June 12, 2008
If R.E.M.’s discography is in some way The Story Of Michael Stipe, then “Walk Unafraid” is the climax of that narrative. It’s not hard to trace the evolution of Stipe’s character over the course of his career, even if he (somewhat accurately) insists that he rarely writes from a confessional point of view. He begins as a shy young man prone to mumbling obtuse lyrics and suffering from “conversation fear”, but over the course of the band’s IRS period, he transforms himself into a sloganeering political activist. He gradually develops the courage to write proper love songs, confront his mortality, express his sexuality, and openly examine his personal relationships. The progress seems to come to a natural conclusion with “Walk Unafraid”, in which Stipe emerges as a confident, emotionally mature adult who accepts himself and is finally “prepared to look you in the eye.” That song earns its sense of triumph – I have no doubt that it is the very real culmination of the arc of one man’s struggle with his insecurity. The problem is, if part of the appeal of R.E.M. is based on the cult of personality surrounding Michael Stipe, the dramatic tension is lost somewhat after this point, which helps to explain why Reveal and Around The Sun often seem so lacking in purpose and direction — he was writing his own fan fic, The Further Adventures Of R.E.M. The band only got fully back on track by refocusing their attention to the outside world.
Though it is sung from the declarative first person, “Walk Unafraid” is a classic Stipe advice song. It’s essentially an anthem of non-conformity designed to speak for itself, but trigger a strong sense of identification in the listener. Its words can be slightly awkward — I’ve never been particularly fond of how the title fits into the song, mainly because Stipe seems conflicted about what the phrase is supposed to mean. When it is first introduced, he’s rebelling as those who “claim to walk unafraid,” and electing to be “clumsy instead,” but as the song progresses, the chorus drops the qualification, and it starts to sound like walking unafraid is a rather good thing. I mean, why wouldn’t it be? If this is a song about shaking off insecurity and embracing one’s self warts and all, wouldn’t the end result be a lack of fear?
“Walk Unafraid” has become a concert staple, and for good reason. Compared to its live incarnation, the studio recording seems a bit awkward and sterile. The song thrives on a connection with the audience, and the urgency of live performance. The version on Up strives for a foreboding atmosphere, if just to better fit into the sound of that album, but it misses the mark somewhat and dilutes the impact of the song. The version on the unfortunately titled Live dvd/cd set is the definitive take — tighter, louder, heavier, and far more emphatic.