Boy In The Well

October 17, 2007

“Boy In The Well” doesn’t seem entirely out of place on Around The Sun, but it’s hard for me to get away from the impression that it’s essentially a New Adventures In Hi-Fi song that was written about seven years too late to make the cut for that album. Stark acoustic strumming? Check. Strict verse-chorus-verse structure with a particularly soaring chorus? Check. Slight appropriation of southern rock style? Check. A sense of place, but also movement away from that location? Check.  In terms of structure, it’s nearly identical to “Binky The Doormat,” and its tone is like a cross between “So Fast, So Numb” and “E-Bow The Letter.” It’s not a retread or a retreat, but it’s certainly an example of the band exploring a rather distinct style that they developed for one album, and then more or less abandoned.

“Boy In The Well” is another twist on the “Michael Stipe pep talk” sub-category of R.E.M. songs — instead of giving or receiving advice, the character in the song is following through, and getting out of a bad, dead-end situation and taking the initiative to pursue a new direction in his life with the support of his “new friends.” That support system is really key to the emotional content of the song — it’s a bit thrilling in the way that new possibilities and connections always are, but it’s also a comment on just how much the people from his past have failed him, or pressured him to bury his identity in order to gain acceptance. The verses play out like grim flashbacks, but the choruses are filled with the hope and excitement of discovering a way out, and a path to freedom.


32 Responses to “Boy In The Well”

  1. Mr Cup Says:

    This would easily be my favourite song from ATS. It does remind me of Hi-Fi as Matthew says. It certainly has the feel and ‘darkness’ that I find appealing about that album. It has a beautiful, floating sort of atmosphere that closes in around one.

  2. wolfy Says:

    This ia a very interesting song in that it reflects the time it was written-that sinking feeling, indeed!!!

  3. narcizo Says:

    It may be one standout moment in an otherwise mediocre lp (at least mediocre, IMHO), yet it shows that things were out of control during the sessions. If you listen to any live performance of the song, you ‘ll know the difference. The lp version sounds overproduced, overperformed and with various questionable choices in many details of it.
    God, I never thought to be so much negative about an REM song… but I forgot, there’s still “Be mine” to go (…)

  4. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    Boy In The Well may be the most traditional sounding REM track on ATS and while I do here the Hi-Fi connection, to me this song would have been perfectly in place on AFTP. (Although I have always kind of thought of HiFi as a blending of Monster and AFTP in tone and style.

    As to the song itself it is one of the better songs on ATS, and while I don’t hate that CD the way many of you do (still prefer it to Reveal) I do understand where many of your complaints come from. For the most part though Boy In The Well avoids the problems that are present for much of the CD. And the drama in his voice when Michael sings “It’s that sinking feeling . . ” in the chorus is great!

    Very good song that could have been an outtake from AFTP in my opinion.

  5. xman Says:

    this song is great until the whole “u waanted me 2 b sumthing i could neva b” part. i was really really liked the song until it sounded like the screaming trees or something. there’s something unnatural about the change there…then the melodica solo is just like “r u serious? is that all u got?” this totally coulda been a hit single though in the summer of 96 though. “iiii nearly lost u there” lol

    new live thing is good. the dvd reminds me of the glory days of tourfilm. happy 2 have superhappinesspowergoodsounding live versions of ascent of man and im gonna dj.

  6. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    Screaming Trees! I actually saw them live in ’96! They were touring with Soul Asylim and Spin Doctors. Talk about 3 bands who could be on VH1’s “Where Are They Now?” Ahh, teenage years during the alternative/grunge revolution.

    Man, I hated the Spin Doctors . . .

  7. xman Says:

    u know wat a good song is?
    i’m popular

    plus local h had a good song or two back then.

  8. Rich Says:

    Wow I never realized it till you mentioned it but now that I think about it you’re completely right, the chord progression of the chorus is identical to that Screaming Trees song…damn…

    Speaking of which, whi knows the one major connection between R.E.M. and Screaming Trees?

  9. joejoe Says:

    Barret Martin worked on Up and with Tuatara

  10. Justin Says:

    When I first heard Around the Sun and was summarily disappointed and this song was one of the real clunkers to me. I hated it, thought it was boring, needlessly obtuse lyrically, poorly recorded. About the only thing I found redeemable was Stipe’s exaggerated vibrato towards the end of the song, which was a neat trick.

    Then, in 2005, Uncut magazine did a series of alternate issues. Each one had a different R.E.M. related cover, and each one came with a different CD assembled by a member of the band. I found Peter Buck’s in a used bin. I mainly got it because at the time I’d read some about Orange Juice and was interested and Buck saw fit to include a track from them. Actually, his entire mix is top-notch stuff, comprising everything from Belle & Sebastian to Stephen Malkmus.

    I’m getting off-point here. Each disc also included a live R.E.M. cut, and Buck appended a BBC radio take of “Boy in the Well”. This is why I’m not so hard on Around the Sun anymore: live, the songs stand up, and usually quite well (which is probably the ONLY reason I will shell out for that new live set eventually, as it’s so ATS-heavy). The guitar was sinister and foreboding, the vocals clear and well-sung, soaring harmonies and at the end of each chorus Stipe holds that note at the top of his range, making it even more dynamic. Really, it blew me away.

    So, that’s the version of the song I prefer, and I’d advise anyone who’s a diehard fan of the band (as most of us here obviously are) to seek it out. It totally redeems the album version.

  11. Figgy Says:

    Thanks for the tip, Justin. I’ve always liked the album version of this song (one of my favourites from ATS) so your recommendation of how much better it sounds live has me interested. Dunno if I’ll be able to get hold of the BBC recording but I’ll check out the version on the REM Live album as soon as I buy it.

  12. Kirsten Says:

    Not much to add that hasn’t already been said. One of my favourites from ATS, but not the favourite. Agree more with BTW that it sounds like and AFTP song more than NAIHF. Too slow for hi-fi. My favourite part – the music and voice on “it’s that sinking feeling”. The pause between sinking & feeling is brilliant. You can feel your heart sinking….

  13. maclure Says:

    I’ve got that live track, Justin. It also turned me round to the song. Sadly, I have been unable to purchase the new live DVD on day of release as I live in a town which does not stock music on the day its released, unless you count illegal downloads which I refrain from… shall wait til Christmas on this new release methinks.

  14. ScottMalobisky Says:

    I am trying very hard to not hear anything from the new studio record until I unwrap it and go from there , I don’t even want to know the song titles at this time…

    BITW is a very interesting song to me, the lyrics are really cool to me (Tennessee Goth , Greyound pass) and such an amazing transition from a feeling of gloom in the verses to an absolute exultation in the refrain…” I’d like for them to take me OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOON-OHOHOHOHOH—–love singing this loudly, cathartic and liberating for the mice men.

    How about that line from Modest Mouse , “Everyone goes crazy ’bout such and such and such..” , is that, like, a Stipe line or what ? like Out Of Time era …. …..

    Best line in rock and roll history : “I will find a center in you , I will chew it up and leave.” __TOOL

  15. Kirsten Says:

    I love hearing the song titles before I hear the song. Gives you a chance to get an image in your head about what it will sound like. That’s what I use to do when buying their back catalogue. The CDs with the more interesting titles (Feeling Gavitys Pull, Old Man Kensey, Wolves Lower) I was more anxious to hear, so I bought them first.

  16. ScottMalobisky Says:

    yeah , Kirsten , that’s what I did with ATS, mentioned in a previous post how far off base I was with The Ascent Of impression of what the song might be like based on the title, I’m sure the band was quite aware of that situation ….fucking with us a little ..

  17. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    Got the new live CD last night and its amazing how good some of the ATS songs are in their live versions (and I am not an ATS hater). Electron Blue and especially The Ascent of Man are really good, and many of the others are better in these more stripped down, harder arrangements. Good CD.

  18. ScottMalobisky Says:

    I am gonna have to put it on my priority list to get my Rhapsody back–I don’t know how familiar you all are with that–basically, you have 99.9% of everything you’d ever wanna hear at your fingertips for about $10.00 a month , can punch in a search by artist , album , or songtitle ……All kinds of genres including really obscure stuff that you would never hear otherwise in a million years, like , for example , you could punch in a songtitle (something with “love” in it , say..) and get about 1500 songs , totally off the wall things like Romanian punk-waltzes with French horns, bells , and whistles in D minor and such; Really makes me wonder how it works exactly in terms of what is going on in the corporate boardroom,behind the scenes, LEGALLY SPEAKING–all that fancy schmancy shit.. Why would all REM, all Stones, Floyd , Dylan, Pearl Jam , Who, Neil Young (to cite a few Big-Hitter examples ) be there BUT NO Led Zep, Beatles , Metallica , Tool,…I mean , why would the Stones go for this but now Zep ?? Think of the EENORMOUS amounts of money that would not be spent on buying an artist’s album if it was on Rhapsody, you know ?? So , is there some hotshot Rhapsody lawyer /marketing guy going around trying to strike up deals with these bands or what ? What’s going down in those corporate boardrooms and private offices of those BIGSHOTS ? As Jim Morrison once drawled, “I wonder what they do in there?”…………..Bertis ??… How much money would Rhapsody have to offer , say , the Stones for Rhapsody to have their material available (and I mean everything ) and why wasn’t it enough for Led Zeppein ??? I’m such a peon in the dark, uneducated , outside the loop >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>If I still had Rhapsody I could listen to the new live record right now , but I don’t ……..

  19. ScottMalobisky Says:

    I remember when I first got Rhapsody–ALL ZAPPA was there in it’s glorious bizarreness going way back to the beginning –and I was having a BLAST MAN , just a blast , slowly listening to it chronologically …..And then one day it was suddenly , inexplicably no longer available……..So , I wonder what happened there …..

  20. Steven Says:

    I find it funny that there’s little mention of George Bush in discussions of the songs from ATS. A number of the songs had Bush echoes throughout, and given the political climate when the album came out, I still have a hard time separating them out.

    “Boy in the Well,” especially, felt like an intense character deconstruction of GWB as he was swept up by the opinions of people both more politically astute and far more passionate than he, and then seeing the consequences of his actions playing out. GWB was the son of a wiser president and one who was desperate to get out from under his father’s shadow. This song, with that in mind as a possible basis, takes on some interesting new shades. (There’s also the mention of the Tennessee Guard, a nod to Bush’s going AWOL from the National Guard.)

    You wanted me to be something that I could never bemy new friends are offering things I never dreamed, it’sbeautiful, I want them to take me onnnnnnnn

    Just a thought, though probably not a popular one.

  21. ScottMalobisky Says:

    this is where your rope trick started to look stale
    this is where I got up shaking off my tail

  22. ScottMalobisky Says:

    I always thought he said in the first verse, “the water is rising you don’t understand “, but according to the right there he says, “the water is rising you don’t want to stay”………..

  23. milesy Says:

    Let’s start with honesty. I like ATS, always have. Not perfect, I grant you, but a big relief after Reveal. And Boy in the Well is one of the best tracks, worthy of gracing any of the 90s albums. As has been said, Michael is vocally at his best, especially with that wonderfully weighted (and waited?) delivery of ‘it’s that sinking [pause] feeling…’ There is simply no one who can pronounce words ending in ‘ing’ (that would be verbs, I guess) like he can. (cf Shake-ean Through- untranscriptable).

    I confess I have always found the chorus lyric slightly creepy- this guy wanting ‘new friends’ to ‘take him on’, having been offered ‘things I’ve never dreamed’, brings to mind someone who is leaving behind everything else in his life to join a cult or sect- will these new friends turn out to be friends in the long term..?
    Not sure this interpretation is borne out by the rest of the song though- but, then, that’s always been the beauty of REM lyrics- the picking up of snippets which conjure pictures and feelings.

    A rousing cheer for the Boy in the Well!

  24. maclure Says:

    Hello Milesy. I’ll second that cheer. It is a very good song.

  25. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    I thought it was “take me on” too until I heard the live version, where it seems to be “take me home”.

  26. ScottMalobisky Says:

    part of me has always interpreted the lyric of this song as being sung thru the eyes of a homosexual in a small town , feeling oppressed , unable to be himself, longing to escape to the big city……be who he really is; am I stating the obvious here ? “I don’t know, I guess so”

  27. Bruno Says:

    Not much to do with this thread but I gotta rant…

    Somebody i work with wanted to buy a bass. he likes tough stuff – pantera lots and tool and umm, Korn and wants to ROCK!

    I went with him to guide him around the local rock shop to find a bass that might work out (I’ve played guitar for years).

    We found one he liked – he said he wants one he can bash against the wall (ie rock).

    Later he showed me a vid he thought was ‘beautiful and sad’ that he likes about woo save the world, shots of seals and hunting and bears and save the trees. But it was a nameless band led by a namelesss guy doing that throaty blah thing.

    What do I tell him? Rock is dead? Rock has become a predictable, marketable thing?

    I would love to take him and remove him from himelf and show him ‘Fall on Me’ or ‘Cuyahoga’ to grab him.

    Sadly it won’t grab him. He’ll be wondering where the Spinal Tap Knickleback singer went.

    He loves rock and am I wrong to think he is moved by an old animal? Old predictable rock animal stuff.

    He’ll have fun with his bass in his
    bedroom but is he just following dinosaurs?

    So my questions:

    Can we show them ‘Fsll on Me’ and hope that they will see the depth?


    As much as the animal is in its decline can should we let them think that it still rocks?


    Who the hell am I to say anyway?

    PS I tried to tell him about John Bonham swinging but he didn’t quite understand.

    Dumb me signs off

  28. jim jos Says:

    what more can I say?

    Been trying to come up with something mildly interesting or insightful, its all been said before. One of the better ATS songs, never made the NAIHF connection but it is dead on. I like the “it’s that sinking, feeling, you know what its bringing” chorus (bridge) much more than “you wanted me to be something…” part of the song.

    I was hoping that the Live Cd would throw a better spotlight on many ATS songs, and I guess that is something that will make getting it more worth it for me. I will get it, who am I fooling. I don’t buy a lot of cd’s anymore, but R.E.M. is the exception.

  29. ScottMalobisky Says:

    John Bonham swinging ?
    how d’ost thou figure ?
    what d’ost thou mean ?

  30. ScottMalobisky Says:

    Steven , that’s a very intriguing hypothesis EXCEPT for the fact that the lyric is “Tennessee Goth”, not “Tennessee Guard”

  31. Michael Black Ph.D. Says:

    You know what’s a totally f’d up lyric?

    “The track mall gang went off on the Tennessee goth.”

    I picture a horde of geriatric mall-walkers in orthopedic shoes ripping the piercings out of some feckless little jerk in a Corpus Delecti t-shirt.

    This town is going wrong, indeed.

  32. ScottMalobisky Says:

    LOL !!!!!!!!!

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