August 2, 2007

“Belong” can be considered a sequel of sorts of “Disturbance at the Heron House,” at least in the sense that one can interpret the insurrection of the “creatures” as being the animal uprising suggested at the end of “Heron House.” The continuity isn’t all that important — we don’t learn much about that situation, other than the sudden instability is the backdrop for the minor yet potent drama of the song, which finds a mother attempting to face an uncertain future without breaking down in front of her child. The action of the lyrics is essentially bracketed by ellipses, hinting at neither the way “her world collapsed on a Sunday morning,” or what might happen, rather than emphasizing the conflicted emotion of the moment when you know that your world, or maybe the entire world, has changed. Michael Stipe sounds calm and collected in his spoken verses, but the gorgeous harmony carried by Mike Mills on the chorus is the wordless emotional center of the piece in the way it conveys a heartstring-tugging blend of fear, bravery, and sentimentality.


35 Responses to “Belong”

  1. ScottMalobisky Says:

    that sequel angle is very interesting , certainly not something I would have latched on to….there are songs in the canon–watershed moments as the Bushwhacker would mumble–and this is one of them , when you’re sitting there thinking as you listen ,”Dam, these guys are good!!”…and it takes your appreciation of the band to a whole new level..One of my top fifteen REM songs, always wanna use the word avante-garde when I describe this piece though I’m not sure if that applies, but I’ll use it anyway just to sound important…

  2. Scott Says:

    Or a prequel to “Aftermath.”

    Among notable Reagan-era bands, R.E.M. may have been the least interested in Armageddon–as opposed to, say, the Police, which made post-apocalyptic souvenirs its stock-in-trade. Certainly its references were oblique (songs about Latin American policy as high-school-debate versions of the end of the world: juntas plus guns equals destabilization leads to economic catastrophe leads to warfare leads to U.S. involvement leads to Soviet response leads to nuclear war) or coy (a song called “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” that’s not only subtitled “And I Feel Fine” but also about a dream [not even a nightmare] of dissolution rather than the real thing).

    Instead, from Michael Stipe’s No. 38 dream of partying L.B.s to songs such as this and “Aftermath” and “Leave,” the vision has been one of personal meltdown, the radioactive destruction of self. For a guy who used to say he avoided the first person, Stipe has never written from a global perspective, either. Every political treatise is a personal observation–green rushes, Guatemalan flowers, raging monkeys–and every metaphor of human decay is first an individual memoir of obliteration. But who wouldn’t rather read a novel than a polemic?

  3. 2d Says:

    i think i read somewhere that the line “those creatures jumped the barricades and have headed for the sea” referred to the lemmings who follow each other blindly, sometimes falling over cliffs into the sea.

    as for the song, i love it. it’s gorgeously baroque, it has an epic spirit and, while simple, it’s very emotive and brings up fairy tale images painted with pastel colours in my mind. it starts on a very dark note (“her world collapsed early sunday morning”) but ends on a positive one (“those barricades can only hold for so long”), while providing only beauty in the transition. the grave bassline wraps around the shimmering guitar and the tick-tock percussion in such a delicate way it feels like watching a red balloon soaring towards the sun. it’s like light turned into music. beautiful.

  4. Paul Alferink Says:

    Okay, so here’s my theory about this song.

    Taken along with Find the River, which is about life’s journey with the River being a metaphor for life/life’s journey and the ocean as being death/ afterlife/ the combination of all rivers (lifes) into one oversoul. The creatures here are also headed for the sea. I think her world is collapsing because her child leaving home to join the rat race, the creatures jumping the barricades and heading towards the culmination of there life. And this is scary, but it’s also exilirating, and she only hopes that out there in the world, where she cannot protect her child, that he will belong.

    Best line:
    She began to breathe
    To breathe at the thought of such freedom

    P.S. Shout out to my sis. This is her favorite song. She took me to my first REM concert and two since then.
    “I miss my sister. Why’d she go?-Juliana Hatfield

  5. 2d Says:

    hmm now that i think about it, is “those barricades can only hold for so long” like in “we shall soon be free” or “they will invade and destroy us”? i’ve always viewed this in a very explosive and freeing way, but the last verse enforces the “her world collapsed early sunday morning” lyric, which makes me wonder…

  6. RPI Says:

    I always thought the “creatures” were salmon and steelhead heading out to sea (after spawning in their rivers of birth) via fish ladders.

    On first listen, I thought it implied that she was going to drop the baby out the window – a rather darker ending!

  7. kirkl Says:

    “it’s the octopus that crawled back to the sea.”

  8. Scott Says:

    “The Life Aquatic With R.E.M.”

  9. Joey D Says:


    In an interview, Stipe assured everyone that Belong “…is not a song about defenestration.”

  10. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    Actual, I have always thought of this as a very dark song. For me “Belong” has always been about a mother contemplating suicide and taking her baby with her rather than face her troubles and/or allow the child to have to face the darkness that is in the world. For the mother, escape is the best option. She will “belong” when she is reunited with her child is a better place after death. I have always had a connection with this song and Toni Morrison’s novel “Beloved” as well. Is killing her child better than allowing her to be taken into slavery, rape, and torture? Still always have loved this song though.

  11. maclure Says:

    Man, I love this blog. So many ideas “flailing about” from everywhere. I’m with BWD on interpretation in that I also think it’s a dark song… the creatures I see as definitely threatening as in the “they will destroy us” interpretation of “the barricades can only hold for so long”. I also picture a single mother, no other person around for her protection (perhaps a vague tie in to themes in Me In Honey). And, this freedom she is encountering seems like a double-edged sword – releasing but terrifying.

    This song scared the daylights out of me as a kid – this was my first REM album and I got sucked right into the songs like only a kid can. I pictured armies of blood-sucking leeches seeping over barricades, bringing a slow death…

    The music for this song was written in soundchecks on the Green tour, I believe. The song is very simply contructed. The drums start and each instrument that follows is played at a very sparse level (plodding bass, two open chords from Peter), no words in the chorus… its as if the guys were messing about before a gig with these chords and Michael showed up and reads his story over the verses. But, true to REM form, the result is FAR MORE than the sum of its parts. It transports you to a whole new place, ahh the power of music…

  12. John Says:

    Leaving aside the lyrics and what Stipe might be on about, Mike Mills’ “gorgeous, wordless harmony” that Matthew mentions is one of the reasons why R.E.M. music up to this point positively soars, and why almost everything after falls flat. If you’ve already lost Bill Berry’s backing vox (and considerable songwriting talent), why would you also shelve your secret weapon: Mill’s (often counter-melody) backing vocals? Even he couldn’t rescue some of the duds on the band’s last two or three albums, but he certainly could have helped make the better songs more memorable.

  13. jim jos Says:

    Losing My Religion, of course, changed everything for the band and as Mr. Buck states…there is a pre, and post.
    But, musically, Out of Time was such a departure whether or not it made the band super stars.

    I think it stems from their touring, or rather the lack of touring that the band did in 1990. Exhausted by the first real, huge, mega tour for Green, they took a deserved break that year. It was the first year in 10 that they did next to nothing.

    Touring always gave them the opportunity to come up with new stuff and kept them as a guitar band that could write truly amazing four part rock songs. Most R.E.M. songs were done live before they showed up in the studio. Out of Time, for me, seems like their first “studio album”.

    And because of its “studio-ness” it has that mentality and idea of songs born from within the studio. Songs that work well in the studio and recorded but not with playing them live in mind. “Belong” is the perfect example.

    What makes this song so great is that truly beautiful Mills vocal, which isn’t a harmony but the full gorgeous melody of the song, and that it blends very well with Stipe’s poetic leanings.

    Plus, like most of Out of Time, you can tell that somebody in the band was really listening to a lot of 60’s pop (not rock) here so it has that feel good vibe and more sunny outlook. Not surprising that they were cutting b-sides of Troggs songs around the same time.

    Also, throughout most of Out of Time, Stipe seems to be MIA almost all the time. You have two Mills lead vocals on one album, when before there was one in the six prior albums.
    You have guests in Kate Pierson (three songs) and KRS-1 which was something that they never did before and rarely since. And an instrumental. The songs that Stipe is on, are much more written poetry than ever before.

  14. Paul Alferink Says:

    Belong was written and performed during the Green tour. It shows up on Tourfilm. As does low, by the by.

  15. ADB Says:

    Some really interesting perspectives on this one – I never made a connection to Disturbance at the Heron House, but for me there are links to World Leader Pretend in that it’s a moment of personal crisis described in universal, apocalyptic terms. To me, the unrest is in the mother’s mind not in the outside world. There was an interview where JMS talked about Leonard Cohen’s use of military imagery to describe intimate personal situations (as in First We Take Manhattan) and this seems to be another example of it.

    Also re: jim jos’ comments on Out Of Time, it’s ironic that because of Losing My Religion and Shiny Happy People etc, OOT is generally considered one of REM’s most mainstream albums when actually I think it is one of their most experimental, given the variety of styles on the album and the absence of Mr Stipe on several tracks.

  16. Courtney Says:

    One of my all time favorite REM songs.

  17. David T. Says:

    > it’s ironic that because of Losing My Religion and Shiny Happy People etc, OOT is generally considered one of REM’s most mainstream albums when actually I think it is one of their most experimental, given the variety of styles on the album and the absence of Mr Stipe on several tracks.

    Given it’s role as the home of LMR and SHP, it’s sometimes hard for me to remember what a shock Out of Time was to my ears the first time I heard it. I seem to remember reading an interview with Peter at the time in which he said something to the effect of, “Releasing an [accessible] album like Green gave us the latitude to release a more challenging album like Out of Time.”

    I do, however, remember being instantly reminded of the “chorus” of Orange Crush the first several times I listened to “Belong,” thinking, “Wow, it’s kind of a brighter, more uplifting sounding version of the ‘Orange Crush’ chorus”…even given the dark, more sinister feel of the spoken lyrics, the chorus evokes a feeling of hopefulness NOT found in the earlier song.

  18. Alex Says:

    I remember hearing Peter Buck talking about this album around the time of its release and he said Stipe recorded the lyrics on his Walkman (Buck’s words, not mine… can you record on a Walkman?) as he was walking around his garage. How’s that for a visual?

    Mike Mills’ vocals give me chills. This is in my top five.

  19. David T. Says:

    > “Wow, it’s kind of a brighter, more uplifting sounding version of the ‘Orange Crush’ chorus”…

    Oh, and the chorus of “Lightnin’ Hopkins” for that matter…not that Belong relates to those songs topically…just just remembering the connections I made back when I was 18 that I thought were so meaningful at the time 🙂

  20. ScottMalobisky Says:

    “Oh , Great Philosopher King, what is beauty?”
    “This song , my son, this song.”
    Oh, Great Philosopher King , what is absolute truth?”
    “Hell if I know , my son, hell if I know.”

    (Hey , Scott, what’s a “partying L.B.” ?)

  21. maclure Says:

    Hope Scott doesnt mind if I beat him to it… but I think I recognise the reference to partying L.B.’s – Leonard Breshnev, Lester Bangs, Leonard Bernstein, Lenny Bruce mentioned in ITEOTWAWKI, inspired by a dream Michael Stipe had of attending a party for people with the initials L.B. Am I right?

    David T. – I definitely see the Orange Crush parallel, hadn’t noticed that before.

  22. Paul Alferink Says:

    Partying LB’s are:
    Lester Bangs Leonard Bernstein. Leonid Brezhnev, Lenny Bruce. They are mention in the Lyrics to It’s the end of the World, and are from a dream that Stipe had where he was at a Birthday Party with these people and he relazed that they all had the initials L.B.

    Partying LB would be a great band name. . .

  23. “Belong” wasn’t just written during the Green tour — it was featured more or less regularly in the last few legs, along with “Low.” “Belong” normally was played in the first 40 minutes or so, and “Low” was always in the second or third encore.

  24. ScottMalobisky Says:

    quote from Stipe : “I think it’s significant to state that it’s not a song about defenestration. I took great pains to clarify that. There’s an event that has come to the attention of the woman who’s the protaginist and she realizes how significant it is to her child and herself and she goes to the window to take a breath. To me it’s very uplifting and probably the most political song on the record.”…….further explaining to Lime Lizard…”The mother is telling the child her reactions to an event which she is witnessing via the media. The event is major and she is reacting positively to it. The voice is someone else commenting on the sense that the bond between mother and child is the most powerful love of all.”

    Stipe also mentions that this album was almost called ‘Fiction’ …

  25. ScottMalobisky Says:

    check out Peter Gabriel – ‘Home Sweet Home’ –for “defenestration song”

  26. jim jos Says:


    Yes, Belong was a staple of the Green tour starting about half way through, Low added later. Ironically, it has always seemed very studio oriented to me. Perhaps, incorrectly. Still, 9 out of the eleven songs seem to be created during the layoff. (an REM first). There is something to my hypothesis that is what makes the album feel different though I will have to reevaluate low and belong.

    I don’t think of Out of Time being a record with mainstream tendencies, quite the opposite although there are many moments to it where there is more of a poppy vibe in a traditional sense, but in 1991, not a contemporary one.

  27. Paul Alferink Says:

    Oh, and some walkmen also have a small microphone attachment on the walkmen. I had one because it’s
    a. Cheaper then a normal walkmen, for some reason.
    b. It’s cool to record yourself.

    A side effect was that it didn’t play in stereo. Music only came out one headphone, which sucked cause I was eternally breaking headphones, and if I broke the left side before the right, they were junk, whereas with a normal walkman, you could limp along for a while without having to buy new ones. . .

  28. Kirsten Says:

    I’ve got one of those walkmans. It cost me $5, whereas a normal one cost about $100. Go figure…..

    My Dad once commented sarcastically “How much did they pay some genius to write this?” while the chorus was playing. The lack of words in this chorus is what makes it so powerful, and probably why we all have different ideas about what it means. It’s always provoked thoughts of time going by to me. A mother turning off the radio after hearing more bad, devistating news and worries about her child’s future – growing up, drugs, sex, marriage, grandchildren? will they fit in? will they be the same or different from others? will they be acepted into society or be the next serial killer? will they Belong?

    What always bothered me about the song was I was never sure if the mother wanted her child to give up any hopes & dreams or anything that seperated him from the pack to “fit in” or if she wanted to make sure he was protected from that and wanted him to be free to be whatever he wished.

    Love the melodies and the bass line – another essential part of REM that has been lacking a bit in recent albums.

  29. Bandwagon03 Says:

    Hmmm, i always interepted this song to be more about Hope than anything else. The idea behind the Mother protecting her child from what can sometimes be a very dark, evil world.

    Essentially saying ‘no matter what happens around us, i will always love/protect you’

  30. Doctor Casino Says:

    An incredible act of recording – if Stipe’s spoken-wordy thing has dated a little bit (see also “Trout”) it doesn’t matter, because up against that titanic wordless chorus what could possibly matter? This is a song about worry and impending doom interrupted by some sort of uplift and escape – practically at the level of divine intervention from the way Mills makes it sound. The penetration of LIGHT into the song is rendered so convincingly it’s amazing how simple the tools are with which they’re working. Easily missed as the clouds part is the transformation of Mills’s previously monotonous bass part into something animated and almost funky. Love it, love it, love it.

  31. 2d Says:

    hey, dr. casino. i have exactly the same perception of the song as you (see the “light turned into music” comparison)! 😀 but i disagree that stipe’s spoken voice is dated. i think it works amazingly well in this song, as it allows the verses to remain on the ground, making the chorus explode higher, in contrast.

  32. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    As for “defenestration” songs there is always Violent Femmes’ “out The Window”

  33. Blake Says:

    Just want to say that I think Paul Alferink’s interpretation is spot on. This song has haunted me for years and it wasn’t until today I was motivated to think hard about it’s meaning. I reached the same conclusion Paul did. I’m here searching for other interpretations as well as confirmation of mine. The lyric “She got up…silenced the radio” brings to mind an “empty house” and may very well be the only literal reference in the song. She is sad about losing her child, but mostly happy and confident because she’s prepared her child well.

  34. Goon Says:

    I always felt that this was a dark song, not uplifting, and the wordless chorus sounds to me more like onlookers crying/wailing/lamenting than a celebration of anything. I took the theme to be depression – the “creatures” being negative, suicidal thoughts which have broken loose and are running free despite the “barricades” of whatever medication the mother was taking. Barricades can only hold for so long and this was always the inevitable end. The mother begins to breathe at the thought of “freedom” i.e death, oblivion, release from her pain. Her mental illness has always made her feel different, like an outcast – and before she jumps to her death through the window she leaves her child with the advice to “belong”……

  35. vanarbulax Says:

    I have always loved this song deeply and I don’t really see it connect as a continuation of anything else. It’s about a societal restructuring and the uncertainty and fear which comes with it.

    It’s simple yet oh so poignant, it’s about a mother who has just heard that the world she knew, her immediate world, is just about to be swept away, and she’s going to have to adjust and cope, but her child on the other-hand will know of no other world.

    That no actual events are referred to make it so universal, in the video on “This film is on” it uses the Tiananmen Square protests as back drop, but to me it’s Solidarity rebellion in Poland, it’s The Troubles, it’s countless revolts in Eastern Europe and Asia.

    The creatures and the barricades are the mobs on the street, the protest, the suppression, the physical barricades as well as the political and territorial control. It doesn’t really matter who’s side is where, this woman has been living in a city with official and hidden0 battle lines, trying to live an average life, and finally they’ve burst and the sea of chaos and reorganization is flooding out, but is yet to collide against her home.

    It has captured a moment where someone has learnt that the world is going to come crashing irreversibly in on them, and they stand in their kitchen waiting for the impact, unable to do anything but wait and hope.

    And in this moment, all the mother can do is to wish her child to belong in this new world, whether the new order is better, whether one cause is nobler doesn’t matter. She just needs her child to belong, to live a life free from conflict and suffering because she can’t turn the tide of her new world, and won’t allow her child to take the onus of history, she might have to deal with tensions from the past but she wants her child to be blissfully ignorant.

    “She began to hyperventilate at the thought of such freedom” That line alone says so much, both that she has now got chaos and hence freedom for which she can try and make her mark on the new world before it’s too late, but also that her child is now free from guarantee, his place in the world is not certain and this freedom from society could turn sour for the child. So the mother wishes him to “belong”, to have only the freedom necessary to live a content life and not the freedom of individuality which could lead him into a life of struggle.

    …Sorry to go on like this, but that’s what this song conjures in me. In short: good song.

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