January 26, 2008
In its way, “Undertow” is a gospel song for atheists and agnostics. Whereas traditional gospel music allows a singer to express their faith and revel in their spiritual convictions, “Undertow” is sung from the perspective of a person who is emphatically stating that he does not want or need organized religion to get by, and that if anything, he feels suffocated by its presence in his life. The song is not hostile to religion, but it is dismissive of its merits, at least in the context of his own life. It’s important to note that the song’s message is not “religion is not good,” but rather “religion is not good for me.” At its root, “Undertow” is essentially asking the listener to acknowledge that religion and secularism are equally valid ways of approaching life.
It’s not for nothing that “Undertow” contains such vivid imagery relating to water. In the verses, water is part of a beautiful, natural ecosystem full of creatures who — as far as we can tell — have no need for religion, just like the singer. In the chorus, water is a conflation of several essential elements of Christianity — Baptism, holy water, the Great Flood of the Book of Genesis, Jesus walking on water, and turning water to wine and walk at the Marriage at Cana — and it symbolizes the way Stipe’s character feels suffocated by the religion.
“Undertow” is one of four songs on New Adventures In Hi-Fi that was recorded live in concert, and it is probably the one that benefits the most from its raw production values. There’s a spark of spontaneity in the guitar and keyboard noises that may have been lost if the band had been given too many opportunities to overdub them in, and there’s a profound, go-for-broke urgency to the chorus that may not have easily captured otherwise. Perhaps unintentionally, but the live recording fits in nicely with the notion that this is essentially a gospel song in reverse: It’s a field recording of sorts, but instead of being taped at a home or church, “Undertow” was performed in a sports arena.