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.