June 17, 2008

“Photograph” was written for Automatic For The People, but for whatever reason, it was abandoned and completed later on with Natalie Merchant for inclusion on the pro-choice benefit album Born To Choose. (This was a pretty nice record, by the way — it also featured a spirited live recording of the Beatles’ “She Said, She Said” by Matthew Sweet, and “Greenlander,” one of Pavement’s all-time best non-album tracks.) Stylistically, it’s more or less exactly what a somewhat cynical person might expect of R.E.M. in the early ’90s: Mid-tempo yet perky, and almost a bit too tasteful in its arrangement. The song is very well crafted and incredibly ingratiating, but it’s not hard to understand why it was cast aside — it’s a bit too neutral in tone for Automatic For The People, and it’s perhaps one step too far into inoffensive, toothless coffee shop pop.

Despite only contributing some backing vocals and co-writing the lyrics, Natalie Merchant has a rather overpowering presence on the track, to the point that its general aesthetic edges closer to that of her band the 10,000 Maniacs than R.E.M. This is most apparent in the lyrics, which speculate on the life of some smiling stranger in a photograph found by chance. It’s a nice, albeit extremely precious concept, but many of the lines fall flat due to Merchant’s penchant for a plain-spoken obviousness. Her approach is accessible and pleasant, but it’s not particularly poetic or charming, and the end product comes out seeming a bit flat and overly twee, especially in comparison to the majority of Stipe’s output in that period.


60 Responses to “Photograph”

  1. Paul Alferink Says:

    More likable than you allow for. Although you are right that this does not really sound like an REM song because of the lyric. The subject matter isn’t un-Stipe like. But the lyrics are, and Merchant is way more obvious in the mix. No, it’s not the best song, but I’d probably like it better than a 1/4 of the songs on Automatic, which is one of there strongest albums.

  2. Zack Says:

    Haven’t heard the song, will look for it sometime. I really love “Greenlander,” as do all right-thinking people.

  3. Paul Alferink Says:

    I remember trying to find this album way back when you couldn’t buy, find or order such things from this crazy interweb. I remember being young and naive and ordering it from some record store that said they could order anything. So I gave the person my contact info, and went home, fully expecting a phone call in a couple weeks saying that had it in. Apparently, the clerk didn’t understand that it was out of Print. I was very sad when they never called.

  4. Kirsten Says:

    Nice song, but nothing special. I often skip it, but enjoy it when I do give it the time of day.

  5. I have to say that I really love this song and I was amazed by it the very first time I heard it, way back in the mid-90s.
    I can’t quite agree with the review in the way that the song falls flat or that some lines are ways too obvious. I always imagined that the object of reference was a black & white photograph depicting a beautiful woman at some point of time during World War II. I always had the notion that she might have died in a concentration camp, even though this might push the interpretation of the lyrics a bit far. Another thing I really like about the song is the atmosphere it creates, I always depict some kind of big dusty attic on a summer afternoon, sunlight falling in and specks of dust floating through the air. You can really dig up some amazing things in those old stacks of paper you find there.
    Powerful and great song, even though it wouldn’t have fit on Automatic, I think.

  6. ADB Says:

    This is one of the non-album tracks that I was only able to track down with the advent of broadband and file sharing. As such, finally hearing it was a real treat – an original song, not a cover, and ‘finished’ rather than the more demo-like quality of PSA, Theme From Two Steps Onwards etc. And a very pretty, sweet tune it is too – if it had been on an album I think I’d’ve tired of it very quickly, but as a bit of a lost gem it does just fine. A bit of a comedown after So. Central Rain and Country Feedback though…

  7. Mr Cup Says:

    It’s perfect for that sort of album. It’s a decent enough song, but I always think that it’s the hand of Merchant on the lyric sheet.

    If Stipe found a photograph interesting enough to write about you’d think it’d be a grainy, blurred shot of broken paving or something.

    I bought that album simply for this song. Didn’t realise it had Pavement and Matthew Sweet as well. (I have such smart brains!!!)
    It was a $30 CD single when I could least afford it. I kinda like the John Prine song they did as well.

  8. Andy T. Says:

    Like ADB, this is one of the few songs I that I did not already own in some hard copy version that I downloaded years ago when briefly did some Napstering. But for me, the song was not new – I’d heard it on the radio a few times when the song came out. At the time I wasn’t quite sure that it was an REM song, for some reason, I thought it might be Stipe sitting in with Merchant’s band.

    I’d always liked the song, and continue to like it. I’m glad it’s a non-album track though. For me, Somehow REM’s always been a “boys club” to me and having a female voice in there just doesn’t ring true – Out of Time was enough of that for me. So while I like the song I agree, it was best left for an outside project.

  9. adam Says:

    really charming song that neither artist would do .. seems very innocent.. but it was also a great addition.. should have never been on a full record.. but perfect for this kind of collection or b-side

  10. jim jos Says:

    I will say this about this song, it has a really natural effortless melody. The beginning, is a bit Fall On Me esqe. I like it. But, I don’t love it, and that is because I think the lyrics are a bit too much like they were written by a 16 year old for the high school year book. But that melody is truly ace. They could have put this on the second side of In Time, but I wonder if there were legal reasons or something behind not doing so. Does not fit onto Automatic, and, certainly, not Monster.

    I miss Natalie Merchant though, she was at her best, I think, with the Maniacs.

  11. jim jos Says:

    Thanks for including this one Matthew. Perhaps you will consider doing another non-album track in First We Take Manhattan? Would be interested to hear yours and everyone’s thoughts on that one. I think I am only trying to prolong the inevitable end, but, that is life in general, right?

  12. Nah, no more covers except for the ones I absolutely have to do (ie, they appear on an album) from here on out.

  13. jim jos Says:


  14. Mr Cup Says:

    I don’t mind the guest vocals of Pierson and Merchant. But I never want to hear a guest rapper EVER AGAIN!

  15. jim jos Says:

    e-bow is that much better for having Patti on it.

  16. Tim Says:

    First We Take Manhattan is by far my favorite REM cover.

    ScottMalobisky I left you a link on the Country Feedback comments for Staring Down The Barrel of The Middle Distance.

    (I wasn’t sure if you’d go back to those comments again)

  17. Dark Bob Says:

    I agree, First we take Manhattan is one of REM’s best covers (possibly The best). Wall of death is right up there as well.

  18. ADB Says:

    Mr Cup – is the John Prine song you mention Hello In There? I LOVE the Bingo Hand Job version of that – the lines ‘We lost Davy in the Korean War, still don’t know what for, guess it don’t matter anymore’ get me every time… First We Take Manhattan is another favourite cover of mine too. Those two and Wichita Lineman would be three of my favourite tracks that Matthew isn’t going to cover – what does everyone else think…?

  19. ScottMalobisky Says:

    yeah Tim I saw that it was like 8 minutes plus long and I’m like wow a new REM song over 8 minutes this is gonna be cool turns out that 5 miunutes of it is Stipe rapping to the crowd after the song is over which is cool I’m not complaining thanx again

  20. ScottMalobisky Says:

    oh , I would definitely like to see Wichita Lineman included…..”And I need you more than want you and I want you for all time”…….

  21. Mr Cup Says:

    ADB – indeed it is Hello in There.
    I have this great version of Robert Forster doing Speed of the Sound of Loneliness, but I just can’t get into Prine himself.

  22. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    Always seemed a cousin of Merchant’s “Carnival” – maybe because of the video for Carnival.

  23. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    Okay, I have to ask, what is the deal with releasing “Hollow Man” as a single? Its easily the worst song on Accelerate. And that video, while cool, is basically a redo of the Fall On Me video as filtered through Radiohead. Why not “Living Well…” or “Houston”?

  24. ScottMalobisky Says:

    speaking of Radiohead, they just released their whole back catalog for the first time (I wonder what the details of that deal were) on Rhapsody–I have OK Computer and In Rainbows on CD–very cool to suddenly be able to hear this stuff for the first time for free, very intriguing listening from this back assward perspective….And I listened to the new Coldplay once the whole way through this morning on The Rap, very death themed, kinda strange, with a few songs that are long with sudden total dynamic changes contained within them , like classical movements, or almost like something Kansas or Rush or Yes would do (well, not quite) : I have a feeling this record is going to REALLY GROW on me, looking forward to when I have the time to listen to it closely for the sceond time. Coldplay to me ,I don’t know; they have some great, really interesting songs–a few– but their are times when they downright bore me, and though they can be quite fascinating, they seem almost too contrived at times….

    I don’t know, BWDubya, I don’t know

  25. Paul Alferink Says:

    Ohh! I know! Stipe is really proud of that song, it’s fairly generic. It different then Supernatural, whereas “Living Well” is too similar. Houston is too short and not commercial. Mr. Richard’s lacks punch.

  26. ScottMalobisky Says:

    everything after Accelerate lacks punch, I don’t get why everybody seems to think Sing For The Submarine is so special ????????

  27. ScottMalobisky Says:

    well, Horse To Water is certainly packing a “punch” but it is seriously lacking that REM special sauce, too

  28. Kirsten Says:

    I like Hollow Man. It was probably just more commercial than the other songs. Sing For The Submarine and Until the Day Is Done are my least favourites. I really love the rest of them. Perhaps those two will grow on me – I haven’t given up on them yet!

  29. Paul Alferink Says:

    I like the goofy chorus of sing. It’s reminds me of “For the Benifit of Mr. Kite” (At least when Eddie Izzard isn’t butchering it). The rest is a bit of a mess.

    I will say, take Houston, Living Well, And Supernatural. I think those are the best three songs on any album since at least Hi-Fi. Houston is friggin’ Brilliant. It would never get airplay, but its brilliant.

  30. Michael Says:

    Just found a link to your blog and checked it out for the first time. It’s fantastic, don’t stop writing.

  31. Rob Says:

    What about Man-Sized Wreath. Good God, I love that song.

  32. Mr Cup Says:

    Man Sized Wreath still makes me cringe. Big time.

  33. jft Says:

    I’d say it was a pretty obvious choice, Hollow Man as the second single. Supernatural Superserious is the most commercial song on the record, still rocks quite loud, so it was the first single. Hollow Man takes the step towards a ballad while then leaning towards faster rock. and it’s an easy listen, melodic – it makes the deal between new r.e.m. listeners, hardcore fans and those who mostly only like out of time and automatic. Living Well is a great opener, but i suppose it’s not catchy enough/too hard for mainstream radio. still Hollow Man is not my favourite off Accelerate, Living Well, Houston, Accelerate and Until The Day Is Done being such.

    I predict the third single is going to be Until The Day Is Done, they’re going to put out the only ballad.

  34. Paul Alferink Says:

    If they do a third single, it will be Living Well.

  35. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    Yeah, after allowing CNN to have Until The Day Is Done pretty much keeps it from being a single I think. I agree a third single would likely be Living Well…

    VIVA SING FOR THE SUBMARINE!!!! It has more mystery and mood than most of Accelerate, and while I do love Accelerate, that mood and mystery is somewhat missing. Besides, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, any group that has been around long-enough no name-drop their OWN songs (ironically or not) and get away with it deserve an amen! (Can I get an Amen brother!).

    As to Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” I have now listened to it about 15 times from start to finish and it is most certainly a grower and it definately does have some very 70’s progressive rock tendencies – although only 1 song is credited by title as being a multi-part song, don’t be fooled, a full four tracks have 2 distinct parts or movements to them (maybe one more, I might be forgetting one). The CD is very good with repeated listens but NOT very commercial as most of the best “radio” hits are the songs that introduce multiple parts, so unless they are going to shorten one and create a radio edit I don’t see any huge hits (but then again its Coldplay and critics and DJ’s love them). My faves at the moment are “Cemeteries of London”, “Lost!” and “Yes”. There are also some definite Sting and Peter Gabriel influences on this CD.

  36. Paul Alferink Says:

    Like “Dreams of the Blue Turtle” and Police Sting, or “Fields of Gold” Sting?

  37. Ignis Sol Says:

    as long as it’s not like “The End of the Innocence” Don Henley or “The Boys of Summer” or…

  38. Ignis Sol Says:

    oh yeah… BWD . AMEN, BROTHER!

  39. Paul Alferink Says:

    How about “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” Don Henley. I just thought of that song and threw up in my mouth a little bit.

  40. ScottMalobisky Says:

    best guitar solo in rock and roll history?
    The Police , Driven To Tears
    wicked and to the point

  41. maclure Says:

    Photograph if anyone hasn’t heard it:

    Accelerate the album rocks! I like Hollow Man as an album track. It’s sort of a “What if we give it away?”” kind of track to me – pleasant enough and I don’t mind it being there, fairly straightforward. I’ll save for my comments for when MP covers this, but I’ll happily Amen BWD’s shout out for Sing for the Submarine…

  42. maclure Says:

    Cherub Rock, Smashing Pumpkins – best guitar solo closely followed by Stone Roses – She Bangs the Drums.

  43. maclure Says:

    Ah, Maclure is twittering away on popsongs again. I’ve been looking for this for ages – I remember when it first showed here in the UK round about the time Automatic was out. It’s kind of corny, and this version has Czech subtitles but, ladies and gentlemen, Hale and Pace parodying REM. Answers on a postcard: can you get all the songs mentioned?

  44. Chris Manson Says:

    This is a fantastic and very useful site. Good work!

  45. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    More like the Police than solo sting on the new Coldplay. They are playing SLC in November and I think I’ll go – now if REM would just come.

  46. ScottMalobisky Says:

    thanx for the Photograph there, Maconudo, the song is better than I anticipated…….your guitar solo logic though , I’m not sure if I follow

  47. jim jos Says:

    hey everyone. After a breakneck pace, Matthew seems to have slowed it down a little bit. Which is nice, gives the songs a little more time to digest and for the rest of us to make bizarre observations.

    Some of mine are

    Watched the DVD of Help by the Beatles…so sixties camp but the songs are stellar (mostly Lennon, not complaining) and it is beautifully restored on DVD. I think the song performances have to be some of the first videos ever made. Also, you can almost see how someone was watching that and thought “I can make quite a bit of cash if I have a TV show like this and make a band called the Monkeys.”
    Made me wonder, what would an R.E.M. movie from the eighties have been like?
    It could take place in Athens, of course, and the band could have all kinds of wild adventures, and then a big concert to save the town at the end. I am thinking corrupt politicians would get their just due and be responsible. Can’t Get There From Here is very Beatles cinema-esque. Maybe Stipe is captured in a kind of Hitchcock move, because he is mistaken for Truman Capote.

    The set-list from Atlanta looks really good, maybe they went to the water tower and it brought back memories so that Time After Time was added. I would love to get me a copy of that show.

    Hello to everyone. Hello. Hello. Hello.

  48. ScottMalobisky Says:

    Hi HI Hi Hi Hi Hi
    Hi Hi Hi Hi Hi Hi Hi

  49. milesy Says:

    I’m really enjoying the occasional ongoing conversation about Accelerate, it’s the first time I’ve experienced the first few weeks of an REM album in the company of a whole host of other REM nuts. I’m with those above who think that Hollow Man is the weakest track, but would defend Submarine. I’m still surprised that Living Well wasn’t the first single, it’s great and a serious rocker: for me it’s right up there with Begin, Kenneth and Worksong as stomping REM opening tracks.

    The one I can’t work out is Man-Sized Wreath: with Mr Cup, I’m doing some cringing; but I can’t help but love ‘kicking out on the dancefloor like you just don’t care!’

  50. Rob Says:

    Mike Mills’ contributions make Man-Sized Wreath for me. Gotta love those basslines and backing vocals. Living Well, Mr Richards and Horse To Water are other firm favourites. As for Sing For The Submarine it’s a definite grower. It may be a little to early to say but I think Accelerate may be amongst my top five REM albums.

  51. ScottMalobisky Says:

    yeah , I think Accelerate is in the top fourteen

  52. ScottMalobisky Says:

    I just picked up a lyric in Man Sized Wreath, “Nature abhors a vacuunm that lives between your ears.”–LOL

    The best lyrics are in Jeff Beck songs. The guitar is pretty good, too.

  53. Rob Says:

    The best lyrics of 2007 are from the whole of the Hold Steady’s Stuck Between Stations. “She was a real good kisser and she wasn’t all that strict of a Christian”…

  54. Ignis Sol Says:

    Speaking of “Photograph,” the book, Hello, by the Seattle photographer is being launched tomorrow at a record store in a West Seattle record store. Peter will be on hand to sign (Bill Rieflen will also be there).

    I am checking the water taxi schedule right….NOW!

    As for the song “Photograph,” I remember it being out with that Born to Choose album. I remember hearing it on a radio station and being pleased, but not compelled to seek it out. I still feel the same way today. It kind of reminds me of last year’s John Lennon cover of “#9 Dream,” which I really like. Now, give me “Future 40’s” with Syd Straw anyday.

  55. Paul Alferink Says:

    I don’t care for #9 Dream

  56. Kirsten Says:

    Ironically, Milesy, that’s the line Mr Cup hates.

  57. Mr Cup Says:

    That’s more a prelude to a cringe. True cringe comes with ‘’ pa-dum, pa-dum, pa-dum, pa-dum.

    D’oh. Now it’s in my head. It’s an earworm !

  58. Andy Says:

    Jim Jos,
    You sort of described the plot to “Wayne’s World.”

  59. jim jos Says:

    party time, excellent.

  60. milesy Says:

    Mr Cup, it’s on your mind, it’s in your mind…

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