December 13, 2007
1. If you’ve never been very ill or known someone who has struggled with a serious illness or injury, it can seem a bit facile when you hear people say that someone going through something like that is very brave. It sounds like a cheap platitude — and sometimes it is — and from a distance, their “struggle” looks a lot like passivity. The thing is, the bravery isn’t in taking medication, or going through physical therapy or whatever treatment is being prescribed, but rather in being forced to reckon with your mortality, and seriously consider your faith in science and religion. It’s in coping, and finding the strength to fight, or the courage to give up. That’s what “Hope” is about.
Michael Stipe sings most of the song in the second person, but nearly every line describes what he understands to be going on inside his friend’s mind, which is not necessarily the same thing as that person’s interior monologue. The only time when he speaks for himself is when he admits to feeling powerless and confused — every other moment finds Stipe marveling at the bravery of his friend. I don’t think there’s another character in the entire R.E.M. songbook that Michael sounds more in awe of than the person he’s singing about in “Hope.”
2. Sometimes I wonder how much better things would’ve been if “Hope” was less of an experiment for R.E.M., and was instead the template of their post-Bill Berry sound. Sure, other songs on Up nudge in a similar quasi-electronic direction — “Falls To Climb,” “Airportman,” and “Parakeet” come to mind — but “Hope” is the most elaborate and sophisticated by far. The arrangement is a carefully composed array of rhythms, melodies, and textures that swirl around Michael’s steady vocal performance, an interpolation of Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne.” The constant movement is necessary in keeping the track from feeling too repetitive and samey, but also in achieving the song’s sense of calm in the midst of uncertainty. “Hope” has a certain boldness to its sound, but its beauty comes in the subtle touches — a stray piano line, a buried acoustic guitar strum, a turn of phrase, the stunned empathy in Michael’s voice. It’s one of the most impressive compositions of the band’s career, and perhaps the single best argument in favor of the group carrying on as a trio following the departure of Berry.
3. I’m not going to front: I still get a little bit excited when I hear Michael sing my name in this song. (“They did the same to Matthew / and he bled ’til Sunday night.”) I can’t remember too many specifics, but I think it may have actually been a key influence in terms of my decision to phase out calling myself “Matt” in favor of my full given name. (Well, that and the fact that “Matt” doesn’t exactly suit me.)