January 10, 2008
Musically, “Exhuming McCarthy” is a peppy pastiche of proven Motown moves — stomping beats, scratching and stabbing chords, fluid bass lines that shimmy and groove inside a tight rhythmic pocket. Despite lifting from some pretty major hits — I definitely hear Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” and Smokey Robinson’s “Tears Of A Clown” in there — the song doesn’t come off as a straight-ahead retro R&B number, mainly due to the fact that Michael Stipe and Mike Mills wisely avoid soul affectations and stick to their typical nasal-white-guy vocalizations. It’s a great effect — you get the immediacy and energy of Motown, but there’s also no attempt to distract us from the band’s background. If anything, they own their respective persona fully on this track — it certainly ranks among the most confident vocal performances by either of them in the R.E.M. catalog.
Just as the music connects the dots between several Motown classics, the lyrics of “Exhuming McCarthy” draw a line from mindless jingoism and reckless capitalistic excess to repression and censorship. It’s not the most coherent bit of agitprop ever composed, but the cheeriness of the track is more than enough to compensate for the lyrics’ somewhat vague thesis.