I’ve Been High

June 8, 2007

Though I often point to Bill Berry’s departure from the band as being a major contributing factor to the weakness of some of R.E.M.’s songs from 1997 onward, his absence is on rare occasions a boon to the creative process of the remaining trio. It’s difficult to imagine what Bill Berry might have done with a song like “I’ve Been High,” but I think it’s rather unlikely that he would have pushed the tune in a direction that would be superior to the stark, simple acoustic percussion and layers of stuttering drum machine patterns that fill out the arrangement of the studio recording. (Of course, I’m assuming that Berry would’ve been opposed to the electronic percussion.)

The arrangement of “I’ve Been High” is airy and spare, but filled with a variety of colors and textures. As the organ drone lends the piece a steady tone, the drum programming flickers and sparkles, and its obviously synthetic texture creates the sense that what we’re hearing is taking place someplace busy, modern, and just a bit cheesy, like the backdrop of a sci-fi movie.

It’s a very clever move. The overtly electronic sounds distance it slightly from being a simple Adult Contemporary ballad while also nudging it closer to the ethereal yet bombastic aesthetic of early ’80s Phil Collins. That said, “I’ve Been High” is no “In The Air Tonight”. Phil aims for intense, widescreen drama, and R.E.M. opt for something far more delicate and romantic. There’s a potent sense of yearning to the song, but it’s not cloying or overblown. It works because the enormity of its emotion is acknowledged and fully and clearly expressed, but not exaggerated.

On a lyrical level, “I’ve Been High” is another one of Michael Stipe’s Optimistic Songs About The Future, but there’s a note of regret in his character’s quest to live out his fondest desires. It’s essentially the flip side of the musically similar “Electron Blue.” Whereas that song is from the perspective of someone in love with an exciting person who is caught up in the pursuit of adventure, “I’ve Been High” conveys the emotional state of someone who can’t bring themselves to sit still, even if it means breaking off profound personal connections. There is no ill will in either song — both sides recognize that it would be wrong to hold the other back — but the scenario in each is incredibly bittersweet and heartbreaking.


40 Responses to “I’ve Been High”

  1. Scott Malobisky Says:

    dare I take another shot at Christianity..??…I just referred to this song the other day in a rather heated discussion , specifically the line ‘”Have I missed the big reveal ?”..Was saying that basically the ball is in God’s court as to who is saved or not going by the ludicrous standards of HARD-CORE Christianity in that we are all “victims of our perceptions” as I like to say…You can’t choose to believe in something or not–you either do or you don’t-just as you can’t choose to fall in love with someone —you either are or you’re not–so why should a person be punished because something wasn’t revealed enough to them to cause them to believe ???..You know , “Have I missed the big reveal?” could easily be the thought of many an atheist upon adding it all up, looking at THE BIG PICTURE QUESTION of God’s existence totally objectively… the humorous side ,”I’ve Been High” ?? yes guys , I’m sure you have—higher than I’ve ever been …..and low….

  2. Aerothorn Says:

    Nothing intelligent to add to this. Particularly great write-up on that one. Makes my otherwise shitty day mildly better.

  3. MoL Says:

    This is one song that doesn’t do it for me. I don’t know why — maybe it is the drum loop, the tempo, the style, I’ve never enjoyed it. And I’ve had a lot of songs that have really grown on me. As a swimmer, I can say I do like the lyric about diving into the pool…that’s the only highlight for me.

  4. David Smith Says:

    Scott, that is an interesting take. I’ve never thought of the lyrics as having an especially religious content, though the subject does pop up frequently in other REM songs (Talk About the Passion and Moral Kiosk come to mind, from way back when).

  5. maclure Says:

    Very good write up. I like this one off Reveal – I first heard a live version of it on the internet before the album was released and thought it was beautiful. I then remember them playing this live on Top of the Pops UK and my housemate saying: “this is crap apart from his voice”. It was a bold step on their part, and it worked for me but I can easily see how it wouldn’t for others…

    One thing going for it is the fact that it is quite short. Most of the first half of reveal is 4,5 mins+ and this breaks it up nicely. Following, Scott’s comments, I find it interesting that REM songs often used as texts in discussions on Christianity. I never thought of this song particularly, but wait until “Find the River”…

  6. Evan Says:

    I once saw Ken Stringfellow — of the Posies, and R.E.M.’s backing band — cover this at a solo acoustic show, and that was the first time I realized how beautiful the melody is.

  7. Theresa Says:

    I don’t have anything intelligent or interesting to add to this, either. I just thought I’d say that I love this song a lot. And that I think this is a really cool thing you’re doing, Matthew.

  8. David T Says:

    Not much to add, either…just wanted to go on record as saying that this is one my favorite REM songs, pre- or post-Berry. Gorgeous melody, outstanding vocal performance, and especially evocative lyric (I love the image of diving–going downward–in order to achieve the effect of floating “high”–upward).

  9. Dave G Says:

    I went to law school with a guy who used this song at his wedding for his first slow dance with his fiance turned wife. Struck me as a bizarre choice at first, but after listening to the thing, I realize it made perfect sense.

  10. Ignis Sol Says:

    Reveal was released when I was working at a book store in Seattle. I would see Peter Buck (he lives in
    Seattle) now and again before this while they must have been recording this album.

    One time, while checking him out with his music themed magazines and his twins in tow, I asked him how the recording was going. He simply and patently remarked, “I am very happy with what we’re recording.”

    I am very happy with “I’ve Been High” because it will forever tie me in to a place in time of challenges, yearning and discovery. It is electronic elegance. I, too, enjoy the lyrics about diving and the final line, “make my make belief believe in me.” It is up high as one of my favorites. The fact that I met Peter at that time is the bonus.

    Another time, I saw his standing in line to make a purchase. There was a huge cut-out of Madonna promoting her Music album. I glanced over as he was eyeing it up and down and we exchanged goofy smiles. I think he cited that album as one his favorites of that year. I think Pat McCarthy also worked on Music. Connection?

  11. davegassner Says:

    I remember this came out the week I found out I had juvenile diabetes. This sounds especially powerful in a hospital at 3 am.

  12. dan Says:

    How do you guys feel about the following article? http://www.avclub.com/content/blog/r_e_m_s_incredible_shrinking

    I feel that the author is overall pretty mistaken, but there were a few points I reluctantly agreed with. Obviously R.E.M.’s influence and “relevance” to modern music is dwindling. However, I don’t think anything they do now has much of a bearing on the legacy of their earlier work. The past does not seem that easy to erase, but maybe that’s just me…

    Also, he couldn’t have been much of an R.E.M. fan to begin with if he doesn’t think they have a single “great” song. So why write the article? Probably just to irrelevantly glorify U2.

  13. To be very blunt, I think that writer is a total moron. I have a lot of contempt for people who think that artists should abandon their life’s work just because they don’t have an interest in their art anymore. But that’s besides the point — that guy is a pretty good representative of the type of music writer that I loathe.

  14. Scott Malobisky Says:

    the article cited above is indeed total crapola, besides REM did “screw up”–Peter Buck (apparently)at $40,000 feet in an international airliner; the consequences of that could have been horrendous, for Peter personally and for the band to say the least,not to mention other innocent people… what would have been the conseqences post-9/11 I wonder ? Is it possible he coulda been shot by an air marshal , for example ???!,… Thankfully that is far behind them without great harm done (except for idiots like me bringing it up..)..Speaking of Peter , saw him with Robyn Hitchcock and the Minus 5 a while back at this small place ,the Belly Up Tavern in San Diego, went only to see HIM up close in such an intimate venue.. He never made eye contact with the small crowd ,spent most of his time staring at the floor seemingly totally distracted and bored with it all while “playing”….seemed very consciously self-depecrating in his every move, as if to be trying very hard to take the focus off of himself because he knew there would be folks out there like myself thinking ,”Wow, there’s a real live REM guy right in front of me in this little bar..” ..blah blah blah blah…Was like he was wearing a sign that read, “No it’s not about REM ,listen to the rest of the people up here, don’t look at me , dont expect me to play you a notable a riff-REM or otherwise”–frankly I found it to be a bit annoying , frustrating I certainly didn’t expect an REM number or any kind of reference to them but it would,ve been nice if Peter didn’t seem so distant and detached from it all ..Makes me wonder why he even does these shows ? …….Does he always come across like this at these Minus 5 shows or was it just that night ? Of course , being a rock star who’ s been doing it for years , I’m sure, has it’s mental places and concerns and thought processes that a mere mortal like myself couldn’t possibly fathom so I totally understand , nonetheless, I was kinda dissappointed by that night. Luv ya , Man ! Have a good day wherever you may be in this whole wide world…

  15. 2fs Says:

    Re the above: on the Robyn Hitchcock list, someone made a similar comment – which was followed by another person saying that the show the night before found Buck quite animated and smiling. Maybe he was just tired that night.

  16. chinese brother Says:

    I wish I didn’t click on the link to that article. It’s annoying bs. That guy doesn’t have a clue.
    Should have taken your warning Matthew.

  17. dan Says:

    Yeah, sorry for posting it, CB. It was just so disheartening, so negative, I needed to share it to get it out of my system. I don’t understand why it was written. Ah well.

  18. gabriel peters Says:

    I Think Phil Collins was on Face Value much better than R.E.M. on Reveal.
    PS Kirsten, where is your comment on that song. In think you like it…

  19. Joey D Says:

    This was officially when R.E.M. (which was, at the time, my favorite band) turned into The Postal Service. You’ve always been right on about Berry. I didn’t really care if Michael, Peter, and Mike just wanted to write hook-less expiremental music from that point forward, I just resolved not to listen to it anymore. (Although, like many others, I felt Ascent of Man was terrific and marked a brief glimpse of the R.E.M. of old–kind of funny that Buck thinks it’s the worst song on ATS…funny and indicative of the band’s new direction)

  20. “I’ve Been High” predates the Postal Service by two years!

  21. maclure Says:

    I read the article above too. It`s true, it containted factual inaccuracies, wasn`t well written or argued, but I`d like to point to another problem with this kind of article… it`s a very UK/USA-centric view. I think the story of REM`s popularity, even success, worldwide isn`t so linear as is often made out.

    I`m writing from Brazil where I am surrounded by good friends, many of whom are REM or Radiohead fans. Where I am at least, there is less of a sense of REM being popular or not today – people love to hear all their back catalogue. Not many folks seem to point to Berry`s departure as a so-called decline in output. In fact, many Brazilians love `Imitation of Life` as it references a Brazilian drink – that sugar cane that tasted sweet. When they played rock in Rio here a few years back it was huge!

    The people I hang out with anyway are less hung up about the quality of the newest record. For a start, in my city, there aren`t any good record stores that would sell new music on the day it was released… my chums get everything off the internet – live, videos, bootleg, b-side, whatever and they watch a lot of cable TV. Informal access to music is very common and people just burn CDs with their favourite tracks on. One guy listens to `I`ll take the Rain` on loop – it`s his favourite song.

    Further to this, REM`s Reveal was very well received in some countries and not critically panned at all – I think it was a record of the year in Denmark or some Eastern European countries where it obviously floated some boats. Likewise, this last tour took REM to the four corners where they performed songs from their entire history with a lot of energy and feeling. Judging from some of the comments on here, the newer stuff actually works better live than in the studio… In some ways REM have matured into global stadium rockers par excellence in the wake of Berry`s departure.

    I`ll stop there, but I hope you get my general point…

  22. Clive Says:

    About Scott’s reference to Peter Bucks behaviour at Minus 5 gigs – interesting point – I noticed it too. He almost seems embarassed about the fact he is in R.E.M. In his defense, I do think Peter Buck suffers from quite bad shyness problems that have got worse since the turn of the century. I think he still loves writing and performing music but has absolutely no interest in the baggage that comes with being in a band. I think some people misread the shyness as arrogance, but I don’t think that is the case.

  23. mouserobot Says:

    I never really thought of this song as relating to Electron Blue but that makes a lot of sense. I’ve Been High has the same joyous feeling as Electron Blue but it’s a more quiet kind of joy.

  24. Great comment, maclure. Tell your buddy who loved I’ll Take the Rain that I’m on his side.

  25. Scott Malobisky Says:

    Hey Dan , no problem , it’s not as if you were AGREEING with the article…Personally , I like getting the other side of the story, the other extreme to my thoughts on stuff. I know there are people out there who can’t stand REM, interesting to hear WHY they might feel that way , see if their angle has any credence..This guy’s argument is flat-out stupid !

  26. dumbek Says:

    If there’s one thing I like about this blog, it’s that you make me want to go back and take another listen to songs I wrote off long ago. It doesn’t always work, but it’s always good to see another side of something I hadn’t thought of before. Thanks.

  27. Kirsten Says:

    This is such a great song. It is brilliantly written and I think the “sparce-ness” of the music just suits the song, like floating “high”. Michael’s voice is just so perfect too, you can hear the yearning in it. I think “I’ve Been High… but Life Sometimes it Washes Over Me” are just such beautiful lyrics. Another POST-BERRY masterpiece!

  28. Tim Says:

    I really like this song too. In fact I like all of Reveal, always have. At the time Reveal came out I really hated most of UP and so Reveal was a lot more what I was used to from REM. Plus it brings back great memories of the summer of 2001.
    In fact I think I’ll go throw in Reveal right now…a great soundtrack to summer.

    P.S. I’ve since come to appreciate UP. I think it was contrasting it with the lackluster ATS that made me realize the Up is pretty good actually.

  29. Justin Says:

    And the very end of the song is so triumphant. It ends in a major chord that just makes the song hold its head up proudly.

  30. dave Says:

    This is one of my all-time faves from the band, and certainly one of–if not THE–band’s best songs from the post-Bill era, imho.

    I’ve heard Michael say (in the iTunes interview, I believe), that he expected this song to be a huge radio hit. I heard it on the radio once–just days before “Reveal” was released–but it never struck me as a “radio-friendly” song. Musically, it’s too experimental (by pop music standards), and lyrically both too vague and overly-earnest.

    But, then again, the same things could’ve been said of “Losing My Religion.” So, it begs the question: could this song have been, at the very least, a moderate success on Adult Contemp./Alternative radio, given the proper promotion from WB? Could anything the band has put out since 1999 have?

    It almost seems to me that mainstream radio playlist programmers determined a while back that R.E.M. is no longer a commercially viable act, and that that’s the narrative they’re sticking with (despite the band’s efforts to prove otherwise).

    Then again, that could just be the closet conspiracy theorist in me talking. 🙂

  31. Joey D Says:

    Lol. All too true about the Postal Service. That was purely the retrospective criticism of an R.E.M. fan who wishes they still had the tongue-in-cheek, unpretentious swagger that made me a fan back in the ’80s. It’s because of songs like “I’ve Been High” that made Around the Sun the very first R.E.M. album I absolutely refuse to buy (though I have heard it and admit there’re a couple nice tunes on it).

  32. Eivind Says:

    This song is just awesome! The best song by some distance on “Reveal” in my opinion. Stipe once said that he thought this song “should have been a top 10 hit” and that it realized all the experimentation on Monster, New Adventures and Up. I have to agree, except for the fact it was never released as a single.

  33. Scott Malobisky Says:

    I respectfully disagree with that assessment , “best song by some distance on Reveal” ?? …come on now, it’s a really cool and unique song …but

  34. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    To me “I’ve Been High” is the encapsulation (along with “Beat A Drum”) of the mood and tone of the entire Reveal album. Definately a stand-out track on an album that is good while it is playing but lacks very many stand-out tracks. Possibly should have been the lead single (by the way the single choices for this album were terrible!) This song makes me think of summer and warmth and love everytime I hear it. For me this song embodies natural highs and is one of the few songs to use the expression “high” that brings so drug reference to my mind at all – it is innocent, pure, maybe even a little naive in its joy, and it is wonderful.

  35. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    By the way, as I am sure many of you know, REM’s original plan was to release 3 versions of Reveal. The final album, a dub/reggae version, and an acoustic record. This would have been fun to hear the dub and acoustic versions. Also, the Reveal remix project (a 4th possible Reveal album of sorts) was done over the internet and tons of people who were invited to remix a Reveal song (like half maybe) chose to remix “I’ve Been High”. Just thought that was interesting.

  36. huub Says:

    It’s summer again. That means reveal entering the cd player, and enjoying I’ve been high, beat a drum, even Beachball again! I just would have liked it if they’d mixed in a little more guitar in this song, that maybe would have given it a bit more urgency.

  37. iggy Says:

    Good post. I’ve Been High is my personal favorite from Reveal also. There’s an especially lovely acoustic version that only features Michael, Mike and Peter performed on KCRW. It doesn’t have the dreamy nature of the recorded version but it provides a fine showcase for Stipe’s vocals.
    I hadn’t seen that Onion article before and I would agree that the writer is a moron. One thing that particularly annoys me is that the band’s influence has been so huge over what was later called alternative rock and now indie rock that a lot of people fail to recognize it. At the time it was called college rock but whatever you want to call it, REM, along with the Replacements and Husker Du, set the standard for an approach to music that’s influenced Radiohead, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Death Cab For Cutie, etc.
    And considering how many new bands like the Strokes and BRMC cite the Velvet Underground as an inspiration, REM can be said to have a small part in helping bring attention to the band. I’m not saying they needed REM’s help. They’re music speaks for itself. But those of us old enough to remember, in the early 80s Velvet Underground records were out of print and hard to find. When REM covered those songs, they prompted a lot of people like myself to discover the VU. Gina Arnold raises that point in her book “Route 666: The Road to Nirvana,” which is worth reading for charting the lineage between bands like REM and the Replacements to Nirvana.

  38. iggy Says:

    That should be “Their music…” I know better but somehow typed it wrong.

  39. Scott Malobisky Says:

    Am I living in a beautiful vacuum ‘cuz I can’t see it -BAH ?

  40. […] Mars,” which is a good, pithy way of describing its sound. Like “The Lifting” and “I’ve Been High” before it, “All The Way To Reno” is a classic style pop ballad dolled up in […]

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