World Leader Pretend
August 6, 2007
“World Leader Pretend” is the first song in the R.E.M. catalog to be released with its lyrics printed in the liner notes. This would not be tremendously interesting and significant if the band had not cultivated at least some of its initial popularity based on the combination of Michael Stipe’s somewhat inscrutable lyrics and his occasionally impenetrable diction, or if the band didn’t come off like the sort of people who were withholding printed lyrics in the packaging as some kind of point about their art. Also, it wouldn’t be such a big deal if it was not the only song from the album to have its lyrics printed, thus giving the impression that we’re supposed to think that the words are especially important, i.e., these are lyrics that the band want you to notice and think about a bit more than, say, “Get Up” or “Stand.” Michael has said that the lyrics were printed mainly because he felt that the song was the key track on the album, and it kinda is, at least in the sense that it is the selection that most fully integrates the personal and political themes of the set.
“World Leader Pretend” is essentially about a troubled, delusional loner who has cut himself off from the world, but ironically, he interprets his internal monologue in the terms of political policy. He’s essentially a man poisoned by his acute self-awareness — he notes every minute change in his mind, depersonalizes his emotions, and attempts to reduce complex feelings into simple, rational causes and effects. The implication seems to be that though the personal may indeed be political, it’s a folly to turn our personalities into politics.
The band’s arrangement for “World Leader Pretend” is rather stark and solemn. The jangling rhythm guitar and brisk beat are vintage R.E.M., but the transitions between sections involving cello, piano, and pedal steel guitar are elegant and understated, mainly because the parts do not repeat or overlap. The composition carries us through gradual emotional shifts, but the singer’s epiphanies are presented as isolated moments in time. The backing vocals by Mike Mills are equally clever, and geared towards underlining and expanding concepts from the lyrics, most especially in the way the words “sympathize” and “empathize” overlap in such a way that complicates and confuses the sentiment, and nearly makes the line sound like “it’s amazing what devices you can synthesize,” which seems somewhat intentional in the context of a song about a man who invents his own reality.