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.

47 Responses to “Find The River”

  1. maclure Says:

    Arrrrghhghhhhhh FIND THE RIVER AAARRRFFFGGGHHHHH FIND THE RIVER AAAAAARRRRRGGGHHHHHHHHH THE BEST SONG EVER WRITTEN BY ANYONE ANYWHERE… and I don’t even have time to write something legible right now… see you later when I’ve calmed down.

  2. Dark Bob Says:

    This is REM at their most beautiful. One of the absolute best songs in their catalog. The lyrics, the imagery, the melody are truly lovely.

  3. Jared W Says:

    No words yet. This is a big one for me.

  4. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    I love this song and it is the perfect ending for Automatic For The People – and Matthew is aexactly right that Automatic is about living with the thought of mortality, not about death. Find The River is rich and warm and earthy and the music and lyrics perfectly create that mental picture. Interestingly, Matthew says this song fits in somewhat with Reckoning in lyrics and tone, I have always connected it more Fables and thought its warm southernness serves a similar role to Wendell Gee (although this, of course, is the far superior song) and that if I had to put Find The River on any other album I would move it to Fables (or maybe Out Of Time, which is rich and pastoral like Find The River). All of that said, while this song is the perfect ending to Automatic and one of REM’s great songs, for me it is not the “Top 10” song that it is for many of you.

  5. Chris Oliver Says:

    For years, I couldn’t decide whether I liked this song or not. It felt to me a little too grandiose, like their version of “Stairway to Heaven” or “Hotel California,” but at the same time it seemed to put some finality at the end of the album that “Nightswimming” (my all-time favorite REM song) didn’t quite have. I guess I had to grow out of that youthful cynicism (even though I wasn’t really THAT young at the time) to really appreciate it.

    I can’t help thinking about the fact that both Michael and Peter have said that, as children, they were obsessed with the song “Moon River.” “Find the River” feels like their attempt to rewrite that song, or appropriate the feeling they got from that song.

  6. Rob Says:

    This is the song I want played at my funeral. Nothing more to add, except that I hope that it’s not for at least another fifty years.


  7. Possibly my favourite REM song.

    When the album was released I read an explanation for the contrasting styles in the backing vocals. Apparently, each recorded their vocals without hearing what the others had sung.

    I can’t remember who told that story but I’m pretty sure it was in an interview the band did with Q magazine.

  8. Paul Alferink Says:

    I ignored this song from when I got my copy of Automatic in 1992, all the way until I started my senior year in 1994. And then the song hit me what the lyrics were actually about, probably because the situation facing all kids leaving high school at that time. I has been a favorite ever since. I had to write a paper for a poetry class that year as to who I thought wrote poetic lyrics. I chose REM. This was the song I cited.

    Some might call the river/life metaphor tired. I think it’s classic. Especially the thought that there are many rivers you can travel, you just need to find yours. The concept of the rivers flowing into the ocean, a kind of great oversoul, is a beautiful one also.

    The herb thing gets me. I have no idea what it adds to the song, but each, in and of itself, is georgous for reasons unknown, or even unknowable. And trust me, I started looking through books on the secret languages of plants and herbs. Maybe ginger was historically a symbol of loss. Nope. Nothing. Bergamont and vetiver. Ginger, Lemon, indigo, corriander stem and rose of hay. Maybe he wants to find the river to become a chef? 😉

    The lyrics really get me. The speedy head. The Speed meter instead of speodometer. Really. You can’t even pick the best part. Top to bottom, fantastic.

    As for this blog, 10/11. Up, Murmur, and Automatic all join Chronic Town and New Adventures in finding their river.

    Hey now, little speedy head. The read on the speed meter says, were closer now than light years to go.

  9. real_pseudonym Says:

    Especially after seeing r.e.m. two nights ago in DC (best show ever, ever, ever) I’d have a hard time ranking my favorites in any kind of order. That being said, “Find The River” f***ing rules my world.

    Because I was so deeply moved by this song from the day Automatic was released, and was so committed to reading every possible interview at the time, I clearly remember learning (1) that Mike Mills played every instrument on the album version, except for some percussion, and (2) that it was Man on the Moon where they recorded their background vocals separately. (I can’t stop myself from shouting out the Bill Berry part every time I hear it played live.)


  10. @real_pseudonym

    Not according to Wikipedia [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Find_the_River]:

    Mike Mills explained to Melody Maker: “‘Harborcoat’ from ‘Reckoning’ has got me and Michael and Bill all doing completely unrelated things, and yet it works together. Because of the production we insisted on from Mitch and Don, which I know must have been incredibly frustrating for them, it’s hard to pick out exactly what’s going on. We tried it again on “Find The River.” I had the idea that Bill and I would go in and do some harmonies without listening to each other. It’s great because mine is this incredibly angst-ridden emotional thing, and Bill’s is this really low-key sort of ambling part. They’re two opposite ends of the spectrum but they’re both on there, and it’s a beautiful thing.”

  11. DGL Says:

    I was also there in D.C. this week, and I agree as to its awesomeness. You wouldn’t think 40-50 somethings could summon so much youthful energy.

    They didn’t play Find The River, although I think they have once or twice on this tour. But despite it’s being so beloved, it’s never been a tour staple — maybe they just can’t find a way to make it really click live; the version on Road Movie is good but not necessarily outstanding.

    And yes, I also read somewhere that, on Automatic, Buck did not play on either of the final two tracks — fairly obvious on Nightswimming, not so much on Find The River. But it is true that the guitar part doesn’t seem to have his usual arpeggio jangle, so I believe it.

    And I’ve also read that the two harmony parts were done separately for this song, not Man On The Moon. Never even noticed that there was a Berry part on MOTM, but his part on Find The River is fantastic, as is Mills.’

  12. DGL Says:

    Ah, didn’t see Shane’s last post there…


  13. Believe me, “Find The River” is lovely live. I’ve seen them play it twice, once on the Up tour, and then on the greatest hits tour.

  14. ADB Says:

    It is wonderful live, and I quite like the fact that it’s not a staple. I had to wait 12 years and half a dozen gigs before I saw it played, but that made it all the more special when I finally did.

    Rob – this is my funeral song too. I find it almost impossible to choose a favourite REM song, but more often than not, if pushed, this is the one I plump for. I think it’s the alchemy of such simple ingredients combined to produce… well perfection really. It’s placement, as a fitting ending to the Best Album Ever, helps – Electrolite’s ‘I’m not scared, I’m outta here’ is quite possibly my second favourite end to any album ever, but nothing will ever top ‘all of this is coming your way’…

  15. pggtips Says:

    Matthew, you are right. For me though it is the culmination of all of their major musical influences as well as being ideally suited to their playing styles. The minute from “The river to the ocean goes…” to the finish is one of my favourite moments in pop music, if not my favourite. The band build up to such a fantasic crescendo during this point. Wonderful closure to Automatic for the People. My favourite song of all time after just two listens, its almost perfect.

  16. David T. Says:

    > The minute from “The river to the ocean goes…” to the finish is one of my favourite moments in pop music, if not my favourite.

    Seconded.

  17. maclure Says:

    I’ve been waiting for this song to appear on this blog since this blog started. Over the last year my views on Find the River have changed, although not my opinion of it’s quality. It is extremely difficult to pin down 1 REM song as a favourite but I think this one has made me think it is THE one more frequently than any other song.

    I’m writing this with my 1 month old daughter sleeping on my shoulder (I’m typing 1 handed). It’s oddly appropriate because the most satisfying interpretation of the song in my mind is of a parent talking to their child or grandparent to grandchild. For some reason I picture an old man (maybe cos of the video) who is closer to death and contemplating eternity and his short years talking to a teenage boy (perhaps a younger me?) imparting wisdom and encouragement for life’s journey. “All of this is coming your way” is that old man saying – life’s joys and despairs are yours to live. I think this interpretation dovetails nicely with Automatic’s themes: ageing, losing loved ones, losing innocence but walking on…

    I also want this played at my funeral. (My wife has just read that over my shoulder and said she doesn’t want to think about my funeral). I think the lyrics are poetic and vague enough for me to read into it my own Christian view of the world – the river is my salvation, the ocean my heaven. I like what Alferink had to say about this above… At my funeral I would also want more explicit messages that underscore my faith but Find the River would definitely be my “secular hymn”.

    All the herb stuff – I think its a function in the song is evocative – of life, goodness, flavour of sensing textures and fragrances. It also dimly calls to mind the idea that life is fleeting – in the great sweep of history we are “but grass that the wind blows”.

    I was intrigued by the covers of this song on the Stereogum Automatic XV album (both by Blanche and Dr.Dog). In one sense I think the words and chord progressions make it virtually impossible to badly cover it if you’re a half decent band (the song is THAT good already) but neither of the versions came close to matching the instrumentation and arrangement (that childlike organ intro) or the majestic singing on the chorus. In other words, exactly what Matthew said in his post.

  18. Wezzo Says:

    This song makes me cry every damn time. It’s not necessarily a sad cry; it’s really a happy cry. An optimistic cry, if there’s such a thing.

    150+ listens on, I’m not quite sure how it continues to manage it. Few songs make me cry at all; even fewer manage it more than once. This one, though, really gets me. Truly a special song.

  19. milesy Says:

    We have often commented how much we love it when REM rock out. One of their great strengths, of course, is their sheer versatility. Quite a few of their songs are simply beautiful, including this one. It’s not my favourite, but it is great.

  20. adam Says:

    the only thing that sucks now is looking back at michael in the flannel and baseball cap singing this song. wish I never saw any video of this !! but, yes of course, its REM at thier finest

  21. jft Says:

    I want to second all the “their best” comments. they have so many brilliant songs, but this one has to be the best. at least for me, at this moment (been just listening to it about 10 times while reading the comments). I think everything has been said about what makes it great, I can’t really add anything.

    having said that, the song profits a lot from its recording (I read somewhere that this was really the demo version, but it was so good that it was left on the album like this). it’s got the perfect arrangement and I have to say, it cannot be covered in a satisfying way. not even by R.E.M. themselves, the live versions I heard were all quite okay to great (all on bootlegs / youtube / etc., my first R.E.M. concert will be in August), but didn’t quite capture the sheer brilliance and perfectness of the album version. but that one is enough to stand out as one of the greatest songs ever recorded.

  22. ScottMalobisky Says:

    seems especially gripping today with Tim Russert’s sudden passing. just so sad. you just never know.

    I used to have this on my answering machine, no greeting from me , just the beginning of the song thru “Hey now little speedhead.”, and then a millisecond later , the beep.

  23. Ignis Sol Says:

    Sign me up for the funeral list. The song is a celebration.

    I imagine the song as words of wisdom to a traveler set to see the world with all its beautiful visions and sweet fragrances. The journey of following a river, your river, my river and the wonder of it all…

    Maybe after my task here in the city is complete, I will find the river – all of it is coming my way.

  24. Heyberto Says:

    Nothing more I can say that hasn’t been said above. One of my favorites. My wife and I put this on our wedding CD that we gave out at the ceremony and dedicated it to those family members that were not with us. Very special for us.

  25. Jared Says:

    I’ve waited too long, and my comments have essentially been said by most of you.

    This is my definitive favorite REM song, and favorite song, ever. I think it’s incredibly special and even magical.

    It reeks of Mike Mills in every possible way, in an excellent way. It makes me remember that this band succeeds entirely on its excellent balance between the contributions of its members.

    The extra piano crescendo at 3:24 is my favorite REM moment.

    And to top it all off, it means something different to me every time I hear it.

    Never heard it live; keep your fingers crossed for tonight!

  26. ScottMalobisky Says:

    hey Jared, maybe they’ll play Saturn Return
    now that would be fucking cool

  27. Bert Echo Says:

    The video with the old man and his dog makes me want to bawl everytime I see it.

  28. Bruno Says:

    This one is obviously monumental in the eyes of the band’s fans, and for good reason. Gotta admit I found it touching reading through these posts and seeing the deep connection so many of you have with this song. I agree with many sentiments above. Smart bunch you lot!

    A few things I want to add…

    I remember when I first got into REM someone asked me why I liked them so much. I probably rambled on about why they were so damn good, but I do remember saying that there was something timeless about much of their music, like it had always been there (of course many others have said this same thing). Like the melody/music existed already and the band was somehow just channeling it. The chorus of Find the River is a great example of this; as though it was already there from years back, from some other timeless time, and was just drifting on the wind and REM managed to capture it. An amazing talent that.

    Like many, I think that this and Nightswimming are fantastic, sitting there together at the end of Automatic. Absolutely magical to my ears. I was in a band once and I remember traveling in the van, downtime, between cities, and I had put on AFTP. Another member of the band, one who had gone off REM, mocked Stipe for what he thought was a repetitive melody on Nightswimming, completely missing the beauty of it. I delivered a silent warning. Then he mocked him on Find the River and I let him have it!

    Don’t be messing with the REM!

  29. jim jos Says:

    I am deeply suspicious of anyone who doesn’t at least acknowledge this as a powerful, wonderful song. Absolutely gorgeous, but you all knew that didn’t you?
    Timeless. You either get this song or you deserve to be at one of those carnival dunk tanks for all eternity while I throw baseballs at the target.

  30. Bruno Says:

    “You either get this song or you deserve to be at one of those carnival dunk tanks for all eternity while I throw baseballs at the target.”

    Oh that’s great. I’ll hold the balls.

  31. Mr Cup Says:

    This isn’t a song but a divine perfume of pure transcendence.

  32. Justin S Says:

    I came here to say I want this song played at my funeral, and found six previous references to the same sentiment.

    That makes it all the more poignant.


  33. My favourite R.E.M. song, and one that I rarely listen to because I don’t want to spoil it.

  34. Mr Cup Says:

    Quality never goes out of style Matthew

  35. Kirsten Says:

    I could never work out why this wasn’t a hit single for them. It’s better than Everybody Hurts, but similar enough in tone & style for the general listening public to enjoy it.
    Love the line “just light years to go” like you know your dreams are out of reach, but it’s so important that you keep striving for them. Hope. That’s what the song’s about. One of the most beautiful songs ever written.

  36. Justin S Says:

    My favourite R.E.M. song, and one that I rarely listen to because I don’t want to spoil it.

    Amen. I played this for my girlfriend a few days ago, and it was the first time I’d heard it in a loooong time. As you said, I don’t want to spoil it. And it was wonderful to hear again.

  37. Justin S Says:

    The extra piano crescendo at 3:24 is my favorite REM moment.

    Allow me to descend into text speak: OMG OMG me too!!!!!!!

    I have always thought that. That little piano figure is just pure sad bliss. Best musical moment in the R.E.M. catalog. Mike Mills is immortal for that alone.

    By the way, when I played this song for my girlfriend, I reminded her I want it played at my funeral. We were driving down the highway late at night, and when the song was over, there was silence. Then the sound of her crying.

  38. kirk Says:

    thanks mp. thanks b,b,m & s

  39. matt Says:

    it is really amazing that i found this space, after talking to a friend tonight briefly about our funerals (a little morbid i know) told her i have always wanted this song played at it. kicking through the internet tonight, never thinking other people might feel the same way i do about a song, it is so incredible to read these other people’s thoughts on such a special gift these guys gave the world.

    i have always, since the first time i heard it back when i was a junior in college, felt an intense connection to the music and words in “find the river”. at the time, i had absolutely no idea why, but now older and a bit wiser, i realize that it was the voice that i had in my heart but not my head, of the impending adulthood coming so close to my door, what was on the other side of that door, and what to do when faced with all of it.

    i will always remember the ROLLING STONE review of automatic for the people, when they mention “nightswimming” and “find the river” as closing the album and in doing so “sum up its twilit, soulful intensity”. thanks for posting this and for making me love this song even more.

  40. Purplebee Says:

    when I need to feel better about everything Nightswimming and Find the River get me on the way.
    It’s like being cuddled by the words and music. For me the meaning of the words aren’t the focus but it’s sound of them with Michael’s voice fitting in as an element of the total sound.
    Yes it’s on my list of songs for my funeral too – wouldn’t want some fool playing Angels !!

  41. Kenna Says:

    This song kills me, every time. Is it their most beautiful? Hard to say. I think somewhere between Find the River, Nightswimming, Perfect Circle, Half a World Away and You Are the Everything is R.E.M.’s most beautiful song.

  42. Patrick Says:

    This is R.E.M’s best song out of a massive catalog of incredible music.

  43. Patrick Says:

    I find this (from Wikipedia) particularly ironic, since I consider this track the epitome of what REM does best:

    “The song failed to chart on the Hot 100 and struggled on the UK Singles Charts, reaching only #54. It was the first R.E.M. song to fail to reach the top 40 on either chart since “Get Up” in 1989″

  44. Mary Alice Says:

    that is crazy crazy that you wrote
    “a character about to leave the comfort of childhood and search for their own path in a big, scary, beautiful world”

    because I listned to this song as my lullaby to sing me to sleep on my ancient discman just about every night when I was trying to go to sleep during my first semester of college~! And college was the first time I lived away from my tight family so I totally agree with you.

  45. Ronald Says:

    great great song, maybe their best…

    but hey… Bayberry moon… anybody??

  46. CCY Says:

    I come to here to say thank you, thank you for writing this great review.
    I can hardly find any introduction of this song in Chinese.
    Although there are few part in your article I don’t really understant, cause I’m not a native sperker, I’ll keep reading and thinking, till I realize everything in this song.

    This is a hard time for my life, recently. You notice the song “everybody hurts”, the song is beautiful, but it hurts me more. When Michael Stipe says “everybody hurts”, he is Michael Stipe. But, WHO AM I ? I extremely have no idea about that, It’s really hurts. I am so disappoint to believe anything….

    I’m glad to read about your funeral songs, I don’t have a list before. Maybe I don’t need any song for my funeral…
    Sometimes I think that I don’t even need a funeral.

    Sorry for bore you, and thanks for your time.

  47. Giulia Says:

    This is my favourite song, and you explained quite well why by saying: “a character about to leave the comfort of childhood and search for their own path in a big, scary, beautiful world”.
    Me, being the strange nerdy person that I am, I have always found difficult finding my own place in this world and being proud of myself. But then I listen to this song, and it tells me that whatever I have to do is trying to find my river, that is, the path I have to follow. Nothing maybe going my way now, but it will, it’s closer now.
    And thanks to this song, I keep going, trying to find my river.
    Thanks Michael, thanks R.e.m. for writing this.
    I really hope I can listen to this song live, sooner or later..


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