Bittersweet Me

June 25, 2007

“Bittersweet Me” is more or less a forgotten single — it flopped on radio and MTV, it wasn’t included on In Time, it’s never been performed live. It’s from an album full of fan favorites, but I don’t think I’ve ever encountered anyone that has expressed a special fondness for the song. But still, it’s actually pretty obvious why the label selected it as the second single from New Adventures In Hi-Fi — basically, they needed an obvious radio song after “E-Bow The Letter” bricked spectacularly in the marketplace, and “Bittersweet Me” followed the soft/hard/soft formula of a mid-90s alt-rock hit more than any other song in the band’s discography. Also, its verses have the mild jangle of “old school” R.E.M., and it probably seemed like a good idea to reach out to older fans who were mostly alienated by the sound of Monster.

Yeah, so, all of that seems great on paper, and it’s a good catchy tune. But it didn’t work, and that lack of success seems to have retroactively tainted the song. In the context of Hi-Fi, it’s purely a case of a good song getting overshadowed by some seriously GREAT songs. In the marketplace, it was just another nice R.E.M. song when they needed something extraordinary in order to ward off a major commercial backlash. In retrospect, it really didn’t matter which singles were chosen from Hi-Fi — a large chunk of their mainstream audience was just looking for a reason to bail on them, and frankly, a lot of them had already jumped ship shortly after Monster came out. “E-Bow The Letter” was too solemn and arty, “Bittersweet Me” was too ordinary, “Electrolite” was too late. Hi-Fi had the songs, but it had no cultural moment.


55 Responses to “Bittersweet Me”

  1. Justin Says:

    “Bittersweet Me” is kind of unspectacular, like the guys were on autopilot. The guitar work on the song is pretty great, however; what I think it could have really used was stronger harmonies. The chorus is repeated too much at the end without some background vocal serving to build on each repetition. Like on “It’s the End of the World” or “Man on the Moon”, for instance, where they add a new harmony every chorus or two, making the song swell steady until they hit the patented end-of-song key change they’re so fond of. Were this technique employed more blatantly in the recording of “Bittersweet Me” it could have made all the difference in its performance as a single.

  2. maclure Says:

    Nice to have you back, Matthew! Yeah, “unspectacular” is right. The video is also pedestrian and was never going to set MTV alight. IMHO, it is actually a pretty good tune… especially the verse which is indeed quite “old school” in terms of chord choice and sound. The chorus guitar riff spoils it for me. It’s very obvious overdrived predict-a-chord stuff. I feel it is one of only a handful of examples where I don’t think Peter took care over sound and chord choice. Average song, could have been a great song with a bit of thought.

    Based on your analysis Matthew, do you think So Fast, So Numb might’ve been a better second single?… loud/quiet but with more edge.

  3. Like I said, I don’t think it really mattered what they chose as singles, but I think there’s a possibility that the record would have done a little bit better if they’d released “The Wake Up Bomb” as the first single, and then “Electrolite.”

  4. Bert Echo Says:

    I agree, ‘E-Bow’ is a great song, but absolute commercial suicide as a first single. Before ‘E-Bow’ radio programmers would add a new R.E.M. single into the playlist without even thinking about it.

    I really like ‘Bittersweet Me’. Musically, it is solid and lyrically, it really captures the essence of a couple that has drifted apart.

  5. David T Says:

    > Hi-Fi had the songs, but it had no cultural moment.

    Wow! In one sentence, you’ve crystallized hours of my pondering the commercial fate of New Adventures.

    I may be in the minority in claiming Bittersweet Me as one of my favorites from this CD (I really like the dark yet very concrete imagery Michael uses as well as Mike’s backing “ohhh” vocal during the buildup to the chorus in the second and third verses)…but, yeah, not an obvious choice as a single–I’m not sure I can imagine a mass of teens singing “I’d sooner chew my leg off…” in jubilant unison!

    Nice analysis, Justin…unlike those earlier singles, Bittersweet does just kind of “end,” unceremoniously, with the opening/verse guitar riff played about halfway through…kind of leaves the listener (me, anyway) with an uncertain rather than a conclusive final impression.

  6. Well, my point is that it’s actually a totally obvious single, but that wasn’t good enough for either the marketplace or the fanbase.

  7. David T Says:

    D’oh! Another careless reading by me of one of your posts, Matthew!

    Digital foot inserted into virtual mouth…


  8. dan Says:

    i actually remember seeing this video on MTV quite a bit. it was a regular part of some top ten thing for a while (maybe on vh1, come to think of it). i think i heard it on radio exactly never.

    if the chorus was more jangle than crunch, i’d like it better. i do love the verses and pre-chorus.

  9. Scott Malobisky Says:

    Once again at the risk of sounding like the total REM apologist , like as if I would call it “great” if the next single was Millzy farting into the mike and running it thru a synthesizer, I think this song is just that —“great”—two very dynamic things going for it 1.a wonderfully constructed pop song 2.that REM strangeness in that the lyrics are killler…”images of a tank juxtapositioned with candy floss and satellites and a new-pattered shirt”… it certainly helps that it is in the brilliant hodgepodge that is this album in general, I mean damn , to have this song ALSO amongst the mind-blowing flow of the other sonic reducers contained there-in; I think any true REM knows how great this song is…..but that’s probably not the point…..I wonder why they never played this in concert ??? Never? Ever?

  10. Never ever. It’s the only song on Hi-Fi to never be performed live. Even “Zither” has been performed in concert!

  11. Rich Says:

    “Bittersweet Me” got a fair amount of airplay where I live in the Hartford, CT area…it’s one of 12 R.E.M. singles ever to crack Billboard’s Hot 100, and it peaked at #46. That makes it the seventh highest charting US single in the band’s history, behind only Losing My Religion (4), Stand (6), The One I Love (9), Shiny Happy People (10), Drive (28), and Everybody Hurts (29). It may not have tore up the charts, but it certainly deserved better than the fate it’s received. Why it wasn’t included on In Time is beyond me (same for Drive, SHP, etc.)

  12. Paul Alferink Says:

    “I think there’s a possibility that the record would have done a little bit better if they’d released “The Wake Up Bomb” as the first single, and then “Electrolite.'”

    Totally agree. Wake-Up Bomb was a nice, mid-tempo rocker, Electo-lite a quirky, likeable song. Then maybe so fast, so numb. I think the mainstream superstardom kinda scared them a bit, so they ran the other direction quickly. To open with “E-bow” which is every bit a Patti Smith song, circa 1979, with almost spoken word verses. And as lovely as Ms. Smith is, she not particularly commercial.

    As a side note, if they had gone with those first two singles, So Fast, So Numb would have been the best choice for third single.

  13. Rich Says:

    OK,the data I had was incomplete — “Kenneth” and “Bang and Blame” both charted pretty well according to Wikipedia, and “Man on the Moon” actually hit #30. Some of the IRS singles apparently just managed to break the 100 barrier as well. Regardless, point still stands that Bittersweet Me was more popular at the time of its release than it’s given credit for.

  14. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    I agree with you Matthew, that this seems like an obvious choice for a single, but just wasn’t right. I actually always thought that Departure actually might have made a good rock single with its driving chords and sort-of Document-eaque feel. Bittersweet Me has always reminded me (along with Undertow and Wake-Up Bomb) of songs that fit the vibe of Monster (which makes sense as I believe all three were writton on the Monster tour) and therefore maybe should have been avoided as Hi-Fi singles as Monster, while popular, was not really the sound that diehards or casual fans were looking for with Hi-Fi.

    That said, I lived in Indianapolis at that time and the local alternative rock station actually played “E-Bow The Letter” quite a bit so I guess I didn’t realize it was apparently hated and ignored everywhere else.

  15. narcizo Says:

    …try “undertow”…or “leave”. That would ‘ve been ballsy (or so, I ‘m not ESP). Good song though.

  16. Paul Alferink Says:

    I like E-Bow, and it did get a pretty good about of airplay, but people who weren’t already big fans didn’t like it. And it got some airplay, but that airplay was entirely because of the previous body of work, not on the songs radio merits.

    But what do I know. I remember coming back from the Monster tour, first USA leg in Chicago and telling my friends that REM had a great new song called “Revolution” that would be burning up the charts when the new album came out. I still can’t figure out why I liked that song so much live and ignore it so much now.

  17. David T Says:

    I felt the same way about Revolution after hearing it live, Paul!

    It’s funny how some REM songs (Revolution is one for me) sound great the first time then later diminish to my ears, others are “slow burners” that I hardly notice at first but then love (I put Boy in the Well in this category), and still others knock me out and then never seem to fade no matter how many times I hear them (take your pick…actually E-Bow the Letter immediately comes to mind today).

    (Of course, the same assessment could be made of just about any group one really digs….)

  18. Heyberto Says:

    This is one of my favorites off of NAIHF. Loved when it came it today… and I’m not sure why. I like to think of it as one of REM’s little Pop/Rock songs that are just catchy (or as catchy as REM can be) and fun without being conventional. This song, more than any other, takes me back to a great time in my life… 1996 was a good year. I thought the video was pretty cool too.

  19. Scott Malobisky Says:

    Boy In The Well is AWESOME !! One of my personal faves, DT …

  20. Danny V. Says:

    Hey Matt, this is my first comment and I love your site. Your review of “Bittersweet Me” was dead on. It’s just okay when compared to the amazing work they were producing during the same time frame.
    I honestly think that “E-Bow” being released as the first single for HI-FI is one of the main reasons that R.E.M. has not been as popular for the last decade as they once were. I still enjoy listening to HI-FI (and most of their albums) but I always viewed it as the album that changed their position in music history. I’ll still be buying their albums the day they’re released but, unfortunately, many of my friends no longer will. Their loss.

  21. Kirsten Says:

    The first time I heard this song was before NAIHF was released. Flicking through radio stations in the car on the way to work I remember thinking “This sounds like an REM song”. Based on that “instantly recognisable” sound, I would’ve thought it was a perfect choice for a single. I’m surprised it didn’t do well in the US or UK (that was the only time I ever heard it on radio – they never chart well here). To me, it had the perfect mix of great guitar work (can’t believe you don’t like the verse riff, Maclure!), easily understood words, catchy tune and it’s easy to sing along with. It’s also an easy side-step from Monster to get people into the new album. Great song, and love that great burgandy jacket Michael wears in the clip – I’m not sure why, but it’s the first thing I think of when I hear this song.

  22. maclure Says:

    Er, it’s the chorus riff I don’t like – the verse rocks. I think the chorus riff is just alt rock by numbers stuff. REM can do better than this!

  23. jrocky Says:

    I think when they chose E-bow as the first single that was the beginning of the end of R.E.M.’s commerical success. In fact, I rank it as one of the biggest mistakes of their career. I remember listening to a radio station that was premiering it and the DJ’s did not know what to make of it. I believe they know it was not very radio-friendly.

  24. Kirsten Says:

    I stand corrected. Glad you do like the verse ’cause to me it’s just a louder version of classic REM.

  25. Carolann Monroe Says:

    I’m biased about this song because it, and the album, came out soon after I took a job that was good for my career but way far away from everyone I knew and loved. Singing along really loud helped.

    If they were really worried about cranking out hits, they could have done a ton more songs like “Stand” and probably have ridden the high end of the wave of success a bit longer. But I never listen to “Stand” anymore, and I do search this one out on the iPod.

  26. I really really really think that “Stand” was kind of a fluke! It’s very particular to a time and a place. If they wanted to churn out hits, they would’ve been cloning “The One I Love” and “Man on the Moon.” I mean, they kinda have actually cloned “Man on the Moon” a couple times, and ditto “End of the World.”

  27. Aerothorn Says:

    I actually love Bittersweet Me. Took a long time to grow on me, but I quite like the lyrics.

    Sorry I don’t have anything more intelligent or constructive to contribute. I’m depressed and sleep-deprived. Hah.

    Next time I’ll try and say something introspective, I promise:)

  28. Aerothorn Says:

    Double post!

    I always admired and loved how early R.E.M. had real morals, in a sense – no “I/You” songs, no love songs. And so you think I (like many other R.E.M. fans) would be dissapointed and betrayed when they kind of threw that out the window and started doing tons of I/You songs. But I actually like them MORE, even as I despise most other songs of the type.

    “I move across, candy floss
    I move like a tank
    I move across the room with a heart full of gloom
    I’m stronger than you think”

    Much of this is cleverly worded cliches, but the delivery just makes it seem so genuine, particularly the last line. I suppose we’re all just wired to “connect” with vague lyrics, since we can apply them to our own lives – but hey, it works.

  29. Donut Says:

    this is one of my fav songs. i remember catching the video on VH1 a few times.
    ive always wanted them to perform this song live, i hope they will eventually.

  30. Tim Says:

    For some reason I remember Bittersweet Me getting quite a bit of airplay here in Salt Lake City. The most of any track off of NAIHF for sure, and probably more than any REM single since then.
    Anyways, its always been in my top 3 off of New Adventures. It definitely takes me back to ’96.

  31. Clive Says:

    I was 16 when this single was released and I got to leave school early due to heavy snow which enabled me to go into town to buy the CD single then play it back at home. This song (and the fabulous B-sides on the CD single) always reminds me of watching cars and people struggle in the snow whilst in the comfort of my bedroom.
    The CD single was spectacular because of it’s B-sides – a great live version of ‘Undertow’ which more than equals the version that made it on the album, the beautiful live cover of ‘Wichita Lineman’ and the heart melting acoustic version of ‘New Test Leper’ which at the time was my first listen to that track because I think the single preceeded the release of the album.

  32. I love the b-sides too — I’ll most likely get to “Witchita Lineman” at some point, I definitely think that’s their one truly great post-Green cover.

  33. maclure Says:

    Me again, sorry. Thought somebody might mention the B-sides. I concur Clive! They were ace.

    In terms of this ongoing debate about the commercialness or not NAIHF I really think a case can be made for REM sidestepping the success that had come their way – I think it was well within their powers to knock out a few Everybody Hurts clones and notch a few more top tens. I admire them for continuing to move musically onwards and upwards irrespective of who comes with them…

    E-bow charted at 5 in the UK, Bittersweet Me at 19. This has become about standard fare for REM`s first and second singles in the UK for any album after AFTP. The difference is that those chart positions reflect REM`s fanbase buying. The question is do they sink after week 1 in the charts? You know you have a hit when the song hangs about for 2 or 3 weeks more… then it`s catching on with the public -after Monster I can`t think of any REM single that has really done this in the UK.

    I think the UK is different as well because of our national radio stations. BBC Radio 1 stopped A-listing REM songs after Monster. After Reveal they pretty much stopped playing them altogether – the more adult Radio2 and Virgin stations covering REM more frequently. I think its interesting you US guys compare airplay in a particular city/state or region. For artists, success or not tends to happen on a more national basis in the UK based on coverage from national TV and radio broadcasters. But then we are geographically and demographically tinier…

    Gosh, that was a long post. All apologies.

  34. ADB Says:

    I agree maclure, I think they definitely chose to step out of the mainstream a little with New Adventures – as someone mentioned in one of the other song discussions, Be Mine could have been, with a different arrangement / production etc., an obvious hit single, but they didn’t want that then. An unusual, and pretty bold, step for a band of their stature – and not one they’d make now I reckon!

    As you say, only first singles off the albums tend to chart high in the UK – it’s strange to think that, until The Great Beyond, E-Bow was their highest ever UK chart placing.

    As for Bittersweet Me, I tend to fall in the ‘good but not great’ category. Great b-sides tho’ – I’m looking forward to Wichita Lineman being reviewed as it’s one of my all time favourite songs and REM’s version is almost as good as Glen Campbell’s.

  35. Justin Says:

    I can proudly say I was at the concert in Houston where “Wichita Lineman” was recorded and later released on the “Bittersweet Me” single.

    Yep. My one claim to fame.

    Oh, and I met Slim Pickens once. So there’s that.

  36. nathan Says:

    (Re: Aerothorn’s comments on the lyrics to “Bittersweet Me”)

    “I move across, candy floss
    I move like a tank
    I move across the room with a heart full of gloom
    I’m stronger than you think”

    I agree that what’s interesting about the song — or at least the lyrics copied here — is that they amount to cliches stitched together by way of anaphoric repetition (“I move” over and over again). This reliance on anaphora and cliche resemble certain strains of “post-avant” poetry to a great enough degree that I suspect that Stipe must have been reading some.

    And I think the “return” to “I/you” lyric structure has to be read through this lens, one that reads the “I” and the “you” in terms of, if not lyrical cliches, then bits of received language. As if to say, and again, as many post-war poets have acknowledged in their writing, that the “I” is constituted by and in language, rather than outside of language…

    But where that’s interesting, the trouble for me is that the song structure and too-clean production make the song sound more like one written by an R.E.M.-derivative band, which is typical of this period (following Monster and through the present). As though they had become an R.E.M. cover band…

  37. James Says:

    “I’ll most likely get to “Witchita Lineman” at some point, I definitely think that’s their one truly great post-Green cover.”

    No love for their version of “Wall Of Death”? I love it. I also like their “Dragging the Line,” but that one is pretty silly, admittedly (but fun silly).

  38. David T Says:

    > No love for their version of “Wall Of Death”? I love it. I also like their “Dragging the Line,” but that one is pretty silly, admittedly (but fun silly).

    I love both of those, too! Can’t wait to read what others have to say about them.

    Just my $.02 for the morning. I’ve really enjoyed reading the discussion stemming from Bittersweet Me!

  39. steve Says:

    The one question I always wanted to ask the band (full disclosure–I work as an entertainment journalist) in all the times I’ve interviewed them (but never found the right time to pose it)is why they chose “E-Bow” as the first single from Hi-Fi. I know of their respect for Patti Smith, but anyone with a set of ears could tell that radio would be VERY resistant to that track. “Bittersweet Me” would have launched the album properly. Granted, they might have only gotten a couple hundred thousand more in sales, but at least it would have given what I think is an outstanding album a better rep.

    And this line–“Hi-Fi had the songs, but it had no cultural moment”–is dead on. Keep up the great work.

  40. Carolann Monroe Says:

    Yeah, not fair to pick on “Stand,” I know. It’s kind of like picking on a kid sibling- it seems like fun until you do and then you just kind of feel bad about it.

    And yes, I hear those echoes of a couple of their songs in others of their songs, if that makes sense. I hear a little of Nightswimming in Losing My Religion and vice versa. At different speeds of course.

  41. Paul Alferink Says:

    Funny. I was just thinking about Wall of Death and thinking “Hmm, I wonder if he’ll review that. ONe of my favorite B-Side. I made my friends play it in the radio on a road trip to Six Flags once. They didn’t get it. Oh well.
    I Like a lot of there Post- Green B-Sides and Other album Tracks.

    “Free World Baby”
    “Dark Globe”
    “First We Take Manhattan”
    “New Orleans Instrumental #1”
    Yes, and even “Draggin the Line”

    Mostly because I think the lyric
    “My dog Sam Eats Purple Flowers
    Ain’t got much but what we’ve gots ours
    We dig snow and the rain and the Bright Sunshine”
    is delightfully stupid.

  42. Kirsten Says:

    Yes!! You HAVE to do It’s A Free World Baby – one of my all time favourite songs (REM or otherwise). I’m a bit disappointed in myself, though. I’ve never heard Sponge. What’s that a B-Side to?

  43. Clive Says:

    Just a note to remind people to check out – they’ve redesigned it and it looks great. I think now you can watch all their videos in full rather than just samples.

  44. lesterhead Says:

    Bittersweet Me is one of my favorites. I love E-Bow even more- been waiting and waiting for you to write that one up! The album came out right after I started college, so I always align it with that superintense emotional time of being away from home and being on my own.

  45. Paul Alferink Says:

    Sponge is on the Sweet Relief II album.

    I am remiss in that I didn’t mention non-Album Tracks “Photograph” and “Arms of love” Wasn’t there talk around “Green” Michael releasing a solo album of cover songs? Arms of Love Kind of sounded like one of those.

  46. Don’t hold your breath waiting for “E-Bow.” Unless I get a major bolt of inspiration, that song is most likely going to come up in the final fourth of the project.

  47. Kirsten Says:

    Thanks Paul. Will track down a copy!

  48. David T Says:

    Photograph! Nearly forgot about that one, but I love it. Thanks for the reminder, Paul!

  49. Monstar Says:

    I still can’t understand why they didn’t chose “So fast, so numb” as second single of New Adventures. It is a much better song than “Bittersweet Me”, which is ordinary.

  50. Brian Block Says:

    What is your reasoning when you say “a large chunk of their mainstream audience was just looking for a reason to bail on them”, or indeed that New Adventures “lacked a cultural moment”? I don’t disagree, I just don’t know where you’re coming from.

    (My personal take on New Adventures is that it’s a very fine record that would have been R.E.M.’s best album ever if each of the songs had been at least 90 seconds shorter, which would also have given it far punchier singles, perhaps including “Bittersweet Me”, to choose from. I haven’t listened to it in a years; I’ll cue it up when Automatic for the People ends. You do have me revisiting this band quite intently, Matthew; well done!)

  51. david williams Says:

    the reason this flopped is because of its graceless, flat footed anticlimax of a chorus. the pay-off line (‘i don’t know what i’m living for…’) is a childish rant with no tune.

    which is a shame because the verses are rather elegant.

  52. pharoahe_monch Says:

    i have always had a special fondness for this song!

  53. Frank Says:

    Heh. I am definitely in the minority around here. Because, to me, NAIHF is the album where REM “jumped the shark” and Bittersweet Me is one of the few things keeping it from being a total loss.

    But that’s me 🙂

  54. Frank Says:

    Matthew, I’m not sure it was “maintstream audience” that was looking for a reason to jump off…it was the old timers. Of which I am one.

    I know a LOT of old timers that NAIHF was the very last REM album they bought. After that, they gave up.

  55. vanarbulax Says:

    Yeah you want it, you think. But you’re anxious, you’re tired, you’re lying naked and it’s just not coming to you. You’re so exhausted and timid you just can’t be spontaneous and you’d sooner chew your leg off than fake it.

    That’s what this song reminds me of anyway.

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