Letter Never Sent
May 13, 2007
It’s a classic rock and roll tradition: Send a bunch of young guys out on the road for their first national tour, and they’ll come back with at least one song about feeling homesick. In the case of R.E.M., we got two — the moody, cryptic “So. Central Rain,” and the relatively straightforward “Letter Never Sent.” Though the former nails a very particular type of longing and frustration, the latter hits upon a mix of restless energy and emotional/physical exhaustion that seems rather close to my impression of life as a traveling musician. Michael Stipe sounds alternately tired and deadpan throughout the track — he jokes about wanting to vacation in his hometown, mutters something about catacombs, and worries about being being unreachable on the road. He’s overselling the charm of Athens a little bit on the chorus (“heaven is yours where I live”), but it’s exactly the sort of exaggerated fondness that comes from prolonged separation, and so it feels especially poignant and true. Mike Mills’ harmonies lift up the mood on the chorus, but ironically, his words drag the song deeper into negativity as he moans about being “so far,” “so dark,” and “so lost.” “Letter Never Sent” is a tangle of contrary sentiments, but its crisp, agile composition keeps the feelings shifting so that they overlap and contrast rather than melt into an undifferentiated glob of emotion.