Why Not Smile
May 21, 2007
“You’ve been sad for a while / why not smile?” is not an easy lyric to pull off without seeming sappy, cloying, reductive, or flat-out insulting. The only reason it works in “Why Not Smile” is because R.E.M. are fully aware of that, and so those words hit the listener with exactly the right note of fatigued optimism. Unlike “Everybody Hurts,” this isn’t a song for the depressed person — it’s for the people who struggle to support friends, family, and lovers who can’t break free from their despondency. Michael Stipe sounds sober and worn out, but above all, empathetic and patient as he admits his frustration while maintaining that he would do anything to help the person he’s addressing. The music builds as the song progresses, but it’s not at all melodramatic. Every new element in the arrangement is gentle and warm as it wraps around its melodic center, making the tune feel like the musical equivalent of an intimate, heartfelt hug.