intimately tied up with the whole “and cherish forever” part.


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