King Of Birds
October 26, 2007
There’s a fair few songs in the R.E.M. catalog that would be difficult to pull off without Michael Stipe on lead vocals, but “King Of Birds” may be the selection that would prove most disastrous in the hands of most any other performer. It’s essentially a majestic ballad about humility, and thus the piece requires a very delicate balance of emotions. You can’t get too grandiose or slick with it, or you miss the point entirely. You can’t undersing it, or you rob the tune of its poignancy. If you foreground the irony, you gut the piece entirely. To nail this song, you have to commit to a lot of contradictions and possess a voice that merits the audience’s empathy without directly soliciting it. I’m not saying there is no one else who could do it right, or maybe even better than Stipe, but that person has to be one hell of a vocalist.
The music of “King Of Birds” maintains the same balance as the vocals — the beat is martial, and the chorus builds to a significant emotional peak, but the arrangement is filled with flourishes that lend the track a creaky, janky, dusty quality. Even when the song reaches its grandest moments, there’s a quiet, insistent jangle of a tambourine there to somehow bring the piece down to earth.
A lyrical note: I’m kinda amazed that up until I wrote about this song today, I never once considered that when Michael Stipe sings “a mean idea to call my own,” he could be meaning “a cruel idea” rather than “an average idea.” I definitely think he means the latter — it makes a lot more sense in context — but it’s a more obscure definition of the word and it’s sort of odd that I’ve known the song for quite a long time without ever thinking of it.