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.