Try Not To Breathe

May 24, 2007

I can never hear “Try Not To Breathe” without remembering one of my friends from high school explain to me that he wasn’t allowed to have his tape of Automatic For The People during his stay in a mental institution because the doctors believed the song would encourage thoughts of suicide. I’m not even sure if they actually listened to it — they may have just been going on the title — but even if they had, they probably had a good point. The lyrics are very morbid, and its character welcomes death with a clarity of mind that is simultaneously comforting and startling. If there was ever a song that could serve to rationalize suicidal thoughts, it’s “Try Not To Breathe.” It’s enough to make me wonder if Michael Stipe felt compelled to write “Everybody Hurts” if just to provide a crucial counterpoint to this track.

There are two versions of “Try Not To Breathe.” The album recording is mostly acoustic and feels rather airy in spite of a fairly complicated arrangement that allows for several subtle textural shifts. The band reworked the song significantly for the Monster tour, transforming it into a towering stadium rock number mainly by streamlining its arrangement and transposing its central, winding instrumental hook into a seemingly gigantic distorted guitar riff. That version certainly had its merits, but the lyrics make much more sense with the more peaceful accompaniment of the studio recording.


45 Responses to “Try Not To Breathe”

  1. Man, I need to hear that reworked version now, because I can’t imagine this song getting away with a stadium-rock presentation…

    It’s true, though: Try Not to Breathe does a damn fine job rationalizing suicide. It’s eerily logical and it’s sombre, sure, but not really SAD. Its mood is just sort of…neutral. The singer doesn’t sound depressed or angry or frustrated…it’s just that he’s lived a full life. Why bother with more?

  2. Hey, an mp3 of the live version is in the post now.

  3. ozon Says:

    I personally never connected this song to suicide. To me, it conjures up images of an old man, satisfied with his life and ready to move on.

    Either way, beautiful song and I read somewhere Michael Stipe got the inspiration for the title from a remark by Peter Buck after he was told to sit further away from his guitar microphone because his breathing was coming through on the recording. (“I will try not to breathe.”)

  4. fryslandia Says:

    could anyone steer me to a place where i can find the Monster tour version?

  5. You need no steering. It’s right there. It’s in the link in the text of this post.

  6. maclure Says:

    morewordsaboutmusic – I agree with the neutral feel of the song. The same sort of unconcerned register that Stipe used on Low. The album version is so much better for me than the live version – delicate and with that aching bit of guitar feedback over the middle 8.

    One theory I read recently (in fact the Musical Quaterly article highlighted in a comment on the Sidewinder page) suggested Sidewinder could be viewed as a bridge between the pro-ish-suicide of “Try not to breathe” and the anti-suicide of “Everybody Hurts”. If it´s possible to attempt an interpretation – Sidewinder deals with a man with no home who still persists in communicating with others and carrying on with life (I can always sleep standing up!). If so, Sidewinder fits neatly in the song order of the album (although I know some people feel it doesn’t belong on AFTP at all).

  7. >Hey, an mp3 of the live version is in the post now.

    With these rare mp3s you are really spoiling us, Matthew…

    (Even if I have to wait til I get home to hear this.)

  8. wolfy Says:

    This song reminds meclearly of my father’s death. I still am haunted by how he did not approve of, ex. the Iraw war, and would not have liked to seewhat isgoing on now. And how I related to him. That’s the only thing the song reminds me of.

  9. Brian Says:

    I remember reading this on the Murmurs webboard years ago and it always stuck with me (and a google search unearthed it!):

    “if De Niro ever has to play a dying old man, then Try Not To Breathe will surely be the music playing in his head.”

  10. Bandwagon03 Says:

    This song is such a detached, cold, practical look at suicide, its scary. I mean, you would think the main character is talking about going out to the store to get some milk. ; )

  11. Ben Says:

    I always felt that Try Not To Breathe was specifically about Euthanasia. The idea of dying with some dignity and on one’s own terms, rather than in pain over a longer time. Very powerful.

  12. BOOK inisk Says:

    I remember reading this on the Murmurs webboard years ago and it always stuck with me (and a google search unearthed it!):
    With these rare mp3s you are really spoiling us, Matthew…The singer doesn’t sound depressed or angry or frustrated…it’s just that he’s lived a full life. Why bother with more?

  13. What an odd anecdote — but I can understand the sentiment. I agree with the commenter that associates it more with an older person ready to come to their end than a depressed suicide.

    I somehow just found out about this blog, despite being totally REM-obsessive… what a great find! I wish I had thought of it first!

    Has anyone started their own version, with their own takes of each song?

  14. Voltaire Says:

    I think the song is about the calm suicide of a younger man, as the line “these eyes are the eyes of the old” to me clearly paints the picture of a young man who has seen more of life’s joys and sorrows that are appropriate for his age, and this advanced life, brought on through whatever causes, has caused him to lose the will to live at an earlier age. In an attempt to explain, he says that his eyes are old, a stirring image often found in literature to indicate internal age beyond physical appearance.

  15. tomer Says:

    goddamn that song is hot

  16. Chris Says:

    I had no idea there were two versions and I saw them on the Monster tour. the song had to grow on me. By the way… I read that Bill Berry wrote “Everybody Hurts.”

  17. Bill Berry wrote the majority of the music for “Everybody Hurts,” but the band fleshed out the arrangement, and Michael wrote the lyrics. To my knowledge, there aren’t any R.E.M. songs that have only one author, though “I’m Not Over You” may be an exception.

  18. Bruno Says:


    Really I think we may be considering things a bit too much here. As a singer in a similar but otherwise hopeless band, but with the same sensibility, i think there’s a lot of off the top of his head stuff going on – it sounds good, it works for now, it mumbles and strums along in the right pockets and places. Tie it together with a chorus that works (and REM did/does that over and over), a harmony and a catchy riff and away you go. No doubt they do it effortlessly but I don’t think you can tag it as a sombre meditation on life and death. Sure there’s a theme here but at the end of the day, it ain’t too deep, its just stringing words together and singing a sweet melody.

    A wonderful song, any which way.

  19. Ignis Sol Says:

    Ben, the euthanasia theme seems to be apt because it was written in the Jack Kevorkian era. I recall Stipe or a reviewer saying it was from the point of view of an old woman.

    Also, the young man-themed idea Voltaire mentions seems to fit with the era of young men afflicted with AIDS in the early 90’s before drugs started to extend their lives.

    I reviewed AFTP for my college newspaper. This song reminds me of my grandfather’s death shortly thereafter and the memories are bittersweet. I miss him. He, indeed, lived a full life and I will always remember his eyes the last time I saw him to say goodbye.

  20. jim jos Says:

    whether its about suicide or passing away at an elderly age (I think it works on both levels) it is clearly an embrace of death. “I have seen things that you will never see” could certainly be about an elderly person, but people at any age can make the same claim, simply by leading their own unique lives.
    “I will try not to burden you” that very well be the sentiments of an elderly person, or it could be anyone who feels as though their state of being would be a burden on those around him (as people who commit suicide tend to feel that their existence is a burden on those who are close to them)

    The absolute best line (IMHO) of the song is when it opens up a conversation where the other person is shivering, because their life will continue and they will see things that the one who is dying will never see.
    Just as they have met each other on a common ground in time, one has seen things and one will go on to see things without the other.

    Like Hyena, or Crush with Eyeliner, I would not want to have a different arrangement on have it found on any other album as it stresses that each individual REM album has its own musical DNA. TNTB is 100% Automatic, it belongs there

    “Try Not to Breathe” > than many musical artists entire catalog by the way.

  21. Andrew K Says:

    On the composition of the song, Bill Berry gets a lot of credit for writing it but I think his main role was coming up with that really simple plucked through riff — G to D, if my memory serves me.

    I read a quote from him about it somewhere — I don’t know of exactly off the top of my head, but the gist was that he was goofing off with the little riff, and Mike and Peter and he were laughing, thinking it was the dorkiest little riff ever. And then Michael walked in and was like, “this is great!” and started humming the tune that became the melody. I do remember the key part of Bill’s quote: “Michael polished a real turd.”

  22. The reason I’d definitely think it’s more suicide (or at least agreeable euthanasia) than just passing-away-of-old-age is that the song is sung in an active voice. He will TRY NOT TO breathe. That is actively CHOOSING to pass away.

    Trying not to breathe is very different than just “not fighting” his own death. It’s a song that seeks actively the release of death…it doesn’t at all seem to be about passively awaiting it.

  23. fryslandia Says:

    wow. thanks Matthew, i missed that first time around.

  24. Kirsten Says:

    To me, it’s about a young person who feels old and tired because of his life experiences (I have seen things you will never see). Feeling old now, at a young age he’s imagining how old he’s going to feel in 10, 20 years time when he has seem more traumas.

    Or maybe suicide is just the logical thing to do, because he has lived a full life, so there’s no point continuing if you’ve done everything is there?

    Either way, a beautiful and moving song.

  25. Mary Alice Says:

    The album version has my favorite arrangement of an R.E.M. song ever…the backing vocals …I need something..something to (high voice flyyyyyy) …and the instrumental part of the arrangement. It’s just a perfectly arranged song because it’s so subtle and sophisticated and doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s a simple folk song at the core. Love Love Love.

  26. I don’t know if anyone here is familiar with Chris Morris, but he’s a British comedian who did a show called Jam…which was basically the world’s first sketch-tragedy program.

    Brilliant–but utterly painful–stuff. Anyway, there’s a skit from the show that I just found it is on YouTube, and it reminds me a lot of this song. It’s about a man who decides to have his funeral and burial before he gets too old to enjoy them.

    The warped–but correct–reasoning reminded me of our singer of thing song…and I actually believe both “heroes” must have been in a similar state of mind.

  27. andrewk Says:

    What a spectacular live version — Mike and Bill absolutely nail the harmonies. I used to have this whole show… I hope I can find it. Great performance. And great quality recording

  28. jeffd Says:

    Hi – love that version…but i cannot find the mp3 to download… Can you please steer me to it… thanks!

  29. Matt Desmond Says:

    Hey. Fun site. Count me in. (You got a Deadspin link. Go figure. Bless Will’s cynical heart.)

    This is a great, great song–among the best on that great record. I remember being overwhelmed by it. I was only eighteen–there, I’ve dated myself–but my grandparents had just died, and it hit me like a brick. Not sure if this is in their top ten, but I think it’s top twenty.

    Hated that live version, though, and the live “reinvention” of “Drive” as well. Have you done “Drive” yet? I better check…

  30. drew Says:

    I couldn’t agree more with the last comment. I hated the live versions of both Try Not to Breathe and Drive that the band did on the Monster tour. I haven’t listened to the clip, so I can comment on that specific performance: but as I remember it from numerous bootlegs and 3 live shows at the Shoreline Ampitheater: there was a definitie cringe element when hearing Bill’s harmony vocal on Try Not to Breathe. As for Drive: I remember reading an interview with Peter where he said sometimes the band planned to mix it up on the Monster Tour by doing the funk version of Drive some nights and the more AFTP-like version other nights. I only ever heard the funk version alas.

  31. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    I have read comments from Mr. Stipe in several places where he specifically says that this song is about euthanasia – choosing to die with dignity. I have always thought that this song was “defiantly optimistic”. It is about a person making that last, great choice. A person who chooses to end things on his own terms, and while the decision is hard they have no regrets and even feel a hope for something better in whatever is next. Beautiful song. Also, as I am sure many of you know, the music for both this song and “Drive” were originally written to go with the lyrics to “Nightswimming”, before Mike Mills wrote what eventually becmae the simple piano arrangement for that song. Weird to think how “Nightswimming” would have sounded with this music (even moreso with Drive’s tune).

  32. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    Oh, I just reread some of the above posts and this song was definately mostly written by Peter Buck, not Bill Berry.

  33. dan Says:

    >the music for both this song and “Drive” were originally written to go with the lyrics to “Nightswimming”

    The “Nightswimming” lyrics paired with the music to “Drive” would severely alter to mood of that song. Ugh! But I think those lyrics would fit OK with “Try Not to Breath,” just in terms of sound/mood. Can’t beat the piano, though.

    Anyone hear the Out of Time outtake “Night Swim?” That’s probably another one rejected for “Nightswimming.”

  34. David T Says:

    Speaking strictly of instrumentation, I was always intrigued by the very first bit of percussion used to open the song and wondered what instrument was used there…last year, after about 16 years, I *think* I “figured out” (some of you knew/know for sure, I bet) that the sound is that of a triangle being played muted then open every third beat…anyway, just a small bit I’ve always loved about the AFTP recording of the song…

    My ears in 1992 heard the lyrics in light of the Kevorkian/euthanasia controversy then current, but I really enjoyed reading the alterative hypotheses here, especially that of the song being about a young (rather than older) person at the verge of committing suicide…haunting.

  35. Brian Says:

    Dan – I have that Night Swim outtake and have always tried to figure out if that was turned into something else, with Peter and Mike’s sly way of getting a song Michael rejects by him by changing it slightly. I don’t think it ever happened, but I really like the music of that one.

  36. dan Says:

    The bridge to “Night Swim” ended up being the chorus to “It’s a Free World, Baby.” I never noticed that myself but I someone, somewhere, did.

  37. Tiod Says:

    Hello Matthew…it’s been a while hasn’t it…
    Anyway, I thought it was interesting to see that you remembered those conversations we had about that song and others like it. For anyone who may see this…I was in the hospital for suicidal thoughts and attempts and so when the doctors go through all of your belongings, they are inclined to take a look at the music you are listening to. They don’t even turn the music on, just assume that a song with the title “Try not to breathe” can’t have a postive influence. The good thing is that I could listen to all the Pearl Jam I wanted…titles like Garden, Porch and Evenflow sound so pretty don’t they?! What I couldn’t figure out was why Soul Asylum’s Grave Dancers Union was allowed.

  38. Bunnia Says:

    Hey Tiod, glad you’re still around.

    About the song: Yes, “The lyrics are very morbid, and its character welcomes death with a clarity of mind that is simultaneously comforting and startling.”

    ….but I like the song a lot, and as I’ve said numerous times when commenting, I love Michael’s voice and the music!! This is for so many R.E.M. songs! It’s because of the WAY Michael sings it is what makes this one of my favorites on AFTP. Just like “Find the River”, etc. I love his voice so much. He is (and has always been) one of my favorite singers and R.E.M. is (and has always been) one of my favorite rock bands ever. *Sorry if I sound corny, but it’s true–flowing with emotion today*

  39. Jay Says:

    The album version is stunning, sublime. But I’m digging this arena version too. Love the electric guitars, not for whether they add to the song or not (Matthew, your point that the acoustic version makes more sense in the context of the song is well taken), but I just LOVE electric guitar! Plug in, baby!

  40. SpanishFly Says:

    I recall reading in an interview with Mr. Stipe that the character in the song is supposed to be an old woman. Since the gender of the character did not get across as clearly as he had hoped he decided to sing Tongue in a falsetto and remove any gender ambiguity (even though Tongue is a more feminine song in comparison). Also during the Monster tour he would dedicate this song to his nana.

  41. transformerdog Says:

    that nifty brief transistor radio moment too,tres nifty, My Fastidious Feline Friends…. And if I may blatantly plagarize–am I obligated to cite the source ? Bowler and Dray again–”
    TNTB is , ironically, a little more airy, working it’s magic around a beautifully simple acoustic guitar motif, the space progressiviely filled by Mike’s work on keyboards and backing vocals.’Embellishmnent is something I do’, he admitted ,and on this occasion he is especially sucessful. The lyrical inspiration came from Peter this time: ‘When I was doing the demo ,I had this little microphone right in front of me and I was breathing really loud and it was making too much noise.I said, “I’ll try not to breathe,” and Michael took that as a title…like an exercise he tried to think about why someone would try not to breathe. It’s about an old man who’s imagining himself dead and holding his breath tryin to imagine what it’s like to be gone.’ Michael later pointed out that it was a woman not a man but the gist remains the same…Like so many of their best songs, it embraces both a lyrical and a musical dichotomy; musically, it is almost serene, but there is a disturbing undercurrent from Buck’s distorted electric guitar as Michael’s voice changes in tone from welcoming death to reassuring those left behind that life goes on, imparting the wisdom of age.”…….. just a genius song if you ask me..

  42. transformerdog Says:

    and,”The nostalgic, wistful flavor to some of the music suggests that the group were struggling to come to terms with their new identity as major mainstream commercial arists, regretting in some ways the passing of their early days on the road. By implication, it was also a period where they mourned the passing of their youth and questioned their beliefs as they grew older. Bill admitted, ‘It’s so weird to think those days are gone.For all the power and money that we’ve got now it still makes me sad to think it’ll never again be like it was. I’m not living in a dream world and I don’t want to live in the past but it’s kind of sad that it’s changed to the point where something as simple as touring has become so incredibly complicated.’ “

  43. Meriste Says:

    Hi Matthew. I’ve been reading your blog for sometime now but didn’t feel the need to comment. You and most of the commenters here have pretty much said what I think of the songs previously discussed.

    That said, I tried to download the live version of “Try Not to Breathe” above, but the link is already dead. Do you mind re-uploading? I’ve looked everywhere else. Thank you. 🙂

  44. RPI Says:

    Mr. Perpetua, has it ever occurred to you that the Automatic version of this song bears curiously strong similarities to Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”? It just hit me, and I’m amused and a little bewildered.

  45. profligateprofiterole Says:

    WOW RPI ! now that you mention it……!
    quite remarkable

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