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.

22 Responses to “Letter Never Sent”

  1. Adam Says:

    According to Peter Hogan’s booklet that came with an REM interview CD I have, “So. Central Rain” is about Carol Levy, Stipe’s photographer friend who died in a car accident. “Camera” is also about her, apparently.

    Still a cryptic song, I suppose, but that’s what it’s supposed to be about, apparently.

    Oh, and I love this blog. There are very few people who can write about music and do it well. You do it well. It’s a pleasure to read.

  2. Mary Alice Says:

    yeah I guess these should be left for the songs “Camera” and “So Central Rain” blogs but they heard about all these floods in Georgia and massive rain and they couldn’t reach home because the lines were down. That’s why they wrote So. Central…I think the came about pretty quickly so I doubt they knew about Carol if she died in those rains.

    Carol did die in a car accident…was it in those rains, it may have been, but yeah Camera is about her.

  3. I knew “Camera” was about her, but not “So. Central Rain.” I’m glad I knew that before getting to that song — I don’t intend to dig into personal histories too much, but any bit of context is very helpful.

  4. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    “Letter Never Sent” has always seemed to be like one of the rare REM songs that could be labelled as “pleasant filler”. The song is okay as it plays, but I never seek it out. It always seemed kind of amateurish to me (and not in a fresh, good way). However, your interpretaion of it is something I never considered and I do think it might open the song up for me in a new way.

  5. Bandwagon03 Says:

    I have to agree with Beethoven, not really a great song, just kind of a song in between. Its rather dark and brooding.

    BTW, as far as “So. Central Rain” when i saw these guys in Charlotte about 10 or 12 years ago, Stipe mentioned that this song was written while they were in Charlotte. Of course, everyone knows that the album was recorded in Charlotte at Reflection. Guess where they are located?


    Yep, South Central.

  6. karen Says:

    there is some serious water talk in this song as well as the others mentioned from reckoning, like “the water is evening now, the catacombs are filling in.”

    this is completely arbitrary, but i always thought of this song as being about somebody the narrator misses who has moved away, not about actually being away from home himself, alternating between his point of view and that of the person who’s gone.

    i wonder if i interpret songs that refer to moving around differently than others because of my army brat history, but then that’s michael stipe’s history as well.

  7. Ignis Sol Says:

    When Michael sang “So. Central Rain” live in Seattle a few years ago, he changed the line “the city on the river there is a girl without a dream” to “the city in the mountains there is a boy without a dream.”

  8. gabriel peters Says:

    This is an absolutly fantastic song. Still today it gives me the creeps while hearing the chorus “heaven is yours…” – by the way that are the only understandable words in the song for a german… The chorus of this song is one of the reasons why I fell in love with R.E.M.

  9. dan Says:

    gabriel, those are the only understandable words in the song for this american!

  10. drew Says:

    just wanted to mention that fantastic acoustic medley of “time after time,” peter gabriel’s “red rain,” and “so. central rain” recorded in utrecht, holland in 1987. that’s long been one of my favorite REM recordings … and many of the theme’s mentioned by the various comments above are really pulled out in that medley. i’m really enjoying the blog, matthew. thanks.

  11. I love that medley, and I’ll most likely talk about it when I eventually write up “Time After Time.”

  12. jim jos Says:

    Reckoning…”File under Water”
    Document….”File under Fire”

    funny how lyrically they have collective elemental themes, no earth or air yet.

    Great cliff notes, great posts.

  13. gabriel peters Says:

    There is another for me highly important aspect concerning that song: it is the title. Letter Never Sent. Poetic, sad, to the point. It evokes a lot of associations: Words you wanted to say to a loved one, but you never did. An unsent cry for help or support. Your personal truth that you wanted to say to someone, but you didn´t have the courage to do so. etc. It reminds me of another song title, of the german independent band The Notwist: Unsaid, Undone.

  14. jim jos Says:

    “heaven’s yours where I live”

    is that simply a recommendation for Athens, or is he telling someone (the person he’s not sending the letter to?) that if they were to live there it would be heaven for the other person?

    and is that “you” in question “I thought I left YOU behind”, a person or the place itself?

    no burial ground type catacombs in the US, is he over seas?

  15. Kirsten Says:

    Beautifully said, gabriel. I couldn’t agree more. My favourite line in the song has to be “If my soul was made of stone, but it’s not”
    A beautiful, lonely song full of regret for unsaid words.

  16. Andy Says:

    I can’t find my copy of Reckoning, so I can’t check the lyrics—but I’ve always thought of “vacation in Athens” as more a specific time of the year. In college towns, vacation time is very different than other times of the year because all the students are gone. Like someone else mentioned, I always imagined that the person in the song was in Athens during one of those times when everyone else has departed for other (more interesting) locales. The concept of the “letter never sent” always seemed both about something that didn’t get communicated AND the idea that some things have to remain where they are–in a specific time and place. The person left behind for “vacation in Athens” seemed to me to be the “letter never sent”…

    … but then again, I can’t find my copy of Reckoning…

  17. Good, thoughtful comments here. It’s kind of a tricky song, it’s hard to know for sure which side you’re looking in on.

  18. Ingrid Says:

    It’s not a love letter, trust me.

  19. Scott Malobisky Says:

    this is indeed a tricky song , sounds like barely controlled cacophony in spots

  20. Scott Malobisky Says:

    and I can’t get it out of my head
    and I can’t get it out of my head

  21. Susan Says:

    I read this one was actually based on a letter someone (Stipe or a friend of his) found, an actual “letter never sent” from an unknown stranger who was actually on vacation in Athens. Can’t remember where I saw that, though.

  22. profligateprofiterole Says:

    Hi Susan.

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