The Ascent Of Man

June 4, 2007

It’s a bit counter-intuitive to think of R.E.M.’s recent flirtation with AAA and Adult Contemporary pop as being experimental in nature, but in the context of their body of work, it’s actually a rather bold (and obviously very polarizing) departure from their established character as songwriters and performers. “The Ascent Of Man” is one of the more positive and amiable results of their apparent attempt to make odd yet emotionally direct soft pop. For one thing, just try to categorize it — it seems so benign, but it doesn’t fit in with any particular genre classification — it’s elevator music with extremely inscrutable lyrics; it’s a defanged glam rock tune that’s been slowed down to a crawl; it’s ersatz white guy R&B with a chorus that tries to stuff in more yeahs than “Man on the Moon.” It’s almost painfully sincere, and then Michael Stipe quotes Popeye. Only a group of very talented weirdos could write a song like this.

34 Responses to “The Ascent Of Man”

  1. Ignis Sol Says:

    Some of my favorite lyrics:

    My book is called ‘The Ascent of Man’
    I marked your chapter with a catamaran

    Does that make me a weirdo? I hope so.

  2. 2d Says:

    this song is the only song that stood out from the rest of the album when i heard it from start to finish for the first time. it’s the only one i liked from the start and it’s still one of my favourites off the album. yet somehow it’s lost a bit of its impact on me. the first 20 or so times i listened to it it blew me away (those yeah yeah yeahs / background vocals always sounded brilliant, despite what most people who had heard the album before me were saying), but then one day they lost that certain something. don’t know what exactly, but i think it has to do more with the production than with anything else. maybe there is not enough force in the arrangement and michael’s vocals are too high in the mix? strange because i feel that the spacey feel of this song is delicious and michael sounds in top form. call it a paradox i guess. i’ve always felt that sonically it is right in the middle between “strange currencies” and “tongue” (and lyrically between “be mine” and “at my most beautiful”), but the mix just lost its original power for me. and believe me, i’d give anything to bring back that spark…

    having said that, the song is still excellent and beautifully romantic. always has been in my top three from the album (second-ish or so).

    oh, and the “i’m a cactus trying to be a canoe” lyrics was instantaneously linked in my mind’s… ear… with u2’s “and a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” from “tryin’ to throw your arms around the world”.

    p.s.: the live version is spectacular, as the instrumentation is louder and rawer, and those screamed “yeahs” are pure bliss… why didn’t they play it more often?

  3. Aerothorn Says:

    Oddly enough, I just realized I hadn’t listened to this song before – not consciously. Dunno how that happened. It’s pretty good and much more…filling than the rest of Around the Sun, it seems.

  4. ozon Says:

    The verses are beautiful but I always wait in dread for the moment when the chorus kicks in. When it actually arrives it’s not too bad, for some reason the yeahyeah-attack sounds worse in my head.

  5. dan Says:

    This was the only song that made any impression on me the first time I heard Around the Sun. The chorus is a much better version of what I think they were going for with “Animal” (still on the fence about that one).

    This is a damn fine song, as are many of their recent compositions… but I still don’t like R.E.M. much as a space rock combo. They need some South back. They should eat some kudzu.

    At least the got a new producer.

  6. Kirsten Says:

    Finally, a song everyone loves from ATS!! Don’t feel like I need to defend it now………

    One of my favourites, not just from ATS, but it stacks up brilliantly against their older music too.

  7. maclure Says:

    Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeeeeeaaaaah I also love this track. Ace song and one of about 4 favourites from ATS – for me, the jury is still out on the overall quality of the album. This song is immediately surrounded by weaker tracks which wouldn’t have made it near an REM record from, say, the mid-90s, IMHO. This is the song that keeps me listenin’ to the record through…

    Good work Matthew on your recent blog entries (I hadn’t picked up on the Popeye quote) and some excellent further points from other esteemed commenteers… I check this website several times a day now. Does that make me a weirdo too?

  8. Justin Says:

    I really love the “adult contemporary experiment” angle concerning Around the Sun.

    Still, I’m pretty sore about the record, but like everyone else that commented “The Ascent of Man” is one of the few songs that initially stuck out as good, and I do still like it. The lyrics are silly and nonlinear, almost like Stipe doing someone else doing Stipe from the Murmur-Reckoning era.

    2d – funny you mention a live version. I don’t care much for ATS, but I heard a live recording of “Boy in the Well” on a compilation Peter Buck assembled for Uncut magazine. In a live setting that song (which on-record I thought to be fairly boring) took on a much greater presence, and revealed that beneath its album’s thin hollow production still lurked the sturdy songwriting of a band I love. I wonder how many of the other tunes from Around the Sun would engender a similar validation when played live?

  9. blursongs Says:

    Don’t cheer to soon, here’s a hater 😉

    Actually, it’s the chorus that makes it an incredibly difficult listen for me. The yeahyeahyeahs sound too forced and unconvincing, like with U2’s “Vertigo” (when’s someone starting a blog about their songs?).

    For all their faults, Oasis pull this off best (especially live… check out “Columbia” on their “Live By The Sea” DVD)

  10. David T Says:

    > i’ve always felt that sonically it is right in the middle between “strange currencies” and “tongue”

    Nice observation, 2d! Kind of makes me think that this song might’ve made a nice addition to Monster…

    What initially made the song stand out for me was its sonic break from the songs that precede it (particularly the two it immediately follows, but really most of the CD up to that point)…you hear a lot of breathing room, a lot of “space,” in the track, compared with the somewhat “crowded” instrumentation and production of the tracks that precede it. If ATS were a concert recording, then The Ascent of Man (and, to a large extent, the title song) seems to represent that part of the show in which the band left the main stage and moved to the little side stage for a couple of numbers…I’m thinking U2 during the Pop Mart tour, but lots of bands do this…

    (BTW, I like the more “claustrophobic”-sounding recordings on the record, too–esp. High Speed Train–but I’m always kind of glad to finally get to the last two songs, which allow me to exhale a bit.)

  11. David Says:

    If ever there was an r.e.m. concept album, this is it. I didn’t read it as such, until I was self-forced to reluctantly leave a group of people I was a part of for many years. At that point, I began to hear the album differently, and it all became utterly alive to me. I consider it a masterpiece when “read” that way. By the way, I saw the D.C. show, when Stipe came out and said almost apologetically that they were going to do a bunch of new songs. They played a ton of ATS, and this song was one of the highlights of the show, and with the title track.

  12. Oh my God, dude, there’s no way this song would’ve made sense on Monster — not musically, and CERTAINLY NOT lyrically! Maybe Hi-Fi. The structure is kinda Hi-Fi.

  13. mouserobot Says:

    This is one of the few REM songs that I truly can’t stand. That note that MIchael Stipe hits when he sings ‘yeah’ chorus is just painful to my ears. My cat cringed and put his ears back the first time I played this song. I’m not making that up.

  14. David Says:

    You’re completely right Matthew, it wouldn’t make sense at all.

  15. David T Says:

    I was thinking only about the particular sound of the recording (the balance of the vocals and guitars during the verse, for example) in a surface sort of way and thinking the song might, sonically, serve as a nice foil to some of the more feedback- and distortion-heavy tracks on Monster…kind of the way Tongue does (and does much better than Ascent would!) and, say, a more acoustic-oriented song would not.

    As far as wondering, “Would including this song on Monster make sense?” though, I definitely agree with you, Matthew. Lyrically (both “topic-wise” and “use-of-language-wise”), it’s miles away from Monster; song-structure-wise, too (and the Hi-Fi comparison makes sense to me).

  16. catapult Says:


    I too was at the DC show. I like this song a lot, and felt extremely fortunate to have witnessed its first live performance (not to mention one of the few done at all) on the tour. Unfortunately I had crappy seats off to the right side of the stage, and the sound quality on this song totally sucked. Michael’s voice was completely muted throughout. So true about Michael’s apologetic tone about playing so many new songs. I didn’t mind at all, except that ATS was a very poor choice of an opener.

  17. David Says:

    I was back right and upstairs and the sound was full back there, sorry for your trouble. What’s funny, is the “yeah’s” that are getting so much attention are what made the song really fly in concert. Stipe sung them with such force I thought he’d blow a lung. When he said, “We want to play a bunch of new songs tonight” I stood and cheered, and was the only one doing so in my section. I wish I would’ve been down front. ATS was a strange beginning, since it lacks the rah-rah on the surface, but wow, Stipe’s and Mills harmonies on the lah lah lah lah lah’s at the end were just floating up and down beautifully. An amazing performance.

  18. Mary Alice Says:

    Can you believe the person who says “I could never steal your gold away” is the same one who sang “A simple prop to occupy my time…” I like to picture Mike Mills saying “when you’d become such a sap, Michael? I like it.”

    I think the song is a good balance of romantic, sweet, and sexy all at the same time. And I love the melody and arrangement. I think the sexy part comes from the “big wham bam” part being sung in a lower voice and the slow deliberate rhythm. It’s my favorite song on Around the Sun 🙂

  19. catapult Says:

    **Can you believe the person who says “I could never steal your gold away” is the same one who sang “A simple prop to occupy my time…”**

    …and the same person whose book was called “Life and How to Live It” has a new one called “The Ascent of Man.” Sounds like someone has been tamed by the years. Happens to all of us I suppose.

  20. Ignis Sol Says:

    I must of heard the same ATS set as the others in this blog at their second Seattle show during this tour. Their first night, I read, featured more of the classics. They new songs sounded great amongst “Life and How to Live It” and “So. Central Rain.”

    ATS, the album, is an odd beast, but I like it. My favorites also include “I Wanted to be Wrong” and “High Speed Train.”

  21. David T Says:

    > ATS, the album, is an odd beast, but I like it. My favorites also include “I Wanted to be Wrong” and “High Speed Train.”

    After making (and pretty much retracting) the off-hand comment about Ascent and how it would sound in the context of Monster yesterday, I popped in ATS for the first “proper” listen I’d given it in awhile…I REALLY enjoyed it (High Speed Train was and is one of my faves, too). I think I’ve finally overcame my first, somewhat negative impression of the record…an impression that was made as I listened to the record at VERY low volume on my office computer after REM had made a streaming version available on their MySpace page back in ’04.

    I tell ya–there’s no substitute for listening to it at a proper volume, and giving it more attention than I could give while sneaking listens at work!!

  22. Clive Says:

    I was pleasantly surprised by how many people shared my thinking in that this song was a favourite ‘first listen’. It was this song that had me eager to put the CD back in after I’d first listened to it. I still like it but I agree that it has lost it’s spark.
    The album version is fairly dreamy and electronic. Played live the guitars are more prominent and the verse (that appears at the beginning and then at the end) sounds almost unrecognizable – but good.
    ** Just a note about the line ‘I’m so in love I don’t attract’ – I’ve been trying to fathom some sense from this. I’ve always felt the opposite is true, when you’re in love you attract more so because of the happy glow that you give off. Am I missing the point completely here? !

  23. Mary Alice Says:

    but he was a big flirt and couldn’t commit before. have you ever known someone that just had to have everyone’s attention and flirt with everyone, and seem not suited for monogonmy because it seemed everyone they met they wanted to attract them? But then they’ve met this one person that they love and the compulsion is gone…everyone knows they’re in love with someone else, they may still occasionally be charming and friendly with people they meet but for the first time there’s no confusion that they’re trying to attract other people with it because everyone knows they’re in love with somoene? It just kinda radiates from people when they’re trying to attract someone, and it does the same when they’re in love with someone so much that they aren’t trying to attract people.

  24. Scott Malobisky Says:

    I remember the time leading up to the release of this CD and how I eagerly anticipated it coming out and finally getting it the day it was released to the general public…and taking it home and peaking one by one at the song titles trying to imagine what the song might be like………and then listening to each song three times in a row before moving on to the next (just this little sorta game I was playing , approaching the first listen of an REM album in a different way )…and being TOTALLY STUPIFIED by how different this song turned out to be from the impression the song title created in my head….Think I expected some profound dissertation set to music or something (!!!), was really struck by this off the wall ditty , but certainly not in the way I expected.(‘the worst joke ever’ another title from this release that really had me wondering as I approached first listen —but that’s a whole other story :)…. ….)

  25. kerry Says:

    It’s the only song on ATS that I was able to listen to twice in a row. Enough said.

  26. Brian Says:

    My impression of the “I’m so in love, that I don’t attract” is that he is trying too hard to please the object of his affection that he is coming off as desperate.

  27. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    Funny how we are often so different. I actually kind of like ATS overall (although it does sort of all blend together because of the poor production, but I’ve had that rant before) but one of the few songs I don’t like is “The Ascent of Man”. I was always offset by the “yeahs” and just never felt that there was enough hook to the song. In an interesting (or not) side note I have always felt that this song as U2’s “Original of the Species” went together. Some lyrical and musical similarities, on albums that came out near each other and in some sense of the word were a return on sorts to the “classicist” sound of the band. And both a little underwhelming in my opinion. Furthermore, “The Ascent of Man” has the yeah yeah yeahs, and “Original of the Species” has its own doo, da doo, doo, da doo, repeated part. I’ve always felt they were unintentional companion songs to some weird single co-released by two of the world’s biggest and most influential bands. Anybody else make this connection between these songs?

  28. Scott Malobisky Says:

    never heard that one ,BWD..but..BINGO , Brian, BINGO…!!! I’ve always had that problem , everytime that I really REALLY like someone it never seems to be reciprocated , like I get this silly simpy look of complete devotion on my face which sabotages all mystery ; maybe if I pretended to be the bad man just once like George on that one Seinfeld episode she’ll find me to be gnarley

  29. blursongs Says:

    Beethoven Was Deaf, I never made that connection before, but as you can see above I do see similarities with another song from that U2 album…

  30. Amelia Says:

    Ascent of Man did not catch me when I heard the album. But when I heard it performed live, I was completely blown away. The strength and emotion in Michael’s voice was so powerful…particularly in the chorus. That song was the highlight of the concert, and now I love to play it simply to relive the emotions I felt when I heard it live.

    Thanks for doing this blog…I’m a nerd for this stuff!

  31. ScottMalobisky Says:

    Amelia, what a pretty name

  32. Paricia Says:

    Unlike alot of fans, ATS is one of my favourites,
    Leaving New York, Ascent of a man, and Boy in the well, as well as I wanted to be wrong, are my favourites.
    I accept all music from R.E.M. because it’s always so versatile. Call me forgiving ? No, call me a huge fan that will never criticize the lyrics of JMS.
    Now, let me go back and turn up the volume for ATS 🙂

  33. sarah beth Says:

    I love this song. The yeahs are inexplicably resonant and beautiful. Best “yeahs” ever.

    I love this album and do not understand all the poo-pooing of it. I love love love it.

  34. ScottMalobisky Says:

    YEAH BABY !!!!!!!!!

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