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.