Diminished

September 10, 2007

Have you ever imagined doing something terrible, and then following the thought through to its logical — or illogical — conclusion, i.e. a scenario in which you’re trapped, ruined, and helpless? It’s dramatic and hysterical, and as much as you talk yourself out of ever finding yourself in that situation, it seems just a bit seductive, in as much as it is extraordinarily eventful and romantic, and ordinary life is…usually not. You can take “Diminished” at face value, but given that Michael Stipe  made a point of casting a famous singer as the defendant in his miniature legal drama, it’s more interesting to think of the song as being an elaborate persecution fantasy. His character is antsy, bouncing from one idea to the next and back again, but never straying from his focus on himself, and his fate. Despite the fact that someone close to the singer has died, he never exhibits much in the way of guilt — he’s too busy declaring his innocence and plotting ways to play the legal system and beat his charges. Despite the fact that Up includes a few songs that portray damaged, twisted characters in a deeply unflattering light, the alleged murderer of “Diminished” seems rather sympathetic thanks to Stipe’s soft, low-key vocal performance and the piece’s subtle, melancholy arrangement, which makes a lot of sense if you consider that this sort of dark fantasy is more likely to end in self-pity rather than condemnation.

48 Responses to “Diminished”

  1. Ignis Sol Says:

    I once aligned “Diminished” with the themes brought on by the Bill Clinton scandal (“I watched you fall, I think I pushed…”) and his tribulations with the legal system that followed. “I will give my best today…”

    I do like your take on it, Matthew. The alleged murder idea is a bit more compelling, devious and dramatic.

    Now, I align this song with a time when I was in a challenging relationship. Any guilt was replaced with what you describe as a “persecution fantasy.” It was not a shining moment in my life and remains but one dark, rough fiber of the grand fabric that is my life. Is this blog becoming therapy through the reflection of R.E.M. songs?

    “Falls to Climb,” “The Apologist,” and “Why Not Smile” figure into this time period as well. All this from an album entitled Up.


  2. I was just about to put “For some reason I associate this with the Clinton scandal” but realised I wasn’t alone!

    I love hearing your interpretations; I always go back to the song and listen again with different ears. You opened up Perfect Circle for me.

  3. maclure Says:

    Good write up from MP. I love UP and the way the themes rotate around falling and climbing in the lives of people, albeit some slightly odd and twisted people. “I watched you fall, I think I pushed”.

    The line “Do they know I sing that song?” is very clever, I think. As if singing a famous song somehow earns points in a court of law. As if our status, achievements, popularity are a valid basis on which to build a defence of ourselves on matters of criminal justice. And I like the twist at the end – I read “the justice” as referring to a female judge who the protagonist questions: “does she know I sing?” – as if he has a shot at wow-ing/woo-ing her with his magnetic stage presence and charisma. I picture him concluding his defence in court by breaking into a heartwarming song… inappropriate and out of place. But we aren’t told the outcome, perhaps the legal system is so fickle he wins her and the jury over?

    The character reminds me of the guy from the Wake Up Bomb, but a couple of years later… his vacuous personality finally catching up with him.

  4. xman Says:

    yayy one of my favorites! i love this song for being so unflinchingly dark and devoid of that trademark melancholy hard-won optimism, yet it’s still beautiful thanks in no small measure to the haunting, sparse, and well-chosen instrumentation. man, up had a lot of promise for r.e.m. as a trio.
    they really hit the nail on the head with this one.

    siiiiiing along

  5. ScottMalobisky Says:

    yeah baby this is definitely in my top 12.27% of REM songs, never saw the transgression as murder though, neve saw the transgresion as an actual “criminal offense”..More forthcoming from this computer keyboard (as you all quiver in eager anticipation of my words I know your day will not be complete without them) but , alas –a peculiarly busy and agitating day awaits me and I must focus in on it ……..and Sept. 11th is a Tuesday as it was six years ago…

  6. jh Says:

    I was listening to Up yesterday on my way home from work and thought it might be funny if a song from Up made its way onto this blog today.

    While listening to Up I kept thinking back to a few quotes I read where the band said Up is “a few songs too long.” I tried to think of how I might whittle down this album. At first I thought I might cut this song and “Parakeet” but then realized I really like “Diminished” and “Parakeet.”

    Many might disagree (and that is ok!) but I think I might drop “Suspicion” and “Hope” thus having “At My Most Beautiful” to follow “Lotus” and keeping the track listing the same from then on. I’m not sure why, but those two songs never did much for me and feel a little too long and repetitive.

    Any thoughts?


  7. I think the lyrics make it really clear that it’s a crime of passion thing, it’s pretty obviously based on the OJ Simpson trial — “jealous lover, self-defense,” “does she know I loved you?”


  8. Matthew, I have stolen your idea and made a Radiohead blog with a very similar (read: identical) style. I hope you don’t mind… I will of course share any royalties that come from this.

  9. adam Says:

    really just a gorgeous song musically.. all that is actually right, cool and different about UP

  10. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    This is one of REM’s greatest songs and certianly a clear highlight of the trio version of REM. I have always thought of the defendent in this song as Michael himself. Interestingly enough, I never really thought of it as an actual trial but more of a romantic/relationship metaphor. Like he was caught with his pants down with somebody else, and his current love interest in the judge. Finally, I’ve always though that we DO no the outcome of the trial (especially if its just an metaphorical emotional trial) as the tacked on “I’m Not Over You” seems to imply he lost his case and has been left behind.

  11. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    Man, just reread the above, wish you could edit these things – grammar and spelling mistakes abound!

  12. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    Matt Foster, where is you Radiohead blog? I love them too!

  13. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    I would personally drop Parakeet and You’re In The Air if i was dropping 2 from Up. I’ll shut up now as that is 4 posts in a row.

  14. wolfy Says:

    I love the UP CD because it has the very AIRY mood to it…only “Walk Unafraid” in terrupts that and it ios a great song too!

  15. Andy Says:

    I always thought it was really obvious this song is sung from the viewpoint of the main character in “A Separate Peace” by John Knowles.

  16. Kirsten Says:

    I also viewed it around a murder, like MP. But not necessarily a planned murder, maybe in a jealous rage or maybe even manslaughter . However, you have all given good alternatives for me to explore next time I listen to it. Especially Beethoven with the “I’m not over you”. I alway took that as a final goodbye and apology to the victim. Who knows? With REM it could be anything! Great song, though. Good to see we’re all in agreement of that. Songs like this prove what a great and underrated album UP really is (by critics, fans and the band).

  17. Ignis Sol Says:

    You are so right about Up, Kirsten. I heeded your advice from awhile back. You said the best way to listen to Up was late out night, lights out and laying on the floor. Now, I have done this before to AFTP, OK Computer, etc, but never with Up until a few weeks ago.

    3 AM, dark apartment, alone and nestled inside a sleeping back listening to the opening of “Airportman.” Thanks, Kirsten! 😉

  18. ScottMalobisky Says:

    WHAT ?????!!!!!!
    I’m stunned MP, the OJ trial ??????!!!!
    Where did that come from ????????

  19. Kirsten Says:

    Glad to be of service, Ignis. Suspicion is especially good for that – really inhances the “floating” feeling of the music…

  20. ScottMalobisky Says:

    yeah , jh, they couldn’t agree as to who’s songs to leave off , so they left them all on

  21. xman Says:

    i dont see oj studying the i ching…

  22. Kirsten Says:

    Showing my ignorance, but what is “i ching”?

  23. maclure Says:

    I don’t know what “i ching” is, although I think “oblique” is such a nice word and well used in the song. Just say it. Oblique.

    Anyway, I find that Radiohead and REM fans go together somewhat. Radiohead are working on a more guitar-y album right now, arent they? And so are REM. And when UP came out with synths so did Kid A. That was the last Radiohead album I bought. I saw them promote OK Computer at a fans only gig at the Astoria in London, and I saw them support REM in 95. Wheres this blog, Mr Foster?

    There’s a bit about “i ching” on wiki. Its an ancient Chinese philosophical book apparently.

  24. maclure Says:

    Scott, I’ve been wondering, is your last name pronounced as in the bis from “bis-cuit” or as in “bye-ski”. Just curious.

  25. Kirsten Says:

    Thanks Maclure. How the hell do the band know so much about everything? I mean, where does this all come from?

  26. Mr Cup Says:

    Rock stars are different from us Kirsten. They have special powers we can only dream of.

  27. Brian Says:

    So does this mean that “I’m Not Over You” gets it’s own post?

  28. xman Says:

    i caught an episode of are you afraid of the dark and i thought that kid a album sounds a lot like the theme song to that show.

    both madonna’s ray of lite and the spumpkin’s adore came out the same year as up did and they were pretty electrosynth based too. not good in my opinion though.

  29. Paul Alferink Says:

    I not a big fan of the blah music, although the lyrics are cool.
    Best Line
    “Do they know I sing that song?
    Sing Along”

    You can almost see the rock star larger than life personality seducing the jury, making them believe whatever story he gives them. Thats the cool double meaning in that. Think about the press conference in “Chicago” At the end, he’s convinced everybody to start singing along.

    “Oh yes they both reach for the gun.”

  30. ScottMalobisky Says:

    “bis-ski”
    the first six songs of OK Computer are an incredibly powerful string, other than that album, I don’t know much by them except for the out of character ‘Creep’

    this song was the first I ever heard of the i ching. was immediately very curious

  31. Paul Alferink Says:

    Oh, and this was so weird to see. I guess I had seen the tape of them preform on Letterman back then. They look so you and eighties. Odd to seem them on a Nick show and to be interviewed. . . where Stipe says almost nothing. . .

    Firstly, Carnival of Sorts kicks ass live in this format.

  32. ScottMalobisky Says:

    I have never seen this song as being about a person literally on trial for a criminal act, I think the transgression is more akin to screwing up in a relationship or something like that ….. and the possible consequences of said transgression being weighed (even if it’s all in the perpetrator’s head and might even eventually pass without significant repercussions )..I think the protaginist , the narrator is slighty mad , losing it. Overanalyzing everything, maybe coming off a real nasty black-out drunk.

  33. Mr Cup Says:

    I honestly thought I Ching was commonly known. Up there with ouija boards and tarot cards.

    This reminds me of a joke:
    Knock Knock
    Who’s there?
    OJ
    OJ who?
    You’re on the jury.

    It’s gold Jerry!

  34. xman Says:

    pulp’s “glory days” has an i ching ref too

  35. Kirsten Says:

    Wow. The world’s too vast for me now….

  36. Scott Says:

    “Idiot Wind” by Bob Dylan: “I threw the i ching yesterday, it said there might be some thunder in the well.”

  37. Mr Cup Says:

    Bet the boy in the well wishes he knew that earlier!

  38. 2d Says:

    i always related this song to pink floyd’s “the trial” (masterpiece), that is about a man reaching mental self-destruction and ending up by finding himself guilty and, as a punishment, with all his weaknesses exposed. “diminished” shares the same dark tone and thematically it’s pretty close. i love the “crazy, toys in the attic i am crazy” / “maybe i’m crazy, maybe diminished” duo and i find the “i’m not over you” / “outside the wall” follow-ups as even more similar. the trial ends badly for both “defendants”, leaving them weak, suffering and scarred.

    on another note, the “sing along” part reminds me a lt of rhcp’s “road trippin'”, musically. don’t you think?

  39. ScottMalobisky Says:

    AHHHHHHH Scott, tremendous Dylan reference there ! That made my morning !!!!! and 2d your comments got me extra cracklin too……fascinating references there…luv it ! .there’s thunder on the mountain too.

  40. ScottMalobisky Says:

    A Seperate Peace, interesting , I remember seeing that book as a kid, never read it though (looking it up)..I can also imagine Rodya Raskolnikov Romanovitch tossing and turning in the bitter–bleak St. Petersburg night , singing this in a cold sweat……….

  41. ScottMalobisky Says:

    yeah , the more I think about it.. this song fits the RRR character very well, the way he “thought about it” and “eventually carried it out” , tormented all the while, muttering to himself (destined by his brilliant intellect to be put into this difficult mental dilemna) , but not really feeling guilty , more tormented by how his gut instincts about what is ultimately right ran so contrary to the law and order of things ; well, I guess we can’t have people running around killing someone who is a disease in the scheme of things now can we? I think we as a human race have tried that about 1000 too many times, no?

  42. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    Yeah, I love Radiohead, but I’ll believe the next album is more guitar oriented when I hear it. After all, they said the same thing about Kid A and Hail To The Thief as well.

  43. Kirsten Says:

    I love the general paranoia of this character. And it is mirrored so well in the music.

  44. Paul Alferink Says:

    See, I see this character as the opposite of Raskolnikov. Raskolnikov thoroughly planned out his murder, disassociates his moral self from the act and justifies it. All really to test his theory. When faced with the act, he panicked, and then things went downhill from there as he can’t take the guilt of what he’s done. This character commits a crime of passion in the moment, and then contemplates how he can get out of getting in trouble. He’s slightly guilt ridden, but certainly not at the expense of compromising his trial defense.

  45. ScottMalobisky Says:

    I had a dream I was the diminished stranger on a boxcar zooming out of town.

  46. ScottMalobisky Says:

    that’s a very good point , Mr. Alferink, and you made me look at the line “I have never hurt anything” quite differently then I always have (like back in the day listening to this album on a dark Sunday afternoon, more than half loaded)..With your comments I can imagine the character waking up from his destructive episode , crime of passion or whatever , and declaring, “Damn, I have never hurt anything , how could I have done that ?”….For me , this song (back in the day more than half loaded) was always sorta like a continuing conversation with myself..I always feel like I am doing something wrong , even if it’s the smallest part of me at that moment it’s always there, blatant general insecurity or whatever, and I always related to that line as , “Damn, Scott , why are you being so hard on yourself, you have never hurt anything ???”…Always loved the way that that Stipe vocal always seemed to prop me up at that moment of doubt.

  47. Bert Echo Says:

    The “Sing Along” harmony vocals are exquisite.


  48. […] would that be like? Well, “I’m Not Over You” is the answer, tucked away behind “Diminished” like a secret photo stashed between the pages of an old book. It’s short, slight, and simple, […]


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