Hairshirt

September 28, 2007

When Peter Buck strums his mandolin in “Hairshirt,” every note is so bright that the track seems as though it is being bathed in pure white light. The instrument thoroughly dominates the song — there is no percussion, and a subtle bass line and organ drone blend in so well that they are only noticeable upon close listening. Buck’s part is gorgeous and open-ended, and floats along with a gentle, mellow grace that isn’t quite like anything else that I’ve ever heard aside from perhaps “You Are The Everything,” which obviously came from the same recording sessions.

Michael Stipe’s vocal part benefits greatly from having been improvised in the studio. For one thing, it complements the loose, relaxed tone of the piece, which in turn provides a nice touch of contrast on the record as it falls between two of the most tightly composed tracks in the band’s discography. The approach also adds to the sense of intimacy in the recording, and the chorus-free structure allows Stipe plenty of space to emote. It’s one of his most soulful performances, and not just in terms of affectation. He seems genuinely overwhelmed by his feelings throughout the song, and when he likens entering a crowded room to being dropped into the middle of the ocean, it comes across like a genuinely heartfelt confession rather than just another set of lyrics.

42 Responses to “Hairshirt”

  1. xman Says:

    agreed! this song is something really special. i love it when the guys get all weird on us.

    feeeeeeeed me banks of light

  2. Dave Greenlizard Says:

    Ok…the moment is just….too…big. I’m first in….it’s one of my all-time favourite songs (period)…and I can’t think of anything meaningful to add. Dammit!

  3. dan Says:

    i would’ve just said “this song rules.”

  4. daveharte Says:

    In the post of ‘World Leader Pretend’ you rightly point out that it was the first song of theirs to have the lyrics reproduced on the sleeve. The joy of a song like Hairshirt, outside of the beautiful arrangement of course, was to hear those strange other-worldly lyrics and think to oneself: “did he really just sing ‘Away up high in the attic of the wrong dog’s life chest'”.

    In fact by ‘Green’ Stipe was singing loud and clear and the words were clearly decipherable as they gradually had been becoming since ‘Life’s Rich Pageant’. This was the third REM record I bought and it was at this point I realised I’d stick with them in case they ever threw up a tune as glorious as this again. I’m not sure they ever did again (Nightswimming and Daysleeper are close maybe) and this is still a song I sing out loud to in the car from time to time. In fact, I’ll do so tonight on the way home from work.

    Dave.

  5. ADB Says:

    I knew a song from Green was coming up soon! A beautiful, beautiful song (that long, long note that Michael holds when he sings ‘waaaaaaaaaaaaves’ is one of my favourite moments of any song, ever, it never fails to get me) and one that is perfect for my current hungover state (sorry for illiterate ramblings about Good Advices late last night…)

  6. Bandwagon03 Says:

    Yep, much love for this song. Matthew, you are right about the contrast between Mandolin and Vocals. I think this is one of those rare moments when Stipe is just given free range and just belts out the words.

    “Its a Beauuuutifulllll lllliffee”

  7. milesy Says:

    The simple bass line is testimony to MM’s genius in knowing when to play something understated (or was it BB playing bass in these sessions? I think I recall that was the case, although maybe Mills actually played the bass when it came to recording..?) – you don’t notice it at first, but it carries the song along.
    A fantastic song from a great album. Is there anything better than Green? To have the sheer beauty of Hairshirt, or even more of You are the Everything and (untitled), alongside the pop of Stand and the rock of Turn you Inside Out- how many other bands could pull off something like this, I ask you? Green was the first CD I bought when I got a CD player- safe to say it got heavy rotation in 89/90- why play your tapes when you’ve got your first CD?! It’s still in regular rotation. Here’s a hint: when you don’t know what to listen to, Green is the answer. It never fails.

    maclure- I believe we are indeed acquainted.


  8. Green might be the hardest record for me to write about, mainly because I feel like I have so much to say — too much to say — about so many of the songs, and more than any other record aside from Monster and maybe certain songs from Fables and Automatic, I feel a lot of pressure to get the entries just right. So yeah, it was time to do a Green song, and I honestly had to push myself into it because I’m slightly behind on the record.

  9. Dark Bob Says:

    Green was their first album for Warner Bros. The band had really begun to hit the big time by this point. I think they had started to experiment with new styles on this record to a certain degree. Hairshirt is a great example. Tripped-out lyrics! I really like this one.

  10. maclure Says:

    A Brazilian friend (he may be reading) who is a big REM fan printed out the lyrics to this song (citing it as a favourite of his) and showed it to me recently. I had never seen the lyrics laid out before and I realised I had some “wrong” lines floating around my head: (Run a carbon-black test on my job / Away up high in the addict of the wrong (?) / Dog’s like chess).

    I think MP is right to emphasise the mournful mandolin but also WHAT a vocal performance. I really think you cannot pull this sort of stark, almost a capella, performance off on record unless you are very, very good. How many run of the mill Indie bands would ever dare do this with their hack vocalists? Oasis? I don’t think so. You can trace the journey of Stipe’s vocals from the muddy, shy, whispered mumblings of Chronic Town and Murmur right up through the “coming of age” LRP, the bold Document and then this… extraordinary. Peter once described Michael as the best male white vocalist of his generation and this song would be good evidence of that. (And, by saying this I’m not indicating that his earlier vocals were bad or poor in anyway). This always reminds me of a Tracy Chapman song (is it Behind the Wall?) on her first album (contemporary to Green actually) where she sings a story with no or little musical accompaniment – but she pulls it off too, but then she too has the voice to do it.

    This post may have a record number of brackets (or maybe not, I don’t know).

  11. huub Says:

    Somehow this song never really came on te me, till after reading this post. Just know, after eading this entry, I realise what a gem this is. Thanks again Mtthew for yet antother rediscovery of an REM-classic.

    @milesy

    On most albums, REM are really good in surpressing their individual instruments for the good of the song. Especially Mills is a indeed a master of ‘less is more’, but only if he needs to.

  12. Mr Cup Says:

    I could walk into this room
    And the waves of conversation are enough
    To knock you down in the undertow…

    This literally floors me on every level. During my more socially awkward years, having moved to the city from the country, not knowing anyone…I felt like I was being pummelled by surging slow motion swell for months. One of the most achingly beautiful and heartfelt songs I’ve heard.

    And that little barely audible chime is like a glint of light.

    World Leader Pretend Pt 2

    Feed me banks of light indeed. What a line.

  13. adam Says:

    GREEN is such a great record.. production so great.. it holds up well…

  14. Bandwagon03 Says:

    @ Maclure: Yes, its “Behind the Wall” great song from a great first album…

    The police….always come laatte, if they come at alll..

  15. Ignis Sol Says:

    “Hairshirt” is a gorgeous ballad. I love it and it is one of my all time favorites, too.

  16. lightaugust Says:

    Here’s the thing… when I was in high school, this song made me look up ‘hairshirt’ and I found various references to it. And twenty years later, I still don’t understand what it is. What the hell is a hairshirt, for crying out loud?


  17. It’s a tremendously uncomfortable outfit worn as a form of penance, it’s tied up with the idea of mortification in the Catholic church.

  18. Ignis Sol Says:

    A hairshirt is something one wears as penance. Since it is made of hair, it would be quite uncomfortable. It is supposedly a Catholic reference. I grew up Catholic (Catholic schools) and I never even heard of this specific reference until this song. I have since seen and heard it referred to many times (literature, movies, talk shows, etc.).

    I guess you can strip away the religious connotation and apply to anything or anytime we feel a need to rectify wrong doings or feelings.

  19. Elliot H. Says:

    I know it’s just me with this opinion, but I can’t stand this song. Michael just sounds so droney and whiny to me. It almost sounds like someone else is singing and trying to make fun of him or something.

    Corky and the Juice Pigs have a song called REMember, where they poke fun at R.E.M.’s sound. It sounds so much like this it’s unbelievable.

  20. xman Says:

    hairshirts were used in medieval monasteries. i dont think they are still used today…

    acording to stipe, this song is about non-violence.

  21. Rich Says:

    I concur with Elliot — this is among my very least favorite R.E.M. songs. It just goes on, and on, and on, and on…you keep waiting for another part, but there is none…just always seemed like B-side material to me, I don’t know.

  22. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    “Every note is so bright that the track seems as though it is being bathed in pure white light” – absolutely beautiful MP, beautiful.

    For a long, long time I didn’t really care for this song. I too struggled with the concept of what a “hairshirt” was as a young person and I agree that when I was a teenager the song didn’t go enough for me. So for many a year I didn’t like it and overlooked it. When I got older though I rediscoverd this song and recognized its odd beauty and enjoy it now very much. Helps that I understand the mesaage and term a little better too. Still not a top ten song, but unique and beautiful.

    Does anybody besides me find the production of Green a little dated though? Most REM seems well-produced and timeless (with the exception of Radio Song) but I always feel Green sounds like a prodcut of its era more than any other REM album. Also let me add, that while I don’t like most of the production work done by Pat McCarthy I don’t think it makes it a product of its time, not do I think it will eventually sound dated – just way overdone in most cases.

  23. jim jos Says:

    I don’t know if I’ve ever had such a 180 turnaround on an R.E.M. song. Usually, if I like it, I wind up liking it more and if I do not like it, I find it hard to change my mind on it. (for the small amount of songs that I do not care for).

    This is one of the few songs that I didn’t like for a long time. It is one of the only songs that I didn’t care for that now I really do like. When I first heard it, I thought Stipe’s voice to be truly whiny. (and YOOUUUEEWWW will find). I found the music to be more tossed off then restrained and a bit too void of any type of musical dynamic.

    But now I see those things are, in fact, strong points for the song. I do have to be in the mood for it, but when I am it rings true.
    Now I agree that it is a great vocal performance for a very pretty song.

    “so alone, so alone, in my life/feed me banks of light”
    awesome.

  24. ScottMalobisky Says:

    Mr. Cup , where’s the chime ? my audio quality ain’t so swell presently

    interesting glimpse into your Green mindset there, MP, I , too , have very strong feelings for this record , it being my first exposure to REM , great point about how Stipe seems truly overwhelmed by his feelings in this song, like he just couldn’t wait to get into the studio and get it down –get it down quick, before it’s gone….” I am not the type of dog who could keep you waiting for no good reason”, damn ,.. where does he come up with this stuff ? ;the epitome of Stipe..when he’s got that nasal thing going on like in Burning Hell and Lightnin’ Hopkins and here

    and now I feel I can confidently declare to a group of people at any given moment that I do indeed know what a hairshirt is !!!

    funny ,maclure, the line “carbon black test on my jaw ” is what got me actively posting on this blog when I commented that it is “jaw” not “job” as someone had said way back when …….and I haven’t shut up since…

  25. ScottMalobisky Says:

    Bill actually hit upon the mandolin riff–having messed around with the ukelele as a kid-although , yes , Peter played it on the record, Bill bass and Mike accordion. PB: “When we were doing demos Hairshirt was 1 minute 10 seconds long and we only played it one time at a soundcheck. When we did the record Michael said, ‘Play that for six minutes.’ He filled up every second and I didn’t see it coming.”

  26. Paul Alferink Says:

    I equate this song with untitled and You are the Everything. They are song that there’s maybe not much to, but Michael MAKES them great. Probably Michael hit his vocal and songwriting peak right on this record.
    And I think because this song is similar to untitled and You are the Everything it pales a bit to those fine songs. But thats a bit like saying Greg Maddux pales in comparision to Walter Johnson. I mean, he still Greg fucking Maddux.

    Best line:
    I could walk into this room
    And the waves of conversation are enough
    To knock you down

    Distance second, but in many other songs, this would be it:

    Run a carbon-black test on my jaw
    And you will find it’s all been said before.

    Oh, and for those who don’t like this song, don’t feel bad. Bill Berry hates it, too.

  27. Mr Cup Says:

    Bisky, the clearest ‘chime’, which may even be the humble triangle, can be found about 13 seconds in right between ‘reason’ and ‘run a carbon black test’. Headphones may be required.

    This is one of those visually stimulating songs for me. Keep seeing the same scenes over whenever I hear it. For a glimpse into the mind of Mr Cup, check out the cover of Lambchop’s ‘Nixon’, add some waves and you’re on your way.

  28. Scott Says:

    I wonder if this song was recorded before the “Dark Globe” cover from the same sessions. “Hairshirt” is like Syd Barrett at Big Pink–borderline damaged in its imagery (here’s the guy from “Camera” dosed up on rejection and Effexor) yet formal and rustic in its music. It’s always been my favorite song on the album.

  29. Kirsten Says:

    I don’t say this very often about rem, but I’ve always hated it. The words are great, fantastic even and the music is fine aswell, they just don’t seem to fit right. Long, boring, drawn out. As if Michael had 1 set of words left over, and the band had only 1 set of music so they squished them together even though they simply don’t fit. Every word is dragged out, it’s irritating. With more appropriate music and shorter notes sung I probably would have liked it.

  30. Mr Cup Says:

    Tee hee. Kirsten swore in Church!

  31. Figgy Says:

    I’m just stunned there’s something about REM that Kirsten doesn’t like. Didn’t see that coming.😉

  32. Kirsten Says:

    I also don’t like Me In Honey…

    But that’s it.

  33. Kirsten Says:

    Guilt slowly consuming me..Must…Worship…Stipe…

  34. Mr Cup Says:

    (Agasp) She did it again!!!!!!

    Where have you been Figgy?

  35. Kirsten Says:

    There’s something strange going on tonight, there’s something going on that’s not quite right….

  36. Figgy Says:

    Greetings to my Australian cousins! I’ve been away from work (and the computer) dealing with other stuff over the past fortnight – my wife’s been ill, nothing serious thankfully, so I was unable to keep up with popsongs on daily basis.

    I’ve caught up a bit this week and have read almost all the recent posts – haven’t bothered to contribute anything (even though some of my personal favourites – including ‘Hairshirt’ – have been covered) because of reading the comments so late in the blogs.

    Hope you guys are keeping well.

  37. Kirsten Says:

    Hi Figgy, hope your wife is feeling better soon. If Hairshirt is one of your favourites and you feel strongly about it, you should leave a post. I’ve commented on some of them months after. Good to just get it off your chest and be heard. Must admit, I am feeling very guilty about not liking this one, expecially when everyone else loves it. Feel like I’m missing out ’cause I can’t get past all the long notes that sound like they’re filling in waiting for the music to catch up.

    Time for me to put on MY Hairshirt after some of these comments….

  38. Mr Cup Says:

    Hope your wife makes a speedy recovery Figgy and sorry to hear it.

    As for Kirsten…don’t feel guilty. Feel what you feel and like what you like. I just love listening to Stipe wail on this one. He doesn’t do it much.
    Aaaaaaa-aaaaallll miiiiiiii-yyy liii-iiiiiifffe…….I’ve searched for this….

    I always see a hairshirt as a vest made from those old doormats. Prickly no?

  39. Kirsten Says:

    Prickles are what I deserve…

    There are a lot of great lines in this song (including the one you mentioned). My other favourite is “It’s a beautiful life, my life. It’s a beautiful life, your life”. It’s just something about the way it’s sung.

  40. Mr Cup Says:

    I think you are starting to see the beauty…

    I didn’t like it straight up. But that usually means a song will reveal itself in the fullness of time.

    Now sing it with me:

    Feeeeeeeeeed meeee baaankss of liiii-eeeeeeeght…..

  41. Kirsten Says:

    And hang your hairshirt on the lowest rung
    It’s a beautiful life

  42. Figgy Says:

    Thanks to both of you for your good wishes. My better half is making good progress and she should be fully recovered within the next few weeks.

    Thanks for the encouragement to add my two cents worth to old blogs. Not much to add to this one. I like the song for the same reasons other people like it: the emotion in Stipe’s voice, the lyrics, the mood and how enjoyable it is to sing some of the lines out loud (in my case, when no one’s around – got to spare people that pain).

    I was surprised to see how many people here were initially unfamiliar with the concept of a hairshirt. Because of my Irish Catholic upbringing, the hairshirt was a frequently mentioned garment in religious education classes at school, particularly during Lent. Some of us would give up eating sweets as a character-building sacrifice or penance for those 40 days but – as we were constantly reminded – in times gone by people with strong faith would wear a hairshirt for the duration! I suppose the Christian Brothers and Catholic teachers who educated us were a bit die-hard in their beliefs.

    We never ever got to see an actual hairshirt though – that was left to our imaginations. Just like you, Mr Cup, I always imagined them to be similar to prickly doormats.


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