Fretless

April 27, 2008

Though I will always remain baffled by the band’s decision to leave “It’s A Free World, Baby” in non-album limbo, it’s not all that hard to understand why “Fretless” was discarded despite its obvious quality. The problem of “Fretless” is that while it is exceptionally good at evoking this potent, heartbreaking melodrama, it just seems so maudlin in the context of other R.E.M. songs, particularly those on Out Of Time. If it was going to work anywhere, it’d be Automatic For The People, but as far as songs about familial dissolution go, “Sweetness Follows” is far more successful, in part because it doesn’t seem to be actively tugging on the listener’s heart strings. Interestingly, “Fretless” may be the saddest song to ever feature a vocal performance by Kate Pierson — she sounds atypically cold and distant, but she ought to given that she’s standing in for the voice of the mother in this broken family.

30 Responses to “Fretless”

  1. Paul Alferink Says:

    I would disagree. This song fits perfectly with “Half A World Away” and “Country Feedback” In fact, those song put together would form a broken relationship melodrama trio, like a mini opera or something. In fact, Fretless“’s inclusion into Out of Time may have tipped the balance of the scales of that album too far in that direction, so far that I think the reason for not including it may have been that they liked the other two songs better and couldn’t stand adding one more. Whereas “Free World Baby” is just an odd little fun pop song for which the word “Quirky” was invented. So quirky, that it really can’t find a home.

  2. Dark Bob Says:

    I really like this song. It certainly didn’t fit well with the overall mood and style of OOT, but I’m glad they put it on IN TIME (Special edition). Just another example of a decent song destined for b-side obscurity.
    Good review MP!

  3. narcizo Says:

    Sorry, but I disagree; a great song, a minor classic dare I say. Every ingredient of the composition works perfectly. My favourite: the sound of the drums (everytime they kick in, they are higher in the mix, from a faint heartbeat to a very distant thunder).
    And the best part:
    “don’t talk to me about being alone”.

    Happy Easter for every Orthodox.

  4. 2d Says:

    matthew, you are just evil withholding those monster songs for so long!!!😛

    this is a good song but it fails to leave too much of an impression to me. not bad in any way, and i get what it’s trying to convey, but it’s not a highlight of any sort in r.e.m.’s career.

  5. 2d Says:

    oh and happy easter all you orthodox people out there, indeed!

  6. Evan Says:

    I’ve always loved this one. In fact, the whole “Until The End of the World” soundtrack is pretty perfect (movie is terrible, though).

  7. 2fs Says:

    Not a question about this song…but how are you handling the Accelerate tracks? All in a bunch? Or are you going to integrate into the remaining tracks (there aren’t all that many, are there)? Or just ignore them until “Pop Songs 11” or something?


  8. I might do the Accelerate songs in a year or two on this site, but as it stands, I have something like 20 more to go.

  9. Kirsten Says:

    I always thought this song was more about a love triangle than a mother looking at her broken family.

    Michael, Courtney, Kurt.

    Don’t talk to me about being alone.


  10. This song predates Kurt and Courtney by a year or two!

  11. Eric Says:

    This is my all-time favorite R.E.M. non-album track and one of my favorites all around, period. Weirdly enough, right in the middle of the song, Michael busts out my initials – E.A.C. I always kinda wondered about that.

  12. Kirsten Says:

    Fair enough then, I stand corrected.

    I did notice that some of the words were used on the vocal version of Organ Song. I presume that came first, then Michael took a couple of lines from that for Fretless.

  13. Paul Alferink Says:

    I have never had the pleasure of hearing vocals for Organ song. Damn it!

  14. Paul Alferink Says:

    Oh and the soundtrack is really good. Worth buying for more than the REM track.

  15. Paul Alferink Says:

    And the movie is a complete mess.

  16. Mr Cup Says:

    I haven’t heard this in ages, what a beauty.

  17. gluefoot Says:

    aonther amazing soundtrack song you should all check out is a duet w. vic chesnutt and stipe called ‘injured bird’ on the soundtrack of wim wenders’ “the end of violence”..
    incredibly beautiful song and stipe’s vocals on it are amongst his finest ever, really..
    ‘fretless’ is astonishing.. as stark as anything they’ve written.. stipe’s vocals are so resonant and in a somewhat disturbing or at the least unsettling way.. kate pierson’s aloof nonchalant backing adds to the distressed tone and the simple unrelenting arrangement of the song is dark. lonely and beautiful..

  18. Clare Says:

    Never heard it…have I just failed?

  19. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    Yeah, “Until The End of the World” soundtrack is one of the best soundtracks of all time. The point of the songs on the soundtrack (recorded in early 90’s) was that director Wim Wenders asked these bands what they would sound like in 20 years or so, and REM submitted Fretless. Its kind of ironic that it has nearly been 20 years and REM’s current music sounds nothing like Fretless.

    Also, I admit I like the darker side of REM, but I always thought Fretless should be on side 2 of OOT as well, album tone be damned! (Throw Free World on their too).

  20. dave g. Says:

    “they come and they come and they come…..”

    Good tune. I’ve always thought it was called Fretless b/c Mike played a fretless bass on it. Could be wrong. Any confirmation?

  21. Paul Alferink Says:

    That’s what I thought, although I think there’s a pun there.

    “He’s got his work, and she comes easy”

  22. Kirsten Says:

    Organ Song Vocal Version is sadly beautiful.

    “I didn’t even notice”

  23. Paul Alferink Says:

    Where does one get this sadly beautiful thing?

  24. Kirsten Says:

    Just listened to Organ Song in my lunch break and realised my mistake. The words aren’t “Here I am again, I didn’t even notice”, they’re “Here I am again, I didn’t even know her”. It’s been a while since I heard it and was working from memory. Kinda like the words I made up a little better…

  25. Kirsten Says:

    It’s on “Time Of Outtakes”, a pretty common non-release CD floating around.

  26. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    I just have to add here that despite Matthew’s feel about the tone of Out Of Time, I have always felt that Out Of Time WAS a somber-toned, maudlin record. Nearly every song has that undercurrent of melancholy and despair (except Shiny Happy People, and even that has always fit on the record for me both as a mood break and, because of its title and way-over-the-top silliness, it almost seems like a forced or produced happiness in the context of the entire CD’s melancholia). Even the tracks that are more light-hearted seem to still be falsely so. Near Wild Heaven has the feel of that last summer of childhood when innocence is starting to be lost, Me In Honey is admittedly defiantly optimistic, but in the face of a difficult situation that will not be resolved no matter how definatly the protagonist faces it. And Radio Song is about the end of the world even if it is silly white man rap/funk. So, all that said, I think Fretless would fit in great on the second half of OOT.

  27. Paul Alferink Says:

    Thanks for the Heads Up, Kristen. I found it today. Good times.

  28. jim jos Says:

    I believe this does belong on Out Of Time. It is simply too good of a song to not get the invite. Reading Peter’s liner notes, I have to agree, not sure why this one was left off. My own personal take on OOT would be, scrape Radio Song (maybe) and put Me In Honey at the beginning, and this one at the end. Right after CF.
    With Me In Honey, I believe that one to be about a couple breaking up when there is a child expected. This song is about a troubled family unit sometime after the child is born and aware of his families’ breakdown. Makes me wonder if, on some lyrical basis, the impetus (right word?) for the album may have been (pre) birth through the end of childhood with the parents splitting up. Kate now being the isolating/isolated parent here.
    What its doing to me.

    Favorite line is “I don’t hate him and I don’t hate her” very powerfully intoned.

  29. profligateprofiterole Says:

    Dr. Laura would turn this one inside out.
    Can you say “shack-up honey”?

    In all seriousness though
    I’ve always quite liked this one, got this sinister quality to it, sinister but beautiful
    Like it much more than the sillier, fluffier Free World Baby

  30. Dan Says:

    It’s called Fretless because Mike does play a fretless bass on the song. It was made for him by a guy from Melbourne, Australia, who worked (and may still do) for Maton Guitars, Australia’s premier luthiers. If I recall correctly, it has the Australian flag on it.
    I’ve also always loved this song and I made the assumption that it was about a family divided by differing idealogy, with a possible nod to the at the time quite recently re-united country of birth of the director of the film for which the song was written.


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