Hyena

May 16, 2007

About one third of Lifes Rich Pageant is comprised of tracks that were either adapted from previously scrapped songs or worked out in the studio to make up for a lack of new material. “Hyena” was originally written back in 1984, and was a concert staple on the tours for Reckoning and Fables of the Reconstruction before it was finally fleshed out in the studio with producer Don Gehman. They were wise to keep it under wraps for so long. The original demo, which can be heard on the bonus disc of the recent And I Feel Fine hits compilation, is more than a little undercooked. The beat is not brisk enough, the guitar tone is muddy, and the dual lead vocal is far too messy. Gehman got it exactly right — the final studio recording feels extraordinarily sunny, breezy, and streamlined. Mike Mills’ vocals are pushed into the background enough so that he barely registers until the chorus, and though the track loses a bit of its original novelty, Stipe’s superior melody and lyrics are allowed enough room to flourish.

Lyrically, “Hyena” makes much more sense in the context of Lifes Rich Pageant than it would have on either of that record’s predecessors. The song is essentially an allegory comparing the way powerful nations assert their dominance over small, impoverished regions to the ruthlessness of the food chain, which ties in nicely with the album’s general theme of connecting human politics to the natural world. However, despite the fact that it’s a rather clever satire of American foreign policy, its words may be a bit too vague and esoteric to be rhetorically effective.

21 Responses to “Hyena”

  1. gabriel peters Says:

    I like the poltical and social movements tone of Life Rich Pageant. The album is a very rare type of political massage albums that is not awkward – and Hyena its a good example for that kind of songs on the album. The music: Wonderful old school R.E.M.

  2. John Says:

    I find it interesting to look at the songs that appear on the band’s first four albums in terms of provenance. A significant portion of the best music the band recorded between 1981-86 was written very early in the band’s career. Listening to bootlegs like That Beat in Time is like hearing a demo tape for three of the band’s first four albums. Most of the material showed up on Chronic Town and Murmur, while a handful didn’t appear until Pageant. Other early bootlegs feature songs found on the band’s second full-length, Reckoning.

    Fables of the Reconstruction seemed to be the first time the band didn’t rely on those earliest, Athens club-tested songs when they went into the studio. The experience of recording what was a difficult and dark album clearly had an impact on the band, which might explain why the subsequent Pageant is both R.E.M.’s most fun and most rocking album, returning in spirit, and occasionally in song, to that earlier time.

  3. ozon Says:

    Probably my absolute #1 favorite song by anyone, ever. I like the vagueness of the lyrics, which allows us to fill in the blanks ourselves. I’ve always wondered what Mike is singing during the verses though.

  4. dan Says:

    this song rules so much. too bad they only did one album with gehman — i think LRP is their best sounding record.

  5. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    It’s funny how different opinions can be. “Hyena” is easily my least favorite track on “Life’s Rich Pagaent” as I have always found it very boring musically and lyrically. While the metaphor of the Hyena eating its prey is a fine political analogy, this song has always lacked depth for me. Even the songs fun and sunny tone seems at odds with the message of the song; I like the darker political ruminations that would come to dominate much of Document.

    While I have never had any issue with the production on LRP by Don Gehman (indeed, it is likely REM’s most studio polished record until the Pat McCarthy CD’s, and still there most arena ready sound), but have always found it incredibly odd that LRP, which is far more bright and sunny and radio friendly in sound and production than Document, did not bring REM mainstream success, but the dark toned and difficult Document did.

  6. drew Says:

    “despite the fact that it’s a rather clever satire of American foreign policy, its words may be a bit too vague and esoteric to be rhetorically effective.” matthew, are you trying to say what i think you’re trying to say, without saying it at all: it’s no “flowers of guatemala”?

  7. will Says:

    Easily my favorite R.E.M. album of all time(and I go back to the begining). I still listen to it regularly.

    Matthew…nice job so far. I am really enjoying this. However, I agree with some of the others comments about digging into “Dead Letter Office.” May I suggest “Voice of Harold.”🙂

  8. maclure Says:

    Hyena is the best REM example of this double vocal-type song, in my opinion. I think Mills and Stipe used to shout this into each others faces on stage – a sort of game to try and put each other off. Gehmann’s production of LRP took REM pretty close to a mainstream 80s pop sound with bouncy drums and vocals quite high in the mix – but I think he pulled it off by toeing a line between a bright breezy energy (which resembled their live performances and served the records themes) and yet keeping some elements of that kind of layered, clipped… whats the word? Er, fuzzyness sound (which resembled their first 3 records).

    I feel like I’m getting to know some of you all on this excellent blog of Michael’s. We should all go for drinks sometime… although, it seems we all live in different countries. I live in Brazil.

  9. Mary Alice Says:

    I love Life’s Rich Pageant…one of my favorite albums of all time. while I wouldn’t say Hyena is my favorite on it (These Days, Fall On Me, I Believe, and Swan Swan H I all like more I think…) it’s got a great sound. That’s it’s plus is the music, the lyrics aren’t as hot as the songs I previously mentioned and even some others on the album that have GREAT lyrics. But it’s still a good song, thanks for doing what you’ve done with other songs that I didn’t 100% love and make me appreciate them more!

  10. Mary Alice Says:

    maclure you’re from Brazil…I’ll take a caipirinha!

  11. deputydog Says:

    this track is one of the greatest ever written. it never fails to make me smile.

    love your blog.

  12. EK Alex Says:

    This is one of my preferred tracks on LRP, which remains one of my favourite REM records. The band were at the cusp of a new era, and while the more mainstream sound and production might not have been to everyone’s taste, some of the finest songs in the band’s catalogue were released between 1986 and 1989. What makes this particular song stand out for me is the guitar line that feeds into the chorus, a hook that quickly becomes imbedded in your head.

  13. Bandwagon03 Says:

    One of my favorites albums from REM, although, i have to agree with Beethoven, its pretty much a “throw away” song for me. IMO, it just doesnt go anywhere.

  14. Eclipse Says:

    Not my favorite song on this album, but the album as a whole is great and hangs together really well. I love the chorus, though I’ve also always wondered what Mills is saying. I definitely prefer the version they ended up with than the demo they started out with; it’s much brighter and lighter.

    I’m really enjoying reading this blog, and I also get a lot out of other people’s comments – thanks so much!

  15. jim jos Says:

    LRP is the true home for Hyena, can’t imagine it really anywhere else. “In the final act of the beginning of time”

  16. stjarna67 Says:

    Life’s Rich Pageant is one of my favorite albums. A college roommate introduced me to R.E.M. with this album. While Hyena is a good track, Swan Swan H and I Believe are the tracks I really like. While R.E.M. went onto experience some more public attention to subsequent albums, I still think this album is their best.

    -sj

    p.s. I have no idea how such a great band could come up with songs like Orange Crush & Stand. Yikes.

  17. Aerothorn Says:

    While there are very, very few R.E.M. songs I actively dislike, I certainly have my favs – and while I’ve never bothered ranking them (as such a ranking would change on a daily basis), this would definitely be in my top 15%, and is oddly enough my favorite song from Life’s Rich Pageant. It works on many levels – as you note, there’s the political allegory, and I’ve read it has to do with nuclear weapons or somesuch, but it also functions as one of the 90% of songs about relationships – particulary if you’re able to understand the final chorus (a lyric sheet really helps on this one).

    Sadly enough, this always made me think of my first and final love. Harsh.

  18. Scott Malobisky Says:

    “..the only thing to fear is fearlessness..”, that’s gold

  19. A Fan Apart Says:

    While easily trumped by Swan Swan H, Cuhahoga etc. in terms of songwriting and ambition, this is the most frenetic, joyous song on LRP. ‘Extraordinarily sunny’ is just right, i remember hearing it for the first time and grinning foolishly, which only happens for me with Beatles or REM numbers.


  20. […] on the album is totally counter-intuitive, but somehow it works perfectly as a bridge between “Hyena” and “The Flowers of Guatemala.” I can’t imagine what possessed the band to push […]

  21. robrem Says:

    Have you seen/heard the two versions posted on youtube? The one from 1984 confirms what Matthew says about the song being “undercooked” in the RECKONING period; then you get the 1985 version–in the run-up to LRP–from the German concert, and it’s wonderful. In fact, there’s a wildness to Stipe’s vocals which LRP doesn’t quite catch. This has always been one of my favorite r.e.m. songs–cinematic, suggestive. if he doesn’t say “Hyena’s sister,” I don’t want to know about it; she’s a character in my head.


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