Falls To Climb

August 22, 2007

The protagonist of “Falls To Climb” is a potentially delusional sad sack with extremely low self-esteem. He sulks his way through the song, lamenting his poor choices, bad luck, and is overly eager to take the blame, presumably for things that are not even his fault. He’s kinda pathetic, but still, somehow,  it’s hard not to feel bad for the guy. There’s a transparent cynicism in his desire to become a martyr, but that doesn’t exactly negate his willingness to sacrifice himself, or deny him the dignity that he claims at the end of the song. Most of the Up deals with characters who find themselves at a low moment, and either rise to the occasion or fall deeper into despair, and the ascension at the conclusion of “Falls To Climb” ends the album on a positive, if somewhat depressing, note. The arrangement underplays the drama of the piece, but allows for moments of miniaturized grandeur, most notably when the diffuse track suddenly picks up at its climax with clumsy, abrupt drum rolls that become a steady beat as the character becomes more confident.


49 Responses to “Falls To Climb”

  1. Kirsten Says:

    Not my favourite from Up, but you certainly got it right about the drums at the end of the song really giving it an Uplifting finish. Apart from that, the song is musically quite boring. Even the vocals don’t seem to be sung with a lot of enthusiasm. Love the line “My actions make me beautiful and dignify the flesh”. You just want to give him a big hug and tell him he’s better than that.

    Me. I am free. I am free.

  2. drew. Says:

    i love this song. i also heard that it was a favorite of Mike Mills. works in my book. any thoughts from Mike Mills, i think, are valid. if he says we should pay attention to a song, we should.

  3. Well, it definitely seems as though Mike Mills was the primary architect of the track.

  4. Figgy Says:

    I’ve always pictured a work-related power struggle when listening to Falls to Climb. I know thematically there’s more to the song than that and I accept most likely it’s about a person with low self-esteem irrespective of the exact situation.

    However, I can’t help picturing a scene where top management don’t want to take responsibility for something and instead look down the ranks for a scapegoat.

    Got to agree with Kirsen about “My actions make me beautiful and dignify the flesh” – my favourite line of the song and the one I most like singing along to. I really enjoy the drum roll/beat at the end too.

  5. ScottMalobisky Says:

    ” It doesn’t bother me if you are right.” Part 2..I think you all are giving this song way too little credit , possible rant to come later 🙂

  6. Paul Alferink Says:

    I think this song is, frankly, a mess. The words and music really don’t work together and sort of meander a lot. Stipe phrases awkwardly a lot. “Gentleman, mark your opponents, fire into your own ranks” comes to mind. Then, starting from “From each and every gathering, a scapegoat falls to climb.” it all comes together for the final push. A nice ending and a nice ending to the album that is troubled in spots. Probably help save the album, and a fitting ending. Like Monster ends with feedback, Up ends with cheesy synth. And both albums are summed up nicely.

    Best live:
    for each and every gathering
    a scapegoat falls to climb.

    Close second:
    my actions make me beautiful
    and dignify the flesh
    me. I am free. free

  7. jim jos Says:

    Anyone else reminded of a funeral when they listen to this? I mean, take out the Stipe vocal, and listen to Mills on the drowning synths. To me, it sounds like walking into a church and the organist is playing something as people congregate. Is it the death of R.E.M? Of the youth associated with being able to be in a band of people that you played with when you were 20 that has ended? Even the snare drum reminds me of a type of military style funeral progression.

    As for the lyrics, I can’t help but think of
    the inner band turmoil here, and that R.E.M. was maybe a phone call away from calling it quits. (a major theme in the depression soaked up). And if somebody was to blame, Stipe offers himself as the scapegoat.

    Are the other members of the band the committee? “Fire into your own ranks” seems to allude to this. Or maybe just anyone who judges him?

    He seems to deface himself here quite a bit, he is phony maroney (a take on blue cheer song Boney Maroney I believe).

    He is taking the fall, but it is by choice. He is doing it through his own strength and not because he is weak, if the band is through, then Mr. Stipe says “hey, its all me, its gotta be someone’s fault, right, why not me? I’ll step forward here, deliberately. Not because I have to because I am full of weakness, but because I freakin’ want to.
    I kind of see Stipe at the podium here, for the death of R.E.M. at this “ceremony that fills his heart”.

    Not that it is all about the band, though I think that
    is the source of it. On a larger sense, whenever anything fails, or ends, the fingers are always pointed at someone as the reason behind its failure. By volunteering yourself as the reason it all went to hell, you have accepted the blame, not pushed it onto others. Because of this, you are free, (or if a crime has been committed, perhaps in jail)

  8. Kirsten Says:

    Maybe he offers himself as a scapegoat, not just “because he freakin’ wants to” but to save his fellow bandmates from the forecomming critisism. An act of final chivalry for his friends perhaps?

  9. jim jos Says:

    yes, Kirsten, instead of somebody pointing the finger, at say Peter, Stipe takes the blame, instead. But don’t read “freakin’ wants to” the wrong way when I say that, what I mean is that he is not doing it out of weakness or out of some kind of martyr complex, he knows that somebody has to take the blame, he will take it because he is strong and, on many levels, knows he is the better person for it. I like the final act of chivalry as you say so well.

    A personal note (those who don’t care please go on to the next post)
    Being the lead singer/lyric/melody writer for a failed band (lets just say Matthew will never have a blog dedicated to my stuff!) I have felt that the front man (woman) and the band he (she) is on are rarely in the same gang. The band is the gang and it is easy to feel outside of the loop, if you are the singer (esp. if you do not contribute as a second guitarist or something). The band has to work together and you have to work to bring the audience to the band. But the band doesn’t need you, per se. Maybe Bill leaving and other things made everyone go, “screw this, this isn’t working” and Peter left kicking over a Marshall or something during rehearsal. I don’t know.

    One day I will read a biography that goes into major detail on R.E.M. and I will not be surprised if I see Michael depressed and away from the band during the Up
    period. Just the message that I get from much of Up, the sound of things falling apart and despair. It is a very tough record to like on many levels (like Paul says parts are really messy) but when I got into it and almost forced myself through it, I came to love the mess and discord, though it is often tough to LIKE.

    Maybe the breaking up was too hard to do, too much love there. And maybe they don’t push each other as much and that is why Around the Sun and Reveal seem less challenging, but, I for one, am thankful that they stayed with it. And I respect them so much for staying with it. A world without R.E.M. is a sad one indeed.

    How about that for a rant Scott!

    you can tell I was a lead singer in my former life. “blah blah blah, I think this, blah blah blah, and this, blah blah blah, can’t shut up, blah blah blah, everybody pay attention to me, no wait, I am to cool to ask for attention, but, blah blah blah”.

  10. Andy T Says:

    I always liked this song but never delved into what it might be about. I just thought it ended an odd album on an odd but somewhat uplifting note. It was always one of my few key tracks from the album.

    But today, I can’t listen to it without remembering how my CD was scratched and didn’t play right during this song. As I key track, a couple of years ago I ripped it to MP3 and the skips made it into that format too. I added to my REM file on mycomputer and, in MP3, found that the numerous jumps and skips condensed the last two minutes down to about 15 seconds. I left it that way with the “I’ll fix it later” mentality, but it was like a year or two before I did it, and in that meantime I heard my “condensed” version enough times that now, hearing it properly, sounds odd to me. Maybe it’s one of those subconscious things – wanting the whole UP experience to be shorter!

  11. 2d Says:

    i have never found this song as anything other than pure beauty. it is awkward, self-doubting, pleading, brave… it has this “open heart” feel that is really genuine and heartbreakingly beautiful, much like “the wrong child”. it’s the same kind of acceptance of fate/life, but this is the grown-up version, where the character digs deeper into his misery and makes sad reflections on his own situation, generalising it to make sense of it all (“for each and every gathering a scapegoat falls to climb”). the child’s experience was merely a longing for freedom and a fake maturity in the face of the wall separating him from the others. the grown-up takes the fall, with the sort of delusional courage that in the end sets him free, even if only in his mind.

    the arrangement is perfect to me. every note drips of despair and also of hope, making it an unmistakable r.e.m. song just like “find the river”. even in bad times, there will always be a silver lining so work through it and keep your spirit strong.

    this song is the perfect end to a unfairly obscure album. the mechanical heart of r.e.m.’s most vulnerable record.

  12. Paul Alferink Says:

    I always found that in a lot of Stipean characters, that there is a duality, that they are flawed, at the least, if not creepy or outright evil. This one is pretty much straight forward, it seems to me, and too good to be that interesting. A little off putting, actually, and I don’t think he’s meant to be. . .

  13. Paul Alferink Says:

    And this song also reminds me of Walk Unafraid, partly because REM seemed to like it a lot more then I do. Partly because the Lyrics seem similar, again, we are suppose to be sympathetic to that person. But I don’t.

  14. maclure Says:

    I have so much to say about this track, I don’t even know where to start. I have half a dozen windows open on my screen with REM lyrics and Bible verses everywhere…

    I love this track, one of my favourites from UP and, as somebody above said, the conclusion for the themes of the entire album. Unlike MP, I don’t see the main character as pathetic in any way – rather as misunderstood but incredibly brave, a person who lives according to a different set of standards, is derided by the majority and opts for the difficult road of self-sacrifice to find a deeper freedom.

    OK, I don’t think this has been mentioned, but the song is absolutely loaded with Christo-religious imagery. The notions of falling and climbing riddle the Bible story and find their chief expression in the death and resurrection of Christ. The term “scapegoat” is Biblical and obscure, it refers to an animal that was sent out into the desert alone to die baring the sins of the OT Israelites. “Who cast the final stone?” is a play on the words of Christ who challenged some religious men to throw the first stone at an adulterous woman – in brief, it is a story about guilt and who has the power or right to judge others. In the story, the men walk away leaving the woman unharmed. We have references to Martyrs and Missionaries – religious people who go to extremes for their beliefs often at the derision of the majority around them. Lastly, I see in the character of Falls to Climb a person who walks a similar line to Jesus – the ultimate theological “scapegoat”, who according the gospeal accoutns deliberatley (“This is the role I have chosen”) walked toward cruel Roman execution for the benefit of others and there found freedom so the Christian story goes…

    I think the musical accompaniment, lacking in much percussion until the end and with layers of stringy synths was R.E.M. consciously aiming for an angelic, albeit slightly chintzy, hymn-like quality to finish the album. As the protagonist says “I am free” I almost picture him floating up into the sky about to recieve a harp from St.Peter…

    The parallels with “Walk Unafraid” are there too, another song with religious imagery of the weak person facing and overcoming odds. A bag of stones (David on his way to Goliath), the lamb, the narrow path… it’s all from the Bible folks.

    I’m not pointing this out to preach at anyone, I’m just highlighting what I believe is self-evidently in the song and consequently a source of great interest to me. Of course, we all interpret songs based on what we know/ have experienced, and I suppose my hours spent in church pews give me this view of things.

  15. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    This song is in the “very good, but not great” catergory. I have loved the end espeically where the drum comes in and Michael sings “I am Free!” Even of it is not a great song, it is a great close to the album “Up”.

  16. eastsidedave Says:

    I thought Maclure’s comment was interesting, because I also see a connection between Falls To Climb and Walk Unafraid. However, while he sees both as being related to religious experience, I see both as being related to the gay male experience.

    The first verse of Falls To Climb, in particular, sounds to me like a gay man who is married to a woman. He genuinely loves her, but the physical part of the relationship isn’t working for him. Go back and read the first verse again; almost everything in it can be read as the singer taking the “traditional” male role in a physical relationship, while knowing full well that inside, it’s not his natural role.

    Furthermore, I think almost any gay person can relate to concepts like “romantically you’d martyr me”, or “gentlemen… fire into your own ranks. Pick the weakest… square off to meet your enemy”. Haven’t gay men always been perceived as the “weakest”? Haven’t they always been scapegoated by society?

  17. wolfy Says:

    UP is an interesting record because it is so introspective, I still say that, if anyoneelse did this song, it would sound like CRAP. Stipe’s voice saves it.

  18. David T. Says:

    maclure – Like you, I always found the biblical allusions intriguing (though I never thought through an overall interpretation of their use); conversely, I also found interesting the close juxtaposition of “missionary” and “position” in the fist verse, making me think the narrator “character” in the song is referring to a relationship with a sexual component.

    Musically…this one didn’t stand out to me until after multiple listens (and after my brother told me it was probably his very favorite on the CD)…it sticks in the head rather nicely now, though (and that snare drum does provide a nice build-up).

  19. ScottMalobisky Says:

    oh come on jimjos and kirsten !! I can’t believe how you are saying that this song is about the band !!..NOT AT ALL, though I wasn’t there, so much more depth to it than that..(though your observations jimjos about the singer being a much different animal than the rest of the band are very interesting , so true, and absolutely so when he/she doesn’t play another instrument or anything.)..Damn, I really don’t know where to begin…

  20. ScottMalobisky Says:

    but Jesus did not go willingly in the sense that he didn’t choose that role–I mean he didnt fight it when it was time, but, that’s not what he wanted certainly(witness the agony in the garden)-His Father wanted it so he listened …..but the Son is The Father , part of The Holy Trinity with The Holy Spirit, so therefore ……Ah Shit here we go……I think I better turn this off now.

    Can omniscient God, who
    Knows the future, find
    The omnipotence to
    Change his future mind?

    I think I’m going insane.

  21. maclure Says:

    David T – yeah, I also wonder at any sexual reference in “missionary” and “position” but on the whole I don’t think the song is particularly laden with sexual imagery, or for that matter the album, so it may be coincidental. “I’ll take my position, assume the missionary part” seems to me to say that this person knows the role they have – they take their position, as in the ranks of the army mentioned later – but their specific role in the army is as “the missionary” whatever that might be…

    Scott M – you the man, Scott. I always look forward to your posts on here, I like your openness. Please don’t go insane.

  22. 2d Says:

    all this talk of jesus and religion makes me realise what a beautiful theme this would be for scorsese’s “the last temptation of christ”, one of the most intriguing and complex movies tackling religion. a movie where jesus is portrayed to actually be human and not a blind follower of his own supposed role. there are many question marks posed by the film, and this song is its musical equivalent.

  23. 2d Says:

    p.s.: scott, your replies are always so effervescent and “alive”, you are a pleasure to read

  24. David T. Says:

    mac – Yeah, I agree…the overall vibe of the lyrics (and the way they’re sung, and the music) doesn’t imply that the song is “about” that type of relationship…though I still find the juxtaposition provocative.

    It’s funny how your own personal circumstances at the time of listening shape the way you hear a record…Up will always be the “aftermath of a breakup” record for me…even though I don’t usually consciously think about those circumstances when I listen to Up now, I know that they shaped the way I processed the record when I first listened to it and probably still inform my “interpretations” of the songs today…

  25. narcizo Says:

    …abrupt, yes, but not clumsy drum rolls at all.
    It’s the best closing track they ever made; try to compare it with “Around the Sun”, where Stipe’s vocals (…”set me free”…) sound so faint…

  26. kris Says:

    I’ve always thought that if they had produced this song differently (with feedback guitars and a more emphasized soaring chorus a la Monster-era) and with ever-increasing volume from beginning to end — almost like a ‘Lightning Crashes’ vibe — then this song would have been a hit. Having said that, I think they made the right choice. Just as I heard them mention with ‘Be Mine’, they could have gone a more pop-oriented direction and garnered more radio play, but then everyone would have forgotten about the song a few months later.

  27. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    Kris, “Be Mine” could use some pop meolody as it just plods along (seemingly endless at times)! As to “Falls To Climb” this song took me a LONG time to unravel (as much as you can any REM song) because in my head the title was wrong. For a long time I thought Falls To Climb was as in “waterfall” – I would have been helped greatly by a coma. For me the title should be “Falls, To Climb” like sleep, to dream. Would have saved me much confusion. Damn commas!

  28. Ignis Sol Says:

    “Falls to Climb” is one of my favorites from Up. The song, for me, is pure indulgence. The introspective lyrics, the sacrificial theme and the luxurious musical accompaniment always gratify me. Since I walk about two miles to and from my office every day, I have found this to be a perfect headphone song to listen to when I need to daze away and be alone in a bustling city.

    After listening to this song, I feel elated, forgiven and refreshed. Also, I feel guilty for indulging in this “feel sorry for myself” song. I agree with maclure and the rest regarding the Christian themes of this song and maybe a part of me longs for those days when Christianity, at least for me, was a positive force in my life. More so than any other R.E.M. tune this one has cast a strange power over me.

    You all have such great comments!

  29. Matthew Says:

    I always read this song as an admission of homosexuality…

    “Had consequence chose differently
    Had fate its ugly head
    My actions make me beautiful
    And dignify the flesh”
    … reads to me as though the protagonist has struggled with their orientation throughout their life but finally is able to hold their head high and be happy with who they are; this isn’t a life chosen by them, but they will take it as it comes.

    The “I am free” refrain, to me, is the final acceptance of the person as a whole.

    If that makes any sense!

  30. ScottMalobisky Says:

    Yes, Matthew , I’ve always seen that in this song too….just part of what I see in this song.(thanx maclure and 2d, you guys made my day).”Gentlemen mark your opponents , fire into your own ranks” …like , when the enemy is declared, the blemish defined…something stupid like making a huge deal out of someone’s sexual proclivities —homosexuality or promiscuity , for example–and then it turns out that there are many all around you with the blemish, and then you end up (if you are a committed cleanser ) firing into your own ranks to fight the perceived scurge……It’s always kinda amusing to me how the sex lives of politicians are so magnified , what the hey , it’s only sex…What’s the big deal? Sex is so over-rated in that sense, has brought governments down. Don’t we have more important things to ponder ?

  31. ScottMalobisky Says:

    this song reminds me of the phrase “beyond the pale” , when a person is so far gone in the eyes of his detractors , fallen, on the turf (figuratvely speaking), that it just doesn’t matter anymore , “beyond the pale” as they say……And then it becomes quite liberating–nowhere to go but up–assuming you’ve learnt something thru the tearing down process.

  32. ScottMalobisky Says:

    beyond the pale , like the Sarah character in ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’

  33. Kirsten Says:

    Wow, I can’t believe how strongly you all seem to feel about this song! To me, this one and Parakeet are the two songs on the album I often skip. And being the last two songs, I feel it’s a weak way to finish what I believe is an otherwise great album.

    Having said that, I shall go back to Falls To Climb (BWD – I actually really like the title) and listen to it again and again ’cause I feel as though I am missing out on something. Maybe my lack of religious knowledge has hampered my experience, but I still claim the music is the real problem – so uninspired.

  34. Ignis Sol Says:

    Thanks for that, ScottM…”beyond the pale.”

    I assume it refers to a root word that also means impale…. A little research for me for later, eh?

  35. jim jos Says:

    this song brings up a great point:

    Since Stipe is far more up front in the vocal, even with the lyrics printed on the cd booklet, he still writes in a way that opens up individual interpretation, even when you know what he is saying, many people can still ponder what he is saying and come up with their own take on it.
    Great writing, I am quite jealous.

  36. Kirsten Says:

    That’s why he is a genius.
    And we love him.

  37. David T. Says:

    > I always read this song as an admission of homosexuality…

    Y’all can tear me up on this one…but Walk Unafraid is the one that I’ve read/heard that way…

  38. Paul Alferink Says:

    Firstly, I think the religious references in this song are so generic, they exist at this time outside of the bible as much or (in the case of Scapegoat) moreso outside of the bible. So while it’s cool that the song has those overtone, I don’t think much can be put into it.

    But if it makes the song better for you: (As JM Stipe has said when asked about lyrically meanings “I like your idea better.” Wait till we get to Hope.

    And Scott, the answer to your conundrum about whether God can change his mind in the future is that God exist in all moments at once, outside of the 4th dimension. Therefore, God does not change his mind. He just is. He would be, theoretically, angry at humanity so much that he floods the world, and offering us redemption for believe in Jesus Christ all at once. Always.

    That leads to a whole bunch of other issues, which never really lead anywhere except banging your head into a wall over and over, but at least in my search for spiritual truth, I got that far. . .

  39. Kirsten Says:

    God never changes his mind?? That answers that other question then – God definately ISN’T a woman!! 🙂

  40. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    Ooh . . . other dimensions!

    I like the other dimension where Homer asks Marge for a donut and she says: “What’s a donut?” and Homer jumps back into the time machine to look for his “real world”, only to then cut back to Marge and outside it is beginning to rain – donuts!

  41. ScottMalobisky Says:

    I never saw the REM Simpsons, what happens? , what do the REM characters say? do? BTW BWD, I’m always gonna picture you trying to climb waterfalls now…

  42. Kirsten Says:

    Michael attacks Homer with a broken bottle. Peter stops him and says “That’s not the REM way”. Then they pick up the broken pieces of glass and take them to the recycling centre….

  43. Adam Says:

    One of my favorite, if not most favorite, of the post-Berry era.

  44. 2d Says:

    god cannot change his mind simply because if he did, everything else would fall apart. all he created, all the laws he set up, everything under the sun would no longer be in tune, but would be undone the moment he would have second thoughts about something, no matter how minor it would be.

  45. 2d Says:

    that is, if there truly is an entity that can take on the-heavy-with-limitations-concept: god.

  46. Mr Cup Says:


  47. Ignis Sol Says:

    Before this gets old, I love Ian McCulloch’s “Proud to Fall.” The singer, is proud to fall…. ? Just thinking.

  48. Martin Says:

    Why not meeeeeeeeeeeeeeee?

    Brilliant vocal work in my opinion. The drums at the end surely do the trick for this song! So glad they did not leave them out!

  49. […] Berry sound. Sure, other songs on Up nudge in a similar quasi-electronic direction — “Falls To Climb,” “Airportman,” and “Parakeet” come to mind — but “Hope” is […]

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