June 11, 2008

The problem with writing about “Electrolite” is that Michael Stipe already did it, and he summed up the concept of the lyrics with such remarkable clarity and grace that I would find it very difficult to discuss the song without deferring to his explanation, or straight-up plagiarizing him. Back in 2006, he was asked to write about the song for an article in the Los Angeles Times about Mulholland Drive, which is the setting for the lyrics.

This is what he wrote:

Mulholland represents to me the iconic ‘from on high’ vantage point looking down at L.A. and the valley at night when the lights are all sparkling and the city looks, like it does from a plane, like a blanket of fine lights all shimmering and solid. I really wanted to write a farewell song to the 20th century.

20th century go to sleep.
Really deep.
We won’t blink.
And nowhere seemed more perfect than the city that came into its own throughout the 20th century, but always looking forward and driven by ideas of a greater future, at whatever cost.
Los Angeles.
I name check three of the great legends of that single industry ‘town,’ as it likes to refer to itself. In order: James Dean, Steve McQueen, Martin Sheen. All iconic, all representing different aspects of masculinity—a key feature of 20th century ideology. It is the push me-pull you of a culture drawing on mid-century ideas of society, butt up against and in a great tug-of-war with modernism/rebirth/epiphany/futurism, wiping out all that that came before to be replaced by something ‘better,’ more civilized, more tolerant, fair, open, and so on … [see ‘reagan,’ ‘soylent green,’ ‘bladerunner,’ current gubernatorial debates]
The ‘really deep’ in the lyric is, of course, self-deprecating towards attempting at all, in a pop song, to communicate any level of depth or real insight.
Mulholland is the place in films where you get a distance, and the awe, of the city built on dreams and fantasy. Far away enough to not smell it but to marvel at its intensity and sheer audacity. Kinda great.

It says a lot about the mindset of Michael Stipe that he decided to write a farewell song to the entire 20th Century about five years before it was even over. The song memorializes the past, but it’s really about wanting to move on to the future, and standing in awe of the possibilities offered by the blank slate of a new era. Stipe’s sentiment is extremely optimistic — he imagines that it is possible for us to move on into a future that is not fully poisoned by even the best bits of the past. Over twelve years after the song’s release, and with only two years left of the century’s first decade, its hope for the future seems at once depressingly quaint and idealistic, and inspiring because we still have so much time left to make this era — our era — a time of progress, and a source of pride.

The music for “Electrolite” is gorgeous, albeit in a very low-key sort of way. It seems very likely that the arrangement was settled on before Stipe wrote his lyrics, but either way, it has a sound of recent antiquity that complements its concept rather well. It’s nostalgic for the past, but is firmly rooted in the romance of its present tense. True to the era, the band give the decade a perfect Hollywood ending, literally and figuratively. It’s one last slow dance, and a long, slow kiss goodbye before heroically heading off into the sunset, ready and searching for new adventures.


50 Responses to “Electrolite”

  1. Craigiec Says:

    First! The best closing track on an REM album? Certainly runs Find the River and (more controversially) Falls to Climb close for me.

  2. Brian Says:

    I’m reminded of the VH-1 Storytellers broadcast (either that or the Up tour, they were from roughly the same time – feel free to correct me or supplement my details) where Stipe talked about the “flight attendant” gesture (moving both hands behind the side of his head) he utilizes during the song.

    This idea of putting the past behind us to move along certainly connects with the current album/climate/etc. It seems like Accelerate is about speeding up as a means to move on.

  3. Justin Says:

    Yes Craigiec. Best. Ending. Ever.

    I just saw R.E.M. play in Raleigh, NC last night, and they did a bang-up version of ‘Electrolite’. Buck used his Rickenbacker instead of the usual banjo, and Mills filled out the piano part to the point of psychedelia in the bridge. Magnificent.

    Also, just to make everyone jealous: they played at least one song from every album, including Chronic Town. Mitch Easter and Don Dixon even came out and played guitar/sang back up on ‘Sitting Still’. Fun times.

  4. I was pretty jealous of the fact that your show included “Harborcoat” when I read the setlist this morning.

  5. Paul Alferink Says:

    Best REM song to end an album, absolutely. Find the River maybe a better song, but this is better way to end an album.

    Stipe, lyrically, is right on with this one.

    Anyone else make a point of listening to this song on New Year’s Eve, 1999, or am I just that big a dork?

  6. Paul Alferink Says:

    Someone had a great quote about this song. Something along the lines that
    “This is the best psychadelic rockabilly song about the end of the century ever written.”

  7. Paul Alferink Says:

    And 13/14, if anyone else is counting.

  8. Paul Alferink Says:

    And 13/14, if anyone else is counting. New Adventures, go to sleep. Really Deep. We Won’t Blink.

  9. It’s the violin solo in the middle that does it for me on this one. It’s perfect.

  10. protimoi Says:

    Favorite R.E.M. song, i’ve finally decided. Those “ooahh, ooh ooohhhhh” backing vocals get me every time. And to think i once considered this an inferior follow-up to “Nightswimming.”

    Saw them play this in Chicago last week and was happy to see that Peter didn’t “get saddled with the damn banjo” as he said in the liner notes for In Time. Brought the house down.

  11. Matheus Says:

    I love what Peter wrote about this song on In Time. When I was getting into the band I didn’t think Electrolite was such a great song, but after listening to the live version that is on Perfect Square I completely changed my mind.

    A beautiful song indeed. I always thought that lyrically it was some sort of ode to LA. Describing the city as a place where all dreams can come true. It is a nice way to say goodbye to an absolutely brillant album. As you guys have already said, Find the River is a better song but Electrolite closes things perfectly.

  12. Matheus Says:

    Also, unfortunately I have never been to Los Angeles but simply by listening to this song I feel like I have already visited that place a thousand times.

    I get the same feeling from Driver 8 as it brings clear pictures of the South part of the USA to my mind.

    Now, I’m outta here.

  13. adam Says:

    stipe told the same story at the hollywood bowl again that he told last time at the hollywood bowl.. but of course he had to, with Mulholland Drive literally a short walk from the venue, overlooking the show. there were probably cars parked up there watching the whole thing…

  14. Imagine if they’d broken up after New Adventures; “I’m not scared; I’m outta here” would pretty much have been the best career bow-out ever.

  15. Timb Says:

    Congrats on your first full album Matthew!

    Looking forward to which one is completed next 😀

  16. Jared W Says:

    Nice write-up, MP.

    This is a one-time “my favorite REM song”… a title that usually lasts a few years before turning over to a successor.* It’s absolutely gorgeous; I love the subtle banjo layer.

    The video is among my favorites as well, especially the last few moments. Surreal and awesome. Man, I really hope they play it this Saturday.

    *My all-time/current favorite has not yet been covered.

  17. torsty Says:

    This one is up there for me. I love how it closes out NAiHF (my favorite R.E.M. album, and quite likely, my favorite album, period) on a wistful, hopeful–if slightly ominous–note. And yes, the music video is so bizarre and trippy! I mean, come on: red inflatable reindeers, Bill Berry growing to StayPuff-like proportions, and Michael in the creepy get-up? So great.

    But what I love most about this song is a single line, about 2/3 of the way in, that really struck a chord with me just after I graduated college. I had just moved to NYC to chase some big dreams, and having just gone through a bad breakup, was alone and depressed and unsure about whether or not I was doing what I was *supposed* to by moving there. And though it sounds really weird to say so, I found a lot of comfort and resolve in hearing Michael sing that one particular line:

    “Don’t be scared. You are alive.”

  18. ScottMalobisky Says:

    yeah , the voilin part is pretty amazing. I’ve been to Mulholland Drive but never at night.

  19. jim jos Says:

    and so the long and winding travel log of New Adventures ends in LA. Impossible to deny the words concerning the song by Stipe, as well as the excellent additions by Matthew and others.

    L.A. is the great 20th century city, how right it was for the band to tie that into a song about the end of the twentieth century itself and I am so glad that Matthew pointed out how this came almost a half decade before the turn of the century. Talk about looking forward.

    torsty, did you stay in NYC?

  20. milesy Says:

    In 1996 REM were such a cool band: just look at the photos from around that time. And it wasn’t just image; creatively they were also arguably at their peak: mid-30s, young enough to have energy and edge, experienced enough to have some wisdom and sense of irony. They had a foundation of early albums pretty much second to none, which they had followed up with a couple of globe-conquering offerings, which had depth and quality as well as mass appeal, and then a Monster which was everything that nobody quite expected of them, and great with it. Then the was the big tour, and the wait for the new album…

    Now and then a band will produce an album which is really great when you first hear it, and rewards further listening. But has a band which already had such a large and consistently strong body of work behind them ever produced something new which is as good as REM did with HiFi? The sheer variety within the music, the range of subjects, the quality of lyrics, exemplified by Electrolite… I think my ‘best-ever REM moment’ was getting this one home on the day of release, and just listening to it, and sitting there with this big grin on my face thinking this is fanastic, and then just listening to it again, this is unbelievably good, how do they keep on doing this etc etc. [I’m a geek; but not the only one, hey?;)]

    I know the quit after a post-midnight encore at the turn of the millenium thing was never meant seriously despite the legend, but looking back now, maybe this would have been the way to go out. And while I love a lot about the last four albums, and wouldn’t wish the end of REM for a minute, I can’t help thinking of Bill Berry every time I get to, ‘I’m outta here’: because, I have to say it, things have never been quite the same since; and because I’m reminded that, though his reasons may have been complicated, here was a guy who sure picked the perfect time to go: just when people were saying that maybe REM had had their moment of greatness, they go and produce something like this. Yeah, quit now. Not just REM. Every other band too. It’s not worth it, you’ll never beat it…

    Sorry for the long post, it’s late and I’m on a roll. Agree with those who have Electrolite as the best ending song (just). When I dream of being in a great band ( how many of us do that?), it’s REM ’96…

  21. jim jos Says:

    It is tempting to say that THE band should have called it a day after Berry’s departure. But there are a few reasons why I am glad that they haven’t:
    Many of the songs on UP, The Lifting, Imitation of Life, I’ve Been High, Reno, Ascent of Man, The Great Beyond, many of the songs off of Accelerate. I am glad I live in a world where it is still possible to catch R.E.M live, and have albums to look forward too.

  22. Andy Says:

    Bill Berry is the man!

  23. Adam Says:

    OK, I totally thought he was saying “Billy Dee” and not “Really Deep”. I know that is stupid but that is what I heard and now I feel really cheated. Thanks 🙂

    Really Deep makes a lot more sense than name checking Billy Dee Williams but I just assumed he was being ironic. Plus I heard Stipe likes Colt 45.

  24. maclure Says:

    Adam, you’re not the only one who thought he was saying “Billy Dee”.

    I haven’t got much to add. I love the track, even if (as some of you suggested) I took it to be a poor man’s Nightswimming. Looking at it now I realise I silly that is – they have pianos (that’s the link) but so much about the two songs is world’s apart. Different places, different moods, different functions in their respective albums’.

    I’m only really rediscovering Hi-fi’s greatness now. It really is great, but I somehow held it against REM that this record was the start of their demise, only 2 short years after I had really gotten myself sold on the band. But, it is great and this is a great song. And that was a great write up from Matthew, by the way.

  25. Justin Says:

    Oh crap I totally forgot about that awesome video! “Hey, what do you guys wanna do for the video?” “RIDE DUNE BUGGIES!” Can’t really blame them.

    Plus attack of the 100 Ft. Drummer. God, I really love that video. R.E.M. are pretty underrated in the video dept.

  26. Mr Cup Says:

    Deceptively brilliant and beautiful.

    If I can quote from American Beauty, it passes through me like rain.

  27. profligateprofiterole Says:

    Paul, I was partying at a Chinese Restaurant New Year’s Eve 1999……and probably being a bigger dork than you were. If somebody played this song I don’t remember it. New Years Day has actually become my favorite holiday over the last five years I’ve been noticing more and more every year…A few reasons for that.

  28. ScottMalobisky Says:

    What is that sound at the very beginning of the song before the piano ?

  29. ScottMalobisky Says:

    has anybody noticed how if you post from a different computer you get a different color icon ?

  30. ScottMalobisky Says:

    one more thing {RELATED TO THIS POST}–GO LAKERS !!!!!!

  31. Mr Cup Says:

    A ribbed for her pleasure wooden thing, scraped with a stick.

    Hang on – you can’t print that

  32. ScottMalobisky Says:

    I imagine , like ,one of those Gazoo things , you would turn and make noises with at a birthday party.

  33. Kirsten Says:

    Feel free to correct me, but I think the name of that instrument is a “frog” and it looks pretty well as Mr Cup discribed it.
    Welcome back Bisky.

    Electrolite – Weird and Wonderful. (Both the song and the clip). That may sound a little underrated, but I’ve come in late and everyone else has pretty well said what I’ve wanted to. Best film clip ever.

    Paul – even I didn’t do that (but probably only ’cause I didn’t think of it). I’m not even going to do an “I’m outta here” joke. See how I’ve grown over the past year?

  34. Mr Cup Says:

    Mothers’ little ‘frog’ is coming out for more.
    Strategically positioned, before the midday show
    Her back is arched, those lips are parched
    repeated blow by blow.

    oh dear

  35. Mr Cup Says:


  36. Rob Says:

    Was it always the intention to have New Adventures as the first album completed? It’s my favourite album and I know alot of people rate it amongst their finest.

  37. Paul Alferink Says:

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but Around the Sun is done. (As well as the EP, if you want to count it)

  38. 3d Says:

    isn’t that crickety instrument a guiro (the ultimate in musical usefulness)?

  39. Around The Sun is not complete as of this writing.

    It wasn’t really intentional for Hi-Fi to be the first album finished — I got down to the last song from each record, which was fairly deliberate, and now I’m just doing the remaining songs based on whim and inspiration, except for the last song, which has been set for quite a while now.

  40. Dark Bob Says:

    I was surprised to read in a very recent interview with Stipe that he initially didn’t want this song included on the album. I think it’s a good song. Not amongst their best, but certainly not amongst their worst.

  41. ScottMalobisky Says:

    Kirsten , if Puff Daddy can do it , so can I.

  42. Paul Alferink Says:

    Crap. iTunes files The Outsiders under Q-Tip/REM. Threw off my count. My bad.

  43. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    I am coming in late here but:

    1. This is the best last song in the REM discography.
    2. When I heard this end Hi-Fi I was sure the band was calling it a career and would just go out with the millenium.
    3. It has always been a companion piece to Nightswimming for me, not just because of the piano-based music, but because they seem like a before and after – Nightswimming is about the loss of innocence and Electrolite is about looking back nostalgically to that time of innocence and naivety.
    4. Paul, I got sick of that itunes quirk myself so I edited Q-Tip, KRS-One, etc of the contributing artists list!

  44. Paul Alferink Says:

    Nightswimming mourn the loss of youth. Technically, it mourns the loss of the losing of innocence. When doing things like Nightswimming were not explicitly sexual, but sexual enough to the youth to be sexual exciting. Like grazing boob in 7th grade. Or seeing a glimpse of Sally Kummer (Hi Sally) run naked in game of truth or dare in high School. It’s not the same anymore. I’ve seen Jessie Spanno from saved by the bell naked once. What the point in seeing it again? And partial obscurred by water? I mean jeez. That’s not exciting anymore.

    Electrolite make look back with a little nostalgia, but it also looks forward. It doesn’t want the twentith century to keep going. It recogizes its place, and recognizes its time to move on. Go to sleep. Really Deep. We won’t blink. The future is also an exciting place, and it embraces that, just as much.

  45. Mr Cup Says:

    It’s Fin de siècle song, with banjo and piano.

  46. ScottMalobisky Says:

    fancy francais/ esoteric
    slip me a fin, Cup

  47. Ignis Sol Says:

    Great song. One of my favorites. Back in 1992 (pre-Automatic), I wrote a “California” type song and used Steve McQueen as a lyric, too (I also used John Wayne). Maybe I will post it on my myspace page for no one to view. The songs have a similar theme, but mine is a bit folkieer.
    “Electrolite” is the perfect song for the perfect time with a perfect ending, “I’m outta here!”

  48. Ignis Sol Says:

    and that catches me up to Matthew’s mad-paced posting. AWESOME write-ups, MP.

  49. Jerad Says:

    Michael talked about this song at their show in MA tonight. He said that he wrote this about going up into the hills around L.A, drinking beer, and looking down into the valley. He described the lights down there as looking like “those things floating out in the ocean, but I got the name wrong and it became ‘Electrolite.'” I think I know what he’s talking about, but I don’t know the right name for it, either.

  50. Melonie Says:

    I found this site sheerly by accident but wanted to chime in. I also kind of skimmed over this song til I heard it in concert this year. While I appreciate the author’s intent, I also view the songs based on my response to them. For me Electrolite is one of the most romantic songs ever. Partly because my husband and I honeymooned in LA (complete with night drive on Mullholland) so it makes me nostalgic. But partly because the chorus just hits me in the solar plexus and knocks the wind out of me:

    You are the star tonight
    Your sun electric, outta sight
    Your light eclipsed the moon tonight

    I swear to god, if anyone said those words to me I’d follow them to the ends of the earth.

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