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.