Half A World Away

December 24, 2007

I did not own a cd player until the Christmas of 1994. When I received a small stereo from my parents that year, I also was given a number of cds, and among those was Out Of Time, which I’d previously only had as a dubbed cassette. (If I recall correctly, this is also how I came to own Murmur, Reckoning, Fables of the Reconstruction, and a good portion of the Beatles catalog.) For some reason, out of all the songs on Out Of Time, only “Endgame” and “Half A World Away” have been tied in to this memory of Christmas, or more specifically, its immediate aftermath. In regards to “Half A World Away,” I reckon that it has something to do with the specific qualities of the mandolin and harpsichord — I consistently associate treble with winter and Christmas, and the gentle melancholy of the piece is not far removed from many religious carols of the season.

Really, “Half A World Away” is not far removed from a lot of traditional folk music in terms of style, instrumentation or subject matter. Michael Stipe doesn’t quite shake off his penchant for mildly inscrutable poetry, but no matter how you look at it, it’s a lonesome ballad about being far away from someone you love. The words are mostly quite straightforward, but the song’s most gorgeous moments come when Stipe’s words lean heavy on images: “This storm it came up strong / it shook the trees / and blew away our fear,” “Blackbirds, backwards, forward and fall.” 

28 Responses to “Half A World Away”

  1. ivan Says:

    this was, and is still, my favorite song from out of time. “this could be the saddest dusk i’ve ever seen” is such a wonderful opening line. i love how the organ sounds like it is trying to keep him afloat through his despair (maybe i associate that treble with lifting up). think i’ll have to give it a spin now.

  2. Dark Bob Says:

    I’ve never been a big fan of Out of time, but this truly is a beautiful song. Very meloncholy and heartfelt.

  3. Evan Says:

    I have the same first-CD-player association with “Out of Time” (and with the Beatles)… though it’s oddly mixed in with Queen’s “Greatest Hits.”

  4. Paul Alferink Says:

    Best Line:
    This could be the saddest dusk
    I’ve ever seen

    Not one of my favorites. A little bland, perhaps. It actually reminds me, in subject matter and tone, of Country Feedback, and it really suffers in the comparison. In Peter Bucks challenge to redo Out of Time, this is perhaps the one I would kick-off.

  5. maclure Says:

    For me, Out of Time is a great record, especially after SHP… This song only has two sections with no discernable chorus, but it builds and builds… and I can relate to hearing this on CD and being blown away. The multiple layers of instrumentation which might be lost on a copied tape sound crystal clear. I agree with Matt’s “most gorgeous moments” lyrics. Awesome.

    Harpsichords are an underused pop song instrument. Other good examples are the Stranglers’ Golden Brown and some Screaming Trees song which I can’t remember the name of where they had an awesome harpsichord solo for a middle 8 where it was unexpected but totally appropriate…

    I always think of the Oasis song called Half THE World Away which is OK, it was the theme tune to the sitcom the Royle Family, but, if anything, it just reminds of me of the REM song and how much better it is.

  6. ScottMalobisky Says:

    stark yet lush, sad , elegant , and TOTALLY gorgeous . I wouldn’t change a thing about it –one of the bands most beautiful songs, no doubt –and I love the way it fits in between Belong and Texarkana, part 2 of the Certified Dream Trio.

  7. kirkl100 Says:

    wonderful, wonderful song.
    merry christmas. m.p.
    (hope santa brings you that MONSTER bop bag.)

  8. jim jos Says:

    merry christmas to all of you “half a world away”
    one of the saddest songs of the whole cannon.

    good choice today!

    my favorite line, “I had too much to drink, I didn’t think, didn’t think of you”

    of course he (I) did.

  9. ScottMalobisky Says:

    …”JAI ALAI…………..”

  10. narcizo Says:

    the screaming trees song is “sworn and broken” from DUST
    …I guess that’s all I needed
    Καλά Χριστούγεννα

  11. milesy Says:

    Good song, well-reviewed. Another REM masterpiece on a repetitive chord pattern.

    For me, this one worked out best on the unplugged gigs around 1992- anyone remember the Mountain Stage radio performance with Billy Bragg and others (my Dad disapproved of his politics in the background…).

    Happy Christmas one and all…

  12. Ignis Sol Says:

    The sentiment of “Half a World Away” resounds beyond it’s literal meaning. On a day like today, when I am so far away from my family, I feel that aching, that longing and loneliness. Many of my holidays have been spent in a similar way due to circumstances beyond my control. My infrequent visits home to my home city of Muskegon Michigan live strong in my memories on these introspective, closed-down days. I accept this is my decision to be so far away and “go it alone.” In times like these, I can reflect and also make decisions on my future. Such melancholy is good for the soul, good for the spirit.

    The shores of Lake Michigan is not half a world away from my home within the mountains of Washington State, true enough, but after calls to home and speaking to wonderful people like my young nephew, I know that love, love is never ever half a world away. High alive.

    Wishing all the best.

  13. Ignis Sol Says:

    btw, my nephew’s name, a freshman in college, is Matthew.🙂

  14. W Says:

    One of my favorites… The lyrics and music evoke not only physical but also emotional distance, as when an alcoholic or someone who is emotionally unaccessible can be physically right next to you and yet still half a world away…

  15. Baxter-K Says:

    I read this wonderful blog religiously, and I couldn’t help commenting today. Y’all need to keep going on the best line… I don’t believe the thought ends at: This could be the saddest dusk I’ve ever seen… it continues: turn to a miracle. It’s not a sad thought, something good happened, right? The story is told after he sees the sad dusk turn to a miracle?

  16. Kirsten Says:

    I don’t have much to add that hasn’t already been said. A very well-written, moving song. Not their best, and can be overlooked, but I listened to it yesterday (I went through about 5 REM albums!) and it is certainly worthy of, and up to the standard of Out Of Time.

  17. 2d Says:

    i remember first hearing this song. i was so inspired and so in awe of the images it created. it sounded so mythical and medieval, like it was being played by a minstrel strolling through some enchanted forest. it’s very baroque and classy, but still i find it’s lost some of that initial impact because of the simple structure and crisp production. it is still great, mind you. the “miracle” and “storm” lyrics are stunning visual glimpses.

  18. ScottMalobisky Says:

    Baxtet-K
    dust is dawn this day , where did it go ?
    maybe that’s the miracle, the dawn….
    Like today how everything seems so much better in the morning light than it does in the dead of night , and then I turn the news on and see how the senseless mind-boggling violence goes on, domestically and abroad .

    “Man will not only survive , man will prevail”..a renowned author said that but I forget who, Faulkner ?

    I BELIEVE.YEAH (bring your buckets by the dozen bring your nieces and your cousins.yeah)

  19. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    I love this song, modern day folk and very much a companion piece (although inferior) in instrumentation, tone, and theme to Losing My Religion. I’ve always thought of it as sort-of a B-side of sorts of LMR. I love this song though and lyrically have always found it stunning as has been mentioned above.

    I also always think of the Oasis song when I hear one or the other and find Oasis’ song to be lacking.

    Does anyone beside me want to hear Bob Dylan do a cover of this?

  20. ADB Says:

    Beautiful, beautiful song. It does seem to get overlooked a bit, probably because of its proximity to Country Feedback, but if I’m in the mood it moves me like very few other songs, by anyone, do.

  21. Figgy Says:

    ‘Half A World Away’ is such a wonderful song, one of my all-time REM favourites. It can mean slightly different things to me depending on the day or the mood. This song beautifully combines elements of regret, determination, optimism, self-pity, acceptance and (as Ignis so brilliantly put it) the melancholy that is actually so great for the spirit and the soul.

    One of my strongest associations with ‘Half A World Away’ was made in mid-’91 when I split up with a girl I was very much in love with at the time. My heart ached and emotionally I felt numbed and half a world away. I found great solace in singing along with the “head sworn to go it alone… And hold it” part. I also felt my share of the blame for the split as some of my behaviour in the preceding months had been a bit immature – “I had too much to drink, I didn’t think, and I didn’t think of you” summed it up quite well. I didn’t need this song to get over her (I would have moved on with or without ‘Half A World Away’) but it did give me a helpful life-affirming lift.

    By the way, it wasn’t the only song I latched onto at the time. For example, I felt just about every love song from Billy Bragg’s “Worker’s Playtime” album could have been written specially for me.

  22. Figgy Says:

    I’d like to mention that my best friend does a great version of this, just him strumming the chords on his acoustic guitar and singing along. A lot of my warm feelings for ‘Half a World Away’ stem from memories of my friend performing this in the pub or at parties over the years. Quite appropriate that as I think of the song today, he is literally half a world away in Ireland from where I am in NZ. Will give him a call soon to wish him a Happy New Year.

  23. Mr Cup Says:

    Beautiful song from the folk-baroque era.

    Whenever someone mentions Oasis here I die a little death.

    Figgy, that B Bragg album has some of the best relationship songs ever written.

  24. adam Says:

    sophmore year at college… away from home.. this song probably very close to a lot of folks for thier own personal reasons… stands up well over time. classic REM –

  25. jay Says:

    While “Everybody Hurts” is often lauded as REM’s ‘great sad ballad,’ I cannot agree. “Half A World Away” may be the only song that brings tears to my eyes every time I hear it, regardless of mood. The song creates mood on its own. It is one of the most beautifully haunting pieces I’ve ever heard.

  26. Mary Alice Says:

    I love this song, it may very well be my favorite REM song. And I got out of time for cheap on cassette – still don’t own a CD version, and I love listening to the second side of Out of Time. It seems like it’s the last album of their that actually sounds like it was meant ot be 2 sides – if you listen End Game is a great little ending to part one, and the second half (my favorite) is a mini album in itself.

    It makes me think of being more crazy and passionate than what you see around you and loving everyone and everything so much in that moment but also feeling that they’ll never truly get the complete depth of you – like they’ll never realize exactly what you’re still searching for or exactly why you’re still restless. And you start to feel like you aren’t all there – like you literally are living in one place but your spirit has moved on to somewhere else. And so it’s with sadness and happiness that you try to enjoy all you can while letting everyone know (even potential romantic partners) that you’re not going to stay. You don’t want to put anyone down or stop yourself from learning and enjoying all that you can in the moment, and you’re too tired and crazy to waste your breath explaining anymore to people around you what you’re feeling. So while you love people and long for a connection to them, at this moment you are alone. You know it’s sad but you have hope for a better future someday and you think your current sad state is much better than resigning yourself to a life that is less that you know it can be.

  27. diana Says:

    I remember the first time I heard this I was 14 and had just lost my best friend. It fact, now that I think about it, it probably started my obeseesion with REM


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