The One I Love

May 7, 2007

If we learned anything from music in the ’80s, it’s that if you put loud, driving drums on a good, gentle ballad, you will probably get a hit single. Most of R.E.M.’s major singles from that era run with this basic formula, and so do a majority of other alternative rock-ish songs that take up space on “remember the 80s?” compilations and radio hours. The band have taken to occasionally performing “The One I Love” as a spare folk ballad in recent years, and though it’s a nice novelty, it never works quite as well without Bill Berry beating the hell out of his snare drum. Just like “Welcome To The Occupation,” the enormous sound of the percussion fills the negative space in the arrangement without weighing it down, and so when they hit the chorus, it just soars.

A karaoke note: Unless you have the skill and know what you’re doing, you might want to avoid this song at karaoke even if it’s the only R.E.M. song on the list and you totally love the band. It might seem easy, but once you get up there, it’s a bit too late to realize that it’s actually kinda difficult to sing that “Fiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiire!” chorus. Even if you can sing it, it probably won’t come off as well as you might want it to because there’s something about it that is weirdly particular to the sound of Michael Stipe’s voice. Believe me, I’ve learned this the hard way.

A wedding/mix tape/radio dedication note: Unless you have a very creepy relationship with your significant other, you really don’t want to make this your “song.” This is a song for jerks and sociopaths, and you’re supposed to pick up on that irony by the time Michael sings “a simple prop to occupy my time.”

34 Responses to “The One I Love”

  1. corduroy13 Says:

    Great way to tackle a ginormous hit. “This is a song for jerks and sociopaths”. I love that.

  2. James Says:

    I never understood Peter Buck’s claim that “The One I Love” was an Appalachian ballad, until I heard the acoustic version (which I think was a b-side somewhere). Then, I understood. Bill’s drums really add much to the record, but I think Peter’s opening riff is an air guitar classic that adds much as well (and it also takes the song away from “Appalachia”).

  3. Star79 Says:

    I think Michael Stipe made a comment along the lines of your second disclaimer to a couple who were looking at each other longingly during this song at a concert I saw. There’s an Onion article up today about a similar issue regarding Judas Priest’s “Love Zone”.

  4. Marc Says:

    I remember seeing them play this live on the Document tour. Michael was stoically singing the song without emotion, turning his back to the crowd during much of the tune. The legions of new R.E.M. fans who were at the show just to hear this song, were holding out lighters. Many couples in attendance swayed back in forth; some in an embrace. I couldn’t believe that so many people could be so deaf to the cruelty and ambivalence in the lyrics. Perhaps one of the most misunderstood songs of all time.

  5. Kirsten Says:

    I couldn’t believe it when I heard that Peter Buck had this song played at his wedding. Surely he must have known how inappropriate the song was! I’m not even sure how it is mis-interperated. The words are some of the most forward and comprehensable of any REM song. Despite the fact that the singer is a complete jerk, I do love the song. It’s a great rock tune, and the loud, pounding drums are perfectly suited to the subject matter. Great guitar riff too. I also love it when they slow it down to play accoustically. But I wonder if it would still have been a hit song if the general public actually listened to the words….

  6. Andy Says:

    Sure it still would’ve been a hit song. “Every Breath You Take” was a huge hit for the Police, and it’s as far from being a love song as “The One I Love” is.

    …and I believe Sting has complained that people keep playing it at weddings, too.

  7. jim jos Says:

    the part where Stipe kind of harmonizes after the solo part, just that little hum, for some reason that might be my favorite moment from any REM song ever.

  8. jim jos Says:

    question for the masses

    Why the mention “fire” during the song? He is he “firing” this one out to the one he loves? I have never been too sure how to take that line.

    A lot of Document songs mention the word fire, or have a fire type reference to it. Not sure if there is a reason, but I love the theme.

  9. 2fs Says:

    I am not the masses, but I play the masses on TV: that’s the sort of question about any of Stipe’s lyrics that’s pretty much unanswerable. Or at least, it’s very hard to supply a literal meaning to the line (okay, “word”), very hard to place it within any sort of narrative syntax. I think it’s basically a way to express pure emotion: the narrator is feeling like fire is…hot, heated, burning, bright, but scorching, barely in control, dangerous. And also: Matthew’s point about the word being perfectly suited to some aspects of Stipe’s voice – that’s key as well, to have that how stretch that long “i” sound (actually for most of it, a sort of flat, broad “aeh”: part of the diphthong, southernized) – is more what that line’s about than the word, perhaps. It wouldn’t surprise me if he used to just howl, and then at some point realized he was almost singing “fire” anyway, and so decided to sing that. Because it fits.

  10. You know, the band played this song pretty regularly on the tour for Lifes Rich Pageant — it was called “This One Goes Out” back then — I wonder if you’re right about the chorus being entirely wordless back then. I don’t have any recordings from that era, so I have no idea.

  11. Justin Says:

    And doesn’t Mills sing “Falling down all over” as Stipe sings “Fire”? Kind of illustrates the emotions of the song…everything crashing down in the flames of something that has gone very wrong.

  12. dan Says:

    i always thought mills was singing “she’s coming down on her own now.”

  13. Justin Says:

    Hm. Well, the lyrics sites certainly seem to back you up. Guess lyric misinterpretation is endemic to being a fan of this band.

  14. Martijn Says:

    I always wondered if the “fire” part was meant in an executioner kinda way… you know, the people you wanna get rid of have been lined up and then someone shouts “FIRE to the firing squad.

  15. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    I have always thought this song was pure genius, like so much of Document (a very strange record to be as popular as it was) and “The One I Love” highlights the album so well in that it is more than it appears are first. Everything about this song, musically and lyrically is classic, a great song. As to people misinterpreting the songs verses – c’mon people, the average radio listener pays little attention to the verses of songs, they want a catchy melody, a bit of a hook, and a sing-along chorus. For many listerners music is a brain free experience, sadly. I have read an interview with Michael where he was asked about the “Fire” chorus and he said it was meant to depict the burning down of a flawed relationship, the disintegration of a relationship that was dommed from the start.

  16. lulu Says:

    You are so right! I hate a sappy love song and this is the antithesis of a love song. I’m tired of the idiots who choose this as “their song”. Maybe it is truly telling of the future of their relationship?

  17. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    By the way, in response to an earlier comment, I think I prefer the acoustic slower version.

  18. 2fs Says:

    R.E.M. lyrics – especially early R.E.M. lyrics (let’s just say “pre-Warner Bros.” to simplify) – are an unusual case, in that Stipe’s said many times that the lyrics never really were settled in stone, and so the “official” lyrics sites out there are perfectly eligible to be argued with, thank you very much. Particularly if you’re listening to a live show, if you hear something different from the original lyric, you’re probably right. (Do not ask me for what I insist the lyrics to the chorus for “Sitting Still” are…or aren’t)

  19. Mary Alice Says:

    I personally think it’s a fine wedding song, and I don’t misunderstand it at all.

    To me “A simple prop to occupy my time” is like the opposite of “Ascent of Man’s” “I’ll never steal your gold away”…the Ascent of Man lyric means you’re in a relationship for the best of intentions right, you see s special spark in that person and you would never want to do anything to make it go out? And “A simple prop” means you used that person just to have a relationship without paying attention to the negative results that can bring, right?

    Well, to me, you can’t write a song like “The One I Love” without realizing that kind of relationship isn’t a good thing. Even when the poster above said “fire is about a doomed relationship that’s burning down…” he knows it’s ending…Even Michael in his cynical period realizes that’s not what relationships are for, is kinda of disgusted with the whole idea, and that’s why he’s exploring it. If you didn’t have the insight that it wasn’t a good kind of relationship, some kind of desire to move away from that, you wouldn’t have the self reflection that there is in “The One I Love,” he realizes he’s treating his partners wrongly and is at the point where he doesn’t like it anymore.

    But not everyone is that cynical. While there isn’t mention or hope of an opposite, positive type of relationship in “The One I Love”, hearing talk of that kind of relationship I automatically think of it’s opposite. What makes it romantic to me is simply that to write a song like that you all ready have to recognize that kind of relationship is wrong, so it’s a step towards good ones.

  20. […] 22nd, 2007 Though “The One I Love” was most likely the very first R.E.M. song that I ever heard, “Stand” was the first […]

  21. Young Parisians Says:

    Has anyone heard The Butthole Surfers cover of this song? (Legit download here:

    It’s a ridiculously faithful rendition (despite the noise jam at the end) that is out of sync with the Surfers’ (ab)normal take on music. I read that the ubiquity of this song drove the Buttholes crazy to the point where they’d just cover it all the time on their ’87 tour.

  22. Dark Bob Says:

    As many times as this song has been played, I never seem to get sick of it.

  23. Jaymie Says:

    William Bowers referenced “The One I Love” in his excellent Pitchfork column “Puritan Blister”(#17)
    He talks briefly about the Meta aspects of the track, and suggests something that I’d never really noticed: “The One I Love” is a song about being a song.
    People tend to concentrate on either the “Simple prop” line or, for those oblivious to the song’s intended meaning and context, “The one I love”, No one ever really focuses on the “This one goes out” line

  24. transformerdog Says:

    ah , yes, 1987
    U2 The Joshua Tree
    Peter Gabriel So
    REM Document
    The Holy Trinity Soundtrack of an otherwise very bleak year for me. Got out of the military that year ….though..I “didnt fit the mold”.. indeed…

  25. I wouldn’t go as far as to say “The One I Love” is a fine wedding song, but I really disagree with the assertion that the song is for “jerks and sociopaths.” That assertion rests on a simple misunderstanding of the syntax of the song. The “prop” refers not to “the one I love” but rather “This one,” i.e. this song, this lyric, or whatever–this speech act. Basically, I agree with Jaymie–the song is about itself, or more to the point, about singing, singing as an act to sustain yourself when that’s all you have left.

  26. Furthermore–recall that the final verse of the song is altered to “Another prop has occupied my time.” The tense changes to the past because the song is almost over, which would make sense if the “prop” is indeed the song itself.

  27. Malia Says:

    To me this song is about a man who is in love with a woman but cheated on her. The prop is his mistress, he is burning inside “fire”. What else could it mean? This is not a “so-called” wedding song…………….it a cheating song……………….he messed up!

  28. ReticentDevil Says:

    this is not only my favorite r.e.m. song, its my favorite song period….any artist….any genre……..i just can’t gush enough about how much “the one i love” means to me……..i still clearly remember hearing it for the first time as a junior high kid on the bus to school in the morning………..and its important to note that this was 1987…..there was no internet….no sirius rado…..mtv actually played music, but it was still mainly hair-metal……in a small midwestern town regular radio was country, classic rock, and top-40…….we didn’t even have a proper record store – kmart was where you bought music………and then this….this……thing….this song starts to get played on the radio and it was nothing short of a revelation to me…….i had never heard anything like it before…….i mean the sound – it was clearly a rock song…..but hardly in the party/arena-rock vein i was used to…….and he kept using the word “love”…but clearly this was not a love song in any sense that i’knew……..and why did he keep repeating the same verse? the “fiiiirrrrrreeee” thing – what was that all about? the guitar solo – had this guy even heard eddie van halen before? and all this stuff about “a song about itself” – at 13 years old i couldn’t have fathomed that….but i knew….i could just sense….that things were going on with this song and this band that i never would have guessed possible while listening to bon jovi or motley crue or whitesnake

    now…..sitting here years later and exposed to much more than i was then, i would never dare to claim “the one i love” as revolutionary as i make it sound……much of what r.e.m. does is rooted in music older than my grand-parents…….but whenever i hear or think about this song i can’t escape that feeling- a 13 yo kid on his way to school with his jaw dropped by some song…….thinking – “i don’t know what the hell this is – i’ve never heard anything like it before – but i know damn sure its for me”……and the reason “the one i love” is so important to me – far beyond relating in any way to the lyrical content – is what it exposed me to….what it made me aware of – that there was so much more out there that i hadn’t even been given the chance to hear…..and at 13 the feeling was distinctly that i had been DENIED access to this song……that somebody was actively trying to prevent me from hearing the music i all-of-a-sudden needed to hear……silly, i know…..but i was a kid, damn it……and i’m trying to get across that “the one i love” was *THE* song for me


    oooo….this got way long-winded…..i apologize for that…….but i thank you for allowing me the space to revisit something that meant an awful lot to me

  29. Paul Alferink Says:

    Best Lyrics: Another prop has occupied my time

  30. Shimmygirl Says:

    This song is one of my all time REM faves…it was very bittersweet listening to it in the midst of my teen angst when my boyfriend moved from Australia to America (Texas of all places!). Our doomed relationship was echoed in that song and I would sing it to my poor friends in the back of taxis on the way home from a big night out whilst lamenting the loss of my guy. Despite the cynical lyrics the soaring music and primal ‘Fiiiiirrrre’ just gets me even to this day many years later.

  31. Meriste Says:

    Have you heard Sufjan Stevens’ version of this one? Turned it into something else entirely!

  32. OmegaMan Says:

    Ok, about fell out of my chair when I heard there was a dark, ala “Every Breath You Take”-esque meaning in this song…But without context, this song’s lyrics, read cold mind you, do not evoke obvious meaning. Only until I read Shimmygirl’s context…hell ya the song now makes sense.

    If the lyrics had past tensed the “one I love” to “one I loved”. Maybe…Also remember the lyrics mention “One *I* left behind”…which can be interpreted as a voluntary action, not necessarily one under duress. Also does the prop mentioned stand on its own sentence, or a continuation of the “One I loved…”.

    Kinda vague….I know why I didn’t associate it negatively. Fire to me is the current burning *missing* of the *one I love*.

  33. 40something Says:

    My boyfriend is a radio personality…I called in to ask him to play me a song…told him to just play me something and he chose this song. I immediately loved it but I decided to find out what the meaning of the lyrics were and after reading what everyone has posted, it has made me wonder why he played that especially for me. He and I live together so you can imagine what is going on in my head right now. I thought it a romantic gesture at the time……not sure now!

  34. ScottMalobisky Says:

    Have you ever asked him about it, 40something ?????

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