Find The River
June 13, 2008
Automatic For The People is commonly understood as being R.E.M.’s Album About Death, but it’s more accurate to say that it’s actually about living with the awareness of mortality. As if to stress this point, the album leaves us at the beginning, with a character about to leave the comfort of childhood and search for their own path in a big, scary, beautiful world. It’s not an easy thing, but even through our protagonist’s fear and frustration — “nothing is going my way!” — he is aware that some unknown reward for his strength and courage is somewhere out there on the horizon. If “Everybody Hurts” is telling you to hold on, “Find The River” is explaining why: Your just deserve is only just light years to go, and all of this is coming your way.
The song is among the most deliberately pastoral in the entire R.E.M. discography, to the point that perhaps a quarter of the overall lyrics refer to herbs, roots, and vegetables. (It is, no doubt, the most delicious of all R.E.M. songs.) The river and water imagery calls back to Reckoning, but this time around, it’s not quite so menacing. Instead, the river is a simple metaphor for a rambling, natural path to a greater destination.
“Find The River” is not a complicated song, but it may be one of the finest and most powerful arrangements of the band’s career, drawing on most of the quartet’s greatest musical assets while not sounding quite like any other song in their catalog. Peter Buck’s acoustic rhythms and melodies are outstanding despite — or more likely because of — its elemental simplicity, and Michael Stipe’s vocal performance on the album recording ranks among his all-time best studio takes. Crucially, the contrasting vocal harmonies carry much of the song’s emotional weight. As Bill Berry sings a humble, low key part, Mike Mills gives a passionate, deeply affecting performance that nearly rivals the power of Michael’s lead vocal.