Walk Unafraid

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.

32 Responses to “Walk Unafraid”

  1. Brian Says:

    Well put yet again, Matthew.

    I love the entire Up album, in part because of the time in my life that I encountered it, but it makes the most sense that this is the single track that’s lived on in setlists. I love how you phrased it as the “end of the Stipe narrative” – it’s always made sense as the closer for the main set and I suppose that’s why – there’s a sense of resolution to the song.

    I’m going to both shows this weekend and I hope they play it both nights.

  2. ADB Says:

    Nice post Matthew, I really like your idea of the Stipe ‘character arc’. Judging from interviews and its almost permanent presence in concert setlists, it would indeed seem to be a song of great personal significance to Michael. Personally, although it’s not particularly representative of Up, I would have loved it if this was the first single off that album – as a statement of intent and defiance after Bill’s departure.

  3. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    I agree with ADB that Walk Unafraid should have been the first single from Up. I know Daysleeper was the most classic sounding REM song on the record, but it is a very gray and moody song, not typical radio fare (assuming REM even could have scored a real radio hit at this point in their career). In fact, I think the record compnay and/or the band totally chose the wrong songs as singles from Up. I think the album would have had a greater appeal if they had released these songs as singles in this order: Walk Unafraid, Why Not Smile?, Lotus (or maybe Hope – but not both), Daysleeper. Also, I actually rather like the mix on Up and at first was disappointed with the live version, although as I have become more accustomed to hearing the live version it has grown on me. This song is so uplifting and defiant and has inspired me at times to do right in the face of opposition.

  4. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    Oh, I got in late on the Electrolite post and made a few comments that I was wondering of anyone else had an opinion on regarding that song. If you have a chance maybe revisit that blog string.

  5. Jared W Says:

    That’s a really great call. There is something off about the phrasing of the chorus:

    “I’ll trip, fall, pick myself up and walk unafraid.
    I’ll be clumsy instead”

    That seems like a bit of a contradiction, or at the very least, a muddled message. Tripping, falling, and picking oneself up is already clumsy,no?

    Regardless, I think this song is solid, at best. I am never excited when they play it live. I just feel like it’s not the anthem that they think it is…

  6. Paul Alferink Says:

    It was played at the Chicago so, and yes sounds way better live. Still not a big fan of it, though. The lyrics are pretty cliche in it’s celebration of non-conformity. It’s a subject that has been better explored elsewhere. I know Stipe’s pretty proud of it, but I feel his PRIDE really comes from his growth as a person able to feel comfortable writing songs like this and less with the actual end result.

    MP is spot on in his part of his analysist of REM. I mean, when Stipe writes such a straightforward, unnuanced lyric like this, the appeal is lost. He’s not Losing his Religion. The One I Love isn’t a simple prop to occupy his time. I don’t have to keep hitting rewind to hear if he’s saying “A tournment a tournment a tournment of lies” or “Flies” (True story, trying to write the whole song down on my Math Notebook). There’s no guessing what Orange Crush means or what the heck “Up to Par Katie Bar the Kitchen Door but not me in.” It’s just there.

    This song really starts the REM protest song period that makes me uncomfortable. These songs are all pretty straight forward, and they all come like edicts from on high, presumable from Stipe himself, which seem to proclaim that this way is. The unreliable narrator is gone. The flawed character is gone. Our ability to make the song our own through misunderstanding is gone (a more important trait than people realize.) Just dication about how one should feel or live ones life, like a 1950’s era school film on personal hygenie (Keep your hair spotless and clean. Wash it at least every two weeks . . .).

    These songs include Final Straw, Until the Day is Done, and I wanted to be wrong. These songs have have other redeem qualities, but lyrically, they really fail to hold my interest much.

  7. Yeah, I’m pretty much with you on that, Jared. I like the song, but I am kinda hoping they set it aside for the shows I’m seeing. I’ve seen them do it three times now, that’s good enough.

  8. Theresa Says:

    One of the first times I heard REM was when they had the Perfect Square on TV. Walk Afraid was my favorite song from that concert. After I had watched my taped version about fifteen times, I ended up loving all of the other songs but this one still remained my favorite. When I heard the album version, I felt that something was lacking. I agree with what Matthew said, the song does thrive on a connection with the audience, and the urgency of live performance.

  9. Dark Bob Says:

    Excellent review Matthew. One of the best songs off UP. I have seen them perform this live and it comes across much stronger. Is anyone aware if they plan on adding any other American dates later in the year after they return from Europe? I’m really dissapointed that they did not include a Detroit date. As far as I know it’s the first time they’ve ever skipped Detroit.

  10. adam Says:

    Stipe took this title from a Patti Smith note.. and kept note up for him to look at during writing, or so he has said. originally, before ever performed live.. this song was a standout on UP – it was maybe the catchiest song.. and the one able to meld the new electronics with some driving REM sounds we all loved.. now it has lost the electronic skin and just rocks.. also, I think Stipe is clamoring against those that ‘claim’ to walk unafraid in the beginning.. imposters – but really dont.

  11. milesy Says:

    I agree with much of what has been said above: I think the Stipe story arc makes sense and in that sense it’s unsurprising that Walk Unafraid has been a key live song over the last decade. But (as has been said), the lyric is a touch confused and not one of REM’s best; and, while it is indeed solid enough, it really isn’t one of their great anthems (too many alternatives to list here…).

    Paul A, I couldn’t agree more with your comment on lyrical subtlety and ambiguity in your last post. I think this, for me, is the one thing preventing me from loving Accelerate as much as I might- it goes beyond Until the Day is Done. And, as an Around the Sun fan, I’m intrigued that I Wanted to be Wrong is Matthew’s final song from there (although I have to be honest and say that I did appreciate the straightforwardness of that lyric in 2004. I’m contradictory too, I guess…)

  12. milesy Says:

    Ah, the curse of the winking emoticon strikes again…

  13. adam Says:

    I miss the Stipe narrative that had him as deep south storyteller

  14. maclure Says:

    Interesting, very interesting. I’m going to branch out on some other things that come out of this song.

    1. I think it is an example of the band pushing their musical boundaries and that is not a bad thing. This song really surprised me when I first got UP. The lyrics are clumsy and contradictory (ironically as the song checks those words – or is the joke on us?) but it’s the jagged, choppy verse which caught my surprise and then the full, faster chorus. If most REM songs fall into several “types” musically, this one I find hard to place in some respects…

    2. You’d expect this from me perhaps, but this is another UP song in which Stipe’s character draws on Biblical narratives and imagery – namely, little lambs (who need leading and guidance), narrow paths (as opposed to wide paths that lead to destruction) and carrying a bag of stones (David vs Goliath – a fitting parallel story to draw from). This makes me think of this song as sisters with Falls to Climb – perhaps, the character is the same person, FtC presents us with the tragic/glorious conclusion to a life lived walking unafraid.

  15. maclure Says:

    Sorry Matthew – not FtC: Falls to Climb!

  16. ScottMalobisky Says:

    If I have a bag of rocks to carry as I go
    I just want to hold my head up high

    I don’t care no problem
    I’ll carry them through the Khyber Pass
    And all the way back to Rockville
    As long as I got my integrity

  17. ScottMalobisky Says:

    “a little lamb”……”fearless was my middle name”, seems incredibly contradictory at first but I guess it’s not a given that a little lamb is necessarily full of fear

  18. davegassner Says:

    Unafraid to be afraid I guess? I guess its about being balanced and comfortable with your own inevitable and enduring character flaws…

    I found it really interesting though how you related this song to Reveal/Around the Sun’s dryness and lack of reason to really get emotionally invested about their stories and characters, and that the difference with “Accelerate” is that its the least introspective of the three and talking about the current state of the world…Stipe is really singing like he genuinely cares again…

  19. ScottMalobisky Says:

    I see the lyric as being sorta like another extension of the “It doesn’t bother me if you are right” theme that is also touched on in Falls To Climb. Life swirling in all it’s challenges and unfairness and bullshit all around you but it’s never daunting to the point of being overwhelming as long as you got your house in order inside your brain housing group, know what’s important.

  20. Mr Cup Says:

    I kinda saw this as someone wanting to be ‘cool’ but rationalising that being accepting of yourself was probably better. And cooler.

    I think the problem I have with old REM vs the new is the vocal delivery. Musically they’ve done some really interesting stuff but Stipes not really done a lot vocally. Taking Orange Crush as an example, the vocal adds such menace the song whimpers without it. Where he would once use it as an instrument an not really care if the words took a beating because of it, now (Accelerate aside) he wants everything to be heard and articulate at the expense of any real dynamic and drama or texture, colour, feel…etc

  21. ScottMalobisky Says:

    right on Dave , unafraid to be afraid, or to put it more urgently, “The only thing to fear is fearlessness..”

  22. Kirsten Says:

    I think it takes fearlessness to be clumsy. “Keeping within the boundries” and following everyone on their “Narrow Path” is generally a lot easier than living outside of those boundaries. Not being afraid to fuck up and take the chance to do something knowing there’s a good chance of failure takes more courage than not and makes for a much more fulfilled and interesting life.

    I will trip, fall pick my self up and Walk Unafraid.

    Love this song – I always associate it with Hope. I’ve also heard that it was Patty Smith who told Michael (who was worried about the new album without Bill) to go into it “unafraid”.

  23. ScottMalobisky Says:

    just watched the youtube link, that was great. I like Stipe’s shoes, looks like he could kick in a few doors with those things, not that he needs to.

  24. davegassner Says:

    Yeah Kirsten, Patti’s line of advice (I think she literally said ‘walk unafraid’! to a wary Stipe) during the Up sessions is the inspiration for this song as far as I can recall; I seem to remember a video interview with Stipe from this era where he had mentioned that, I think it appeared on the music TV channel up here in Canada, MuchMoreMusic…

    Noble an idea as it is, some personal weaknesses and waywardisms are worth addressing and fixing still though…I think if you become willing to proceed with ANY idea, completely regardless of backlash or criticism or outside opinion, you wind up with, well, “Reveal” and “Around the Sun” territory…in that respect, “Accelerate” could almost be interpreted as a moment of finally walking the “narrow path” again and almost the less respectable album in terms of the principle involved… (sorry, I might be taking this career narrative idea of Matt’s a little far now, haha)

    Then again, as I seemed to gather from the April SPIN, Buck himself will barely mention “Around the Sun” by name, and “wanted to make work [they] were proud of again” with the new CD, so maybe their 2004ish work was, even to them, the moment of true personal compromise.

  25. davegassner Says:

    Oh yeah, Mr.Cup, I agree with you about the voice thing too, it’d be a nice surprise on like a 2011 album to like suddenly have a “Tongue” or “End Game” or “Wrong Child” type vocal thrown in randomly 🙂

    Actually, in terms of character arc and eras, you can always kinda hear what year the REM song is from just from that aspect as well…the biggest jump was the analog to digital thing I think between “Green” and “Out of Time”…

  26. milesy Says:

    Dave, despite Buck’s comments on Around the Sun (and maybe he will come around in a few years time, after all, REM apparently hated aspects of Fables for years), I suspect there is some truth in the idea of REM’s post-Berry work being unafraid of what people thought. This is also what David Buckley says in his band biography (‘Fiction’ ), calling the last chapter (from memory), ‘Music for a Market That Doesn’t Exist’, and contrasting REM’s approach with others’ who want to be big and widely appreciated whatever the cost. As you say, this may be overstating the point, but there is truth in it, and I admire REM for walking unafraid this last decade, even while not liking every single direction they’ve chosen.

  27. milesy Says:

    Not only was this a typically interesting write up from Matthew, I hadn’t figured the story arc thing for myself at all for example, I’m also really appreciating the comments on the thread, you guys are on form!

    I love your point, Scott, about the important thing being having your own ‘house in order’, whatever rubbish may be swirling around you. And also the vocal delivery thing, Mr Cup. I love this blog!!!

  28. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    I have to disagree a little with some of you that think that the songs lyrics have some inconsistencies in them. First, while they don’t always make literal sense to me the song has always been about the evolution of the character from the “little lamb” to “walking unafraid”. Also, I do find it odd that Michael is criticized for somewhat inconsistent lyrics here, but often praised for random, totally incoherent lyrics early in the band’s career. Think on it.

  29. Ignis Sol Says:

    I always enjoyed “Walk Afraid.” It is not one of my favorites, but it is a quality song. I find it sweet that the band, particularly Michael, is so fond of it. Therefore, like a good friend, I like it for and with them. It is inspirational with a decent, optimistic message. I heard it live back in 2003 and was amazed at its power.

  30. jim jos Says:

    This song gets my vote as the song that I would pick to open up Up. (not that that matters of course!)

    The cd version is good, but, yes, the live version is the definitive.

    I really like this song being the conclusion of some kind of arc in the development of a personality.

    Really disagree with those that are critical of the lyrics on this one. “I’ll trip, fall, pick myself up and walk unafraid, I’ll be clumsy instead” one does not negate the other. It is a reaffirmation.

  31. Mary Alice Says:

    this song to me is the years later sequel to World leader Pretend – he is bolder and wiser. I think he always had a sense of fearlessness…but there was one little thing getting in the way – what people think of him. In World Leader Pretend he acknowledges how much that affects him, matters to him, but by the time he did Walk Unafraid he doesn’t let him affect him as much.

    I think it’s a great song. And the little lamb thing makes sense. How many little kids are just unafraid to love, don’t judge others, little toddler girls aren’t afraid of men, little toddler boys don’t know that such and such isn’t a way a boy should act. You don’t want to stay a kid forever, but how much of the childhood you that is actually GOOD is lost because of society?

  32. Sigrid Says:

    Hey Matthew!

    I’ve read some your interpretations of songs and wonder why do you think that M. Stipe talks about himself in these songs? I can see you are drawing parralels of his songs and his own personality, which are based on what? Like you said: “express his sexuality, and openly examine his personal relationships” As far as I know (my knowledges might be limited, because I have heard just few his interviews, there he talks about himself and read his biography) he does not talk much about his relationships and sexuality. Phrase from himself: I’m not homosexual or heterosexual. I’m just sexual, represents pretty well how “fond” he is about talking his sexuality. If he does not like talk about himself openly very much, maybe he does’nt do this in his songs also. At least not directly.

    Sorry, but this is just my point of view.

    And I apologize about my bad English. This is not my native language.

    Anyway, I still enjoy reading your blog! 😉 It’s very interesting, how different people see and understand things.

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