August 21, 2007
I like to think that sometime in 1986, R.E.M. got around to thinking that all of the music that was being called “industrial” was not taking that label literally enough, and decided to write a song of their own that didn’t just sound a bit like a factory, but also played out the tensions between industrialized capitalism and the workers who operate its machinery.
“Finest Worksong” may be somewhat pretentious on a conceptual level, but its strength comes from its unashamed populism. With its thundering beat and sweeping chorus, the song is ideally suited to being performed in stadiums, especially as the opening number of a show. The studio recording is dominated by the enormity of Bill Berry’s drum kit, but the blown-out treble of Peter Buck’s guitar is key to the appeal of the piece, signaling both a nervous urgency in its rhythms, and a harsh, metallic environment with its cold, tinny pitch. Whereas Buck’s parts are sharp and flat, Mike Mills’ bass is sleek, thick, and somewhat elegant when it is foregrounded for brief leads. An alternate version of the track found on the Eponymous record features a brass section that pumps up the chorus, but it’s a bit too obvious and heavy-handed for its own good, and the track is much more effective when it simply implies the fanfare.
Much like “Cuyahoga,” “Finest Worksong” proposes both revolutionary action and reform. Michael Stipe’s alienated worker may be calling for unionization, or a labor strike, or a full-on Marxist revolt, but the specifics aren’t as important as the message of the refrain: “What we want and what we need has been confused.” It’s a crucial lyric, not just in that it makes a strong, succinct point in the context of that song, but in that it is essentially the central theme of the band’s entire late ’80s period boiled down into a simple slogan.