Perfect Circle

August 17, 2007

The gorgeous, spectral piano tone in “Perfect Circle” is one of the most distinct and evocative sounds in the entire R.E.M. discography. The part was recorded on two pianos simultaneously for the studio recording, and though that is not immediately apparent, there’s a subtle harmonic variation that exaggerates the slightly unreal quality of the sound. As with much of Murmur, Don Dixon and Mitch Easter were able to record simple, straightforward parts in a way that so well captured the essential sound of the instruments that they seem somewhat surreal in the context of more ambiguous aspects of the arrangements — in this case, Michael Stipe singing near the bottom of his register on the verses, and the distant touches of electric guitar that are so carefully placed in the arrangement that they may as well be subliminal suggestions.  The bass and percussion parts are crisply recorded and placed in the foreground of the mix, and though they provide a sense of movement through the song, the parts are deliberately minimal, and allow the reverb of the piano part to linger through the piece. It’s an exceptionally beautiful and haunting track, but its emotional center is vague — the lyrics allude to friendship, failing romance,  absence, youth, and death, but the scope is a bit unclear, though perhaps that is precisely the point.


48 Responses to “Perfect Circle”

  1. Hoainam Says:

    Just a bit of trivia: someone correct me if I’m wrong but I remember Mike Mills saying that Bill Berry wrote the music to Perfect Circle. Around the same time, Mike Mills said he was writing the music and lyrics to Don’t Go Back to Rockville.

    I too enjoy the sonic touches on this song, particularly the screechy dissonant sounds that appear on the outro/fadeout.

    “the lyrics allude to friendship, failing romance, absence, youth, and death”

    Oh right… THAT R.E.M. song!

    Just kidding ya man.

  2. Matthew Says:

    You’re spot on about that piano sound. It’s such a perfect antidote to Micheal’s singing. Also, the percussion is very Stephen Morris here.

    My favourite line has to be;
    “Who might lead you where I left off”

    My only complaint with this track is that it fades out sooner than I feel it should do; you don’t quite get time to get your head around the “shoulders high in the room” before it’s gone. But again, perhaps that’s the point.

  3. Matthew Says:

    Oh, also. To shamelessly self promote, I’ve just written a post about being an R.e.m. fan in 2007 if anyone’s interested.

  4. Yes, Bill Berry wrote the piano part for “Perfect Circle,” and he and Mike Mills are the ones playing the part simultaneously in the studio.

  5. maclure Says:

    In a purchase that she couldn’t have believed would alter my life so much, my Mum bought me the Best of REM IRS yrs compilation on cassette when I was about 13 or so. Perfect Circle was my favourite song from the whole album for quite a while – not sure why, I think it sounded way ahead of it’s time and more in keeping with the REM of Out of Time that I had grown to love (you might think this is strange, but who can fathom the mind of a 13 yr old?).

    Anyway, MP is right to approach this song from the instrumentation side of things as it is so deliciously layered and textured. I do think there is something more going on with the lyrics that I can’t quite put my finger on – in my mind, and as a kid and without the internet, I picked up on lines such as “Standing too soon, shoulders high in the room”, “Speak out sometimes, but try to win” as referring to a young person who feels awkward and out of place in the world (probably a good definition of me at the time).

    This child or young persons stands too soon in a crowded gathering and compared to everybody else who remains seated, they draw attention unnecessarily, their shoulders the only ones high in the room. They try to speak, to say the right things, to win respect from their “perfect circle of aquaintances and friends” (I imagined a large extended family), but it sort of sounds disjointed and mainly people ignore or laugh them off. I feel a real sense of quiet sadness and empathy for this person who is trying to make their way in the world with the best of intentions…

    I know my reading of things doesn’t explain nearly the half of the signals given off in the lyrics but it rings true for me then, as it does now.

  6. ryan Says:

    Also, apparently Michael wrote the lyrics in response to a request/challenge from Peter, who witnessed a game of touch football while they were on tour somewhere and due to fatigue or whatever, became quite emotional and touched. Even if it’s not true, it’s a nice story with great imagery. Fantastic song as well.

    I was reminded of the above story because I’m currently reading J. Nimi’s interesting book on Murmur (part of excellent 33 1/3 series which tackles landmark/influential albums.)

    And you can be assured that I’m reading it in part due to your blog Matthew… Thanks for renewing my interest the band!

  7. ryan Says:

    Sorry, it’s J. Niimi, not Nimi. I’m sure a lot of the people who visit this site are familiar with it.

  8. maclure Says:

    Yeah, I read that book. I actually enjoyed it a great deal…

  9. Kenna Says:

    Best. R.E.M. Song. Ever.

    Never fails to give me chills. Genius.

  10. Steven Says:

    Wow. Been watching this blog since the start & can’t hold off any longer!

    Had a similar experience to Maclure re. the REM IRS comp. Rented the CD from my library aged 13-14 along with Smiths singles, I guess you could say they set the trend for the next decade or so.

    Perfect Circle, in particular, stood out. The opacity of the lyric and dreamy/haziness of the arrangement were a perfect match. Love the way on ‘Murmur’ the percussion reaches out of the track to slap you in the face, cymbal splash on ‘…Passion’ in particular. Didn’t know the piano(s) were dbl tracked by the way, thanks!

    Absolutely loving all the posts, all the replies are similarly spot on. Reminds me I’ve got a good 2 or 3 friends I’ve made promises with to “get wrecked & play REM albums at mine”. Will get round to it someday. Thanks folks.

  11. adam Says:

    pull your dress ‘on’ and stay real close… as a kid hearing this song.. I always thought it was so mature of michael to say that.. not dress ‘off’ – funny

  12. jim jos Says:

    I have always found this song to be almost always loved across the board by all R.E.M. fans, and rightfully so.

    As with so much of early R.E.M. (and esp. Murmur) the genius of the songs meaning is open to interpretation and the listeners imagination comes up with its own ideas that strike personal feelings within the listener.

    It’s interactive music which is one of the reason its so damn great.

    To me, this song always makes me think of being at a party, the kind of hazy quality of the music makes me think that I have been doing a little bit of drinking.
    The whole idea of “put your dress on” makes me think of going to a party with a girl who is dressed for the occasion, “stay real close” is about not wanting to be alone at the party and my date is there maybe for comfort or to overcome a little bit of fear of crowds. “Drink another coin a phrase” sounds like something that a group of younger people would do when they are drinking, maybe feeling esp. literate while a little lit and coming up with little sayings that sound much more intelligent at the moment than the next day.

    Yeah, this song sets up the party for me, my date looks good in her dress, and its a perfect circle around me of friends and casual acquaintances and everyone is feeling good “shoulders high in the room” But even at this moment, there is a sadness in the song because, as perfect as it is, these perfect days of my life will come to an end.

  13. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    This is the best song on Murmur and easily in REM’s top 10. Like everyone else the piano, which at first seems so straightforward, is the key to the song’s mystery and beauty. I sometimes wonder if “Perfect Circle” would have been a huge radio hit had it been released as a single. I think maybe it could have, but that would have changed the whole career arc of REM and likely we would not have had the many albums of slow building greatness as the label may have then pushed hard for more Murmurs with more Perfect Circles.

  14. jim jos Says:

    yeah, BWD, if it were today, I am sure R.E.M. would have been dropped from their label after Fables. Perfect Circle could have been a hit, but then the “suits” would have said “we need another one boys” and Peter Buck would have said “kiss my ass suckas” and Michael Stipe would say sarcastically “yeah, ummm we have a song about wearing a harborcoat” and the whole perfect projection of the band would have been altered.

    Maybe, like Wilco or Spoon, of more recent memory, they could have picked up the pieces and switched labels, I think they would have. However, many bands do not and it destroys them (look up the Refreshments a 90’s band out of Tempe, who may have gone on to some really great things had they been allowed to grow and record in peace), maybe since tensions were high during Fables, a record company slap would have broken their backs at that time.

    wonder why you and I think of that type of “speculative non historical way of thinking” I’m not in the band or anything, but what would have happened if PC was a hit or if they were dropped after Fables or even Document or what if they would have stayed at IRS, IRS was a good record label.
    Lots of talent there for such a little guy.

    I think Murmur – Document is about the best five album
    run that any band ever came up with as a new band. Better than the Beatles (Beatles for Sale is lacking) Nobody can touch it. Pavement could have, but perhaps they suffered from letting a little too much time go in between Slanted and TT. If that was all R.E.M. did (5 IRS discs) they would be remembered very fondly by few, but loved immensely by all who remembered them. Kind of like a pumped up Husker Du type of reverence to them but much more like-able than HD.
    Husker put together a fine run starting with Zen, but Candy Apple is not on par with the other ones and Zen Arcade was not a debut (though it is great).

    It could have been them and not REM that became the super stars, both were on Warner Bros. Husker was making 90’s style rock, just ten years earlier. Pixies too would have broken huge after Nevermind. Give REM credit for keeping their egos in check always and for having four pieces of the puzzle (now three) that fit so well together.

    Poetically speaking, sometimes I get this romantic view of them breaking up after Document and being, like, the greatest cult band of all time.
    Then I think to myself…Are you freakin crazy? No Automatic for the People, no Green? no Up? No Out of Time? No Hi-Fi? No Monster? All those records are successes on many levels and, in the end, isn’t more good music the main objective? Neil Young said “better to burn out than to fade away” but Neil never did either.
    I am excited about the new R.E.M. record, here in 2007, and that makes life a better place.

    sorry for my ranting, or this circular “logic”.

  15. Mr Cup Says:

    In the fullness of time, I expected Stipe to come out and say this song was about a game of spin the bottle or something. Not in a crass or jocular way of course. It just seems to have all the excitement and anxiety that period when you start exploring sexuality. Ultimately it doesn’t really matter what it’s about. It’s the meaning we impose on the song ourselved that provides the real emotional weight.
    It’s haunting, it’s beautiful and like the band it’s greater than the sum of it’s parts. Perfect!

    And could it have been this song that tipped the critics scales in favour Murmur over Thriller in ’83. Or was it really a one horse race all the way?

  16. 2fs Says:

    Ryan: Yes, that Niimi book is excellent. I wrote a sort of mini-review of it, which derailed into a footnote about mis-hearing the words of “Perfect Circle,” and then into a series of comments about songwriters, intentions, and property rights. Or something. It’s here, if anyone wants to read it.

  17. Bruno Says:

    There’s something about the cyclical quality on the chorus that I remember just knocked me out when I was first getting to know this song. Still does but not quite as powerfully. I had never heard anything like it before. I guess I say this as something that I ‘used’ to hear as I don’t get quite the same buzz from it now, but sure wish I did (lost my religion I suppose – something for another post).

    I can still hear it enough though to try and express it. It felt something like my own personal theme music playing along. The piano dancing over those few chords in a bright percussive way that seemed as though it could keep bouncing along forever. It dances on those same chords while the bass carries the progression. And that close up high hat panned right and the snare panned left with the deep reverb/delay. I use the word dances purposefully when describing the piano; there’s something very playful and light in it’s feel – definitely due in part to the fact that it is two tracks and you can hear the variations jumping between the left and right side (a bit beside the point but to me it almost sounds like the kind of piano I imagine you might hear in a saloon or a player piano in an old western – or am I just a bit nuts).

    Anyway, my point is the cyclical quality that the chorus achieves. So simple but so effective. Does anyone else get a great round and round feeling from it? If music be the food of life…

    Back to my porridge.

  18. ScottMalobisky Says:

    right , Bruno, I know what you mean about the “cyclical quality” and so true the “simple but so effective”..I hesitate to say this but I gotta admit that I am always a bit befuddled when I sometimes hear fans talking about this song as if it’s the band’s ‘Stairway To Heaven’ or something; it’s a really great song but not that great, a classic example of how REM can make something so basic sound so profound and mysterious and evocative (oh, I guess that was the production , huh?. as with much of Murmur..) ; I imagine though that the experience would have been much more magical if I was , say , fifteen , the first time I heard it –that time of teenage angst and as was previously referred to sexual exploration –as it was I was listening to Cat Scratch Fever then, all those years ago.

  19. Bruno Says:

    Oh, umm, that should be ‘food of love’ above. And I suppose as well I meant that I was describing the piano having a dancing quality ‘on purpose’ not ‘purposefully’ (grins).

    Well, yeah, Scott, I was fifteen at the time. To use your two references, I think part of the magic was that the sound was an obvious antidote to ‘Cat Scratch Fever’ or ‘Stairway to Heaven’, (taking nothing away from Bonham and company’s classic).

    Funny when you put Plant’s lyrical ‘mysticism’ from the 60’s/70’s next to Stipe’s from the 80’s.

  20. ScottMalobisky Says:

    I saw a lion he was standing alone with a tadpole in a jar…(???huh???)..And all the fish that lay in dirty water dying have they got you hypnotized…(???huh???)

  21. Bruno Says:

    Trouble is definitely brewing when in your thoughts you’ve seen the voices of those who stand looking!

  22. Bruno Says:

    Not to mention rings of smoke in the trees!

  23. ScottMalobisky Says:

    speaking of Zep , since we’re on the subject, I was shocked when one day killing time I was looking up the lyrics to Presence songs..clearly in spots the most audibly indecipherable of all their records..Royal Orleans is about an encounter with a drag queen !! I wonder if this really happened to Plant in New Orleans at the Royal Orleans (a hotel there I believe)..He’s caterwauling, “Whiskers!!…”., I get the impression this is based on a true story.and For Your Life is total debauchery, probably another true story song.

  24. Bruno Says:

    I must admit that my sensibilities are being pulled a bit off kilter. I think that Stipe and co were aiming at a slightly different approach than that rock stuff that came beforehand.

    Much as I love Page and Plant doing their thing and man that guy did swing (Bonham), discussing the ZEP on a post about ‘Perfect Circle’ leaves a weird taste in my mouth. (But of course any music talk makes me happy).

    Still, it’s like fire and water.

    With that said ‘audibly indecipherable’ is a great expression! I don’t doubt any story you could bring up about guys like Plant and them boys. They must have gotten up to a hell of a lot of ‘mischief’ in those days, New Orleans or anywhere else. Rock was young and innocent and they were at the front of the parade.

  25. Bruno Says:

    Maybe innocent isn’t the word – but they could get away with a hell of a lot more before the Live Aid generation appeared.

    Sorry for the post hijack REM peoples.

  26. Mr Cup Says:

    I like this song for what it is as much as for what it isn’t.

    It isn’t Stairway to Heaven. I thank them for that. Daily.

  27. ScottMalobisky Says:

    me sorry too

  28. Gary Smith Says:

    I am here and you are everything.

  29. ScottMalobisky Says:

    Peter Buck stated with pride: “The first thing that really moved me was Perfect Circle, that was the first time I thought we were a real band.” REALLY? thems are strong words there……considering Wolves, Lower came before unless this song was actually written before Wolves was recorded, or maybe he’s referring to a very secific level of “being moved” or maybe it was that predilecton for red wine

  30. ScottMalobisky Says:

    am assuming you all know there’s a band Perfect Circle, 99.9% sure it’s fronted by the singer from TOOL, now there’s some bad-assed MFs there , TOOL, those guys are killer

  31. Bruno Says:

    Never heard that quote before but you mention it as though other Chronic Town songs don’t rate – ‘Gardening at Night’ for example.

    His name is Maynard. I had breakfast back in the day with him and some mutual friends at a popular after-gig place in Vancouver following a TOOL concert the night before. Bit of a nutjob but damn what a great band they were.

  32. Paul Alferink Says:

    I love the reverse guitar loop that come in as a afterthought. Reminds me a bit of the Guitar on Liz Phairs chopstick. (I used to love Liz Phair. Broke my heart when she sold out).

    Best Line:
    Pull your dress on, and stay real close.

    I realize that its about going out to a party, but before I knew that, I always thought it was such a sad line. A sort of, “I’m done using you, but your still plan to use you as my emotional yo-yo. Not true at all. Probably simply a result of my strangely Puritanical sexual outlook when I was younger in the face of the rest of my rather nihilistic sensibilities. Same thing always made me misinterpret “Chopsticks” actually, from a song about a non-existant sexual encounter by a introvert into a song about vacant casual sex. Only year later did I realize that the last word was “Timid”, not “dead.” Kind of ruined the song for me.

  33. Dark Bob Says:

    A timeless classic. An absolutely beautiful song.

  34. Figgy Says:

    I first heard this song when I was a teenager, just after I’d left school and gone on to college. A great time in terms of discovering who you are and what the world is all about. A time for meeting new people, making friends, partying, falling for women, sexual encounters… yet at the same time, feeling not particularly self-assured, sometimes just fumbling through social situations and feeling a little out of place.

    To me, Perfect Circle is the soundtrack for those times.

    I agree with most of what has been said already, especially the initial comments from maclure and jim jos. Spot on re: feeling awkward in a crowd, drawing unwanted attention to oneself, gaining courage by having a friend stand close or by drinking some alcohol.

    Looking at the words on the REM Lyrics Archive site, I realise I might have been mishearing one of the lines for the best part of twenty years. I’ve always heard “Eleven shadows way out of place” as “You live in shadows way out of place”. I think I prefer how I hear the line as a better way to describe moments when you feel like an outsider.

    Then there’s a part of the song I’ve always related to a one night stand, perhaps at a party, with someone who’s not looking for anything more but is someone you really like. The girl gets up to leave afterwards and you say “pull your dress on and stay real close”, imploring her not to leave just yet. Then you come to the upsetting realisation that she will move on to another: “Who might lead (leave?) you where I left off?”

    Irrespective of what is intended by the lyrics, this is a great song with a beautiful melody and one I’ve never grown tired of.

  35. Mr Cup Says:

    I think even Stipe would agree “You live in shadows way out of place”
    is a great line.

  36. Kirsten Says:

    I’m another one that was always unsure of the meaning of this one. The whole party idea of Jim Jos’s sounds right to me now it’s been suggested. We had this song played at our wedding. I thought it was inappropiate, but as neither of us could work out what it was actually about, we decided that the beautiful melody would hide any underlying meaning to the song. I was just glad to have REM a part of the day.
    Apart from the beautiful and haunting music, words and Michael’s vocals I love the Percussion effect after “Speak out sometimes, try to win”. Absolutely gorgeous.
    Surprised no one has mentioned the unbelievable harmonies at the end of the song on “Tourfilm”. That one moment makes the whole DVD worthwhile.

    Like most of Murmur, I love it, love it LOVE IT!

  37. Kirsten Says:

    Figgy, I think that’s a great line, too. I often thought about writing a song just using lines and words that I got wrong from REM songs.
    But standing on the shoulders of giants leaves me cold..

  38. Mr Cup Says:

    As an aside…I grew up on a small farm on on a river that had an old train bridge very similar to the Murmur cover. It was foretold I would be a fan. Just thought I’d mention it while we are in Murmur mode.

  39. Mr Cup Says:

    Kirsten – what a mean idea to call your own!

  40. Figgy Says:

    Kirsten, I actually think you’re on to something here. I’ve been jamming with some people recently and putting together a few original songs. The words lack something so maybe mis-heard REM lyrics could get us on track!

  41. Elliot H. Says:

    Congrats to Bill on being the 20th best drummer according to Stylus Magazine’s list of the 50 greatest

    Read it here:

    He beat out such legends as Neil Peart (that honestly surprised me a little), Bill Bruford, Billy Cobham, and John Densmore

  42. Paul Alferink Says:

    Yeah. I don’t really know drumming very well, but honestly, I know Neil Peart is good and probably a little low on that list.

  43. ScottMalobisky Says:

    I like the above mentioned “awkwardness at parties” references in relation to this song–I can definitely see that-….this is a poem of mine:


    games growing up alive and parallel to blooming prodigy
    games which when analyzed are totally different
    games essential subjects visiting the neighbor girl
    everywhere games frantic love lines feeble rapport
    mutual games best friends dance club wall support
    childhood war games in crumbling backyard places
    stationed all along the tethered dog days where
    millions of people in love with impression and
    each other get in the way of love and each other
    games here and now and yet somehow there and wow for
    sixty dollars a split moon rolls down your face
    like sequestered Atlantic youths afternoon
    makes you want to scream and shout to be young and
    naive for awhile
    just for awhile pretend you have no sophistication
    her feet scarred from that single thorn on the driveway
    is it worth the price of getting out?

  44. 2d Says:

    i’m too tired to reply in a coherent form right now, but i just wanted to say i could predict what song from “murmur” you would be reviewing. 😉 nice, subtle touch of order in an otherwise chaotic -or is it?- sequencing of reviews. very r.e.m.-esque!

  45. huub Says:

    I always think of a direct line between Perfect Circle and Nightswimming. Of course both songs have the litany, the repeating piano sequence, but also, although both very different, some emotional connection between both, between hope and fear.

  46. dumbek Says:

    By far my favorite R.E.M. song, if not my overall favorite song by anyone.

  47. Tad Says:

    This was the song we used as the first dance at our wedding in 1999. Only a few of my friends recognized the song. ..The end of the world as we know it was the last song of the night.

  48. Frank Says:

    Friendship…..death. Yeah.

    I turned my brother on to REM. When I discovered Murmur shortly after it had come out, I pulled Patrick up to my room and said, “You gotta hear these guys!”

    When I was working in Boston in the summer of 1984, and got wind that REM was coming to the Orpheum, on the tour supporting Reckoning, I got two tickets…the other for him. Went home after I got them, and gave his to him with a “Surprise!” He was 16. It was his very first concert.

    When I went to visit him where he lived in CA in March of 2007, by sheer serendipity, it was the week they were inducted into the R&R Hall of Fame. We sat on his couch and watched them play, muttering “It’s like 1984 all over again!” at each other.

    And in October 2007, when I flew into CA again for his funeral (cancer), his widow asked me to pick an REM song that would be appropriate for his service.

    I picked this one.

    He would’ve whole heartedly approved.

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