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.

Everybody Hurts

March 26, 2008

One of Michael Stipe’s greatest strengths as a singer and lyricist — and presumably, also as a human being in general — is his seemingly effortless ability to convey genuine empathy. This is why so many of his “advice” songs work as well as they do, and why his corniest sentiments are often the most affecting. There’s just something there in his voice that indicates a sincere desire to see people do well, and a root of optimism that anchors even his most dark and cynical moments. As he moves on through his career, he brings up the future with greater frequency in his lyrics, and it makes perfect sense — much of the R.E.M. catalog is concerned with moving onward into the future, and finding ways to improve upon the flaws of the present in that future.

“Everybody Hurts” is an essential R.E.M. song, primarily because on a very basic level, it is about convincing another person that should want to be a part of this future. Out of everything they have ever recorded, it may be the most direct in its mission. Really, it kinda has to be — there is absolutely no use for ambiguity if the object of your song is to console the depressed and talk them out of suicide.

“Everybody Hurts” is a public service, and its arrangement is precisely calibrated to appeal to a person in a state of melancholy, and subtly, gently lift them up into a feeling of hope. There are no empty promises, and no expectations of easy salvation in the song, but there is kindness, generosity, friendship, and the encouragement that pain and suffering are not everlasting things, and that we often have the power to flip those negative experiences into something beautiful and constructive.

If you don’t need to hear any of this, you might find Stipe’s sentiment to be obvious, saccharine, and maybe even a little embarrassing. Good for you, but the reality is, the best, most important advice we ever get is the most simple and straight-forward. When we’re lost, lonely, and hopeless, we need the honest, obvious truth: Everybody hurts sometimes, so hold on. You are not alone.

A Birthday Note: This post marks the first anniversary of this blog’s first entry, and also the 20th birthday of my little brother Andrew. This song is for him.

Monty Got A Raw Deal

March 16, 2008

A brief list of reasons why Michael Stipe would want to write a song in tribute to Montgomery Clift:

1) Identification with his sexuality. Clift had affairs with both men and women, and though he was closeted, his homosexuality was not entirely unknown to the world.

2) Identification with his celebrity; specifically the way Clift’s desire for both privacy and commercial success forced him to live something akin to a double-life.

3) Fascination with Clift’s tragedy. After an accident scarred his beautiful face and left him impotent, Clift fell into the depths of depression and addiction. His story is a reminder that great success and beauty can be ruined very easily.

4) Montgomery Clift was very handsome. I suspect that much of Stipe’s interest in Clift is based on finding him attractive and intriguing. The song is like a love letter to a ghost.

The lyrics look to the past, but I believe that Stipe is mainly interested in divining his own future. The song conveys a powerful dread and paranoia, to the point that the singer sounds as though he cannot imagine life moving on without a taste of tragedy and defeat. This is in part due to the the bleak, solemn tone of the music, but it’s also in the passivity of Stipe’s language — he comes across like a man resigned to his fate, and can only hope to find his dignity in stoicism.

Man On The Moon

December 8, 2007

Somehow, “Man on the Moon” seems entirely inexplicable. It’s so hard to imagine someone writing it, it just feels like something that one day came in to being, as though R.E.M.  tapped into something far beyond themselves.  It’s just a song — a relatively simple, straightforward song — and yet there’s this odd, ineffable feeling in the space between its chords, roughly akin to the sensation of stepping into a grand cathedral. It is mostly gentle and mid-tempo, but there’s a joyous bounce to its beat, as though every time it kicks up into the chorus, it’s a step closer to the heavens, and understanding unknowable things.

There’s a holy buzz in every moment of the tune, and it’s no mistake — “Man on the Moon” is a secular song about faith and belief that mostly swaps out religious imagery for pop cultural detritus. The lyrics are grounded in the trivia and junk of modern life, which helps to provide a context for the singer’s cynicism, but also his sense of wonder. He finds some minor magic in kitsch, and crucially, he understands that his life is just as ephemeral as any passing fad. He acknowledges that everything he knows is ultimately insignificant, but he also understands that it’s not all meaningless, and that we need to believe in something — anything! — to invest our lives with creativity and meaning. There’s obviously a conflict in there, but that’s not really the focus of the song. Instead, it’s a celebration of belief in the face of absurdity, and embracing faith even when you think you know better.

To best appreciate “New Orleans Instrumental No. 1,” all you have to do is make a playlist on your mp3 player that omits the song from Automatic For The People‘s running order, and then note just how abrupt the beginning of “Sweetness Follows” feels coming after “Everybody Hurts.” The two songs aren’t exactly jarring side by side — if anything, they are far too similar in tone — but there’s a feeling that we need some relatively quiet time between the two to collect our thoughts, or prepare ourselves for the grief of “Sweetness Follows.” The instrumental perfectly evokes the moment of shock and hollow disbelief that immediately accompanies loss, and serves as a fine prelude to the mourning in the subsequent song.


September 17, 2007

It’s kind of a strange thing for a band of men in their early 30s to release a rock and roll album that begins with a song that highlights the generation gap between its author and his audience, but it also makes a lot of sense. Even though I am currently four years younger than Michael Stipe at the time Automatic For The People was written and recorded, I’m starting to get that “oh man, I’m old” feeling all the time, especially when I think of all the teenagers and college kids for whom the internet has always been a presence in their life. But really, despite a few self-aware “get off my lawn!” moments, the song is not about feeling old so much as noticing that your own youth is over, and that you no longer have any real connection to the “kids.”

Stipe makes deliberate, ironic references to “youth”-oriented songs of bygone eras — “Rock Around The Clock” by Bill Haley and “Rock On” by David Essex — and the effect is both dismissive and self-effacing, underscoring a bitterness and discontent that lacks a proper target. Do you hate the young people for being young, or because they are not you, or because they don’t appreciate what you have to offer them? The song poses a very serious question: Are you obsolete and irrelevant, or are you just being told that you are by people who don’t have a clue, or are seeking to marginalize anyone old enough to know better than insecure, immature teenagers, but not quite old enough to be the establishment?

The tone of “Drive” is as gray and bleak as its video, a stark black and white clip of Michael Stipe awkwardly crowd-surfing over a bunch of “kids” in eerie slow motion. The song feels cold and still, and even its most dramatic moments come across like a stiff, cold wind blowing dead leaves along the frozen ground.

A milestone note: This is song #100.


August 27, 2007

The piano part for “Nightswimming” is one of Mike Mills’ greatest achievements as a songwriter. It is a piece of music that seems so natural and pure that it’s hard to imagine that there was actually a time when the song did not exist. It’s actually a little bit surprising that it was “finished” with vocals and a string arrangement — surely it would be an extremely successful work as a solo piano piece.

It almost seems like an understatement to say that “Nightswimming” is an extraordinarily sentimental song. It’s not exactly a tear-jerker, but it certainly tugs on the heartstrings in a way that doesn’t seem overly sappy and manipulative, which is of course no small feat.  Michael Stipe’s lyrics sets a scene rich with concrete details, but its emotional potency comes from  the immense value it places on beautiful, though seemingly inconsequential moments of true love and friendship. It’s also a lovely lament for the final days of summer, and the bittersweet awareness that certain freedoms and enjoyable status quos are about to disappear as the weather slowly segues into the autumn.


July 4, 2007

I know that this is vitriol. No solution, spleen-venting, but I feel better having screamed. Don’t you?”

Michael Stipe provides the most basic summary of “Ignoreland” right there in its third verse. I remember this song seeming a bit obscure when I was a young teenager, but now that I’m a bit older and have a better frame of reference, Michael’s lyrics about the media and American politics circa 1992 are extremely bold, straight-forward in their rhetoric, and heartbreakingly prescient. There’s really nothing to be confused about, though he does run through a lot of the lyrics very quickly in the speedy build-up to the chorus.

“Ignoreland” is a bitter protest song that has been blown up into a massive multi-tracked juggernaut, but the irony is that despite being the song on Automatic For The People most obviously suited to the needs of a large scale concert, it has never been performed live. There’s two likely reasons for this. First, the album arrangement is a thick soup of overdubs, and though a streamlined version may have its charm, it would most likely sacrifice its illusion of density. Secondly, I suppose there may be some concern that the lyrics are a bit dated, but um, that argument doesn’t actually make good sense to me since its words only seem more relevant in the era of Fox News. It seems like a waste for them to not give this song a shot in concert — I can imagine a fairly straight adaptation of the album arrangement working out very well as one of the first three songs in a set, or a folky version sitting comfortably in the middle third of a show.

Try Not To Breathe

May 24, 2007

I can never hear “Try Not To Breathe” without remembering one of my friends from high school explain to me that he wasn’t allowed to have his tape of Automatic For The People during his stay in a mental institution because the doctors believed the song would encourage thoughts of suicide. I’m not even sure if they actually listened to it — they may have just been going on the title — but even if they had, they probably had a good point. The lyrics are very morbid, and its character welcomes death with a clarity of mind that is simultaneously comforting and startling. If there was ever a song that could serve to rationalize suicidal thoughts, it’s “Try Not To Breathe.” It’s enough to make me wonder if Michael Stipe felt compelled to write “Everybody Hurts” if just to provide a crucial counterpoint to this track.

There are two versions of “Try Not To Breathe.” The album recording is mostly acoustic and feels rather airy in spite of a fairly complicated arrangement that allows for several subtle textural shifts. The band reworked the song significantly for the Monster tour, transforming it into a towering stadium rock number mainly by streamlining its arrangement and transposing its central, winding instrumental hook into a seemingly gigantic distorted guitar riff. That version certainly had its merits, but the lyrics make much more sense with the more peaceful accompaniment of the studio recording.

John Paul Jones‘ string arrangement for “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” may be surplus to the needs of a tune already bursting with peppy hooks, but his additional melodies do absolutely nothing to spoil the composition. It’s a big decadent ice cream sundae of a pop song, and Jones’ elegant score is essentially the cherry on top. His arrangement is not lacking in boldness, but the most brilliant bit — the gently plucked pizzicato part that accompanies the final verse — is so subtle that I did not notice it was even there until after I’d known the song for over a decade.

“The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” is a much-needed oasis of joy and levity on an otherwise dour album. Michael Stipe’s voice is especially ideal for the song, to the point that it’s impossible to imagine anyone else singing it with anywhere near as much boyish enthusiasm and silly charm. His giggle following the line “a reading from Dr. Suess” easily ranks among the most endearing moments on any R.E.M. record, and his quasi-brogue on the chorus has a weird, mystifying allure even if it makes the words sound a lot more like “call me da chowder baker” than “call me when you try to wake her.” It’s a great thing for the song — the easily misheard lyric is just one more novel hook for a pop tune that’s doing everything it can to earn your love without seeming particularly needy.

Sweetness Follows

April 6, 2007

Automatic For The People is commonly labeled as R.E.M.’s “album about death,” but it’s more accurate to say that it is a set of songs primarily concerned with being alive with the awareness of mortality. The tragedy of “Sweetness Follows” isn’t the death of its characters’ parents but rather the way petty grudges and self-absorption have either damaged or completely severed the connections of the surviving family members. The singer laments this condition and clearly wants to make things right, but he also seems resigned to the stubborn will of his siblings.

The lyrical drama plays itself out in the instrumental arrangement. The stiff rhythm of the acoustic guitar seems cold, stoic, and removed from the other elements of the piece — “distanced from one, deaf to the other,” in other words. Meanwhile, a somber cello moan, a funereal organ drone, and distant electric guitar feedback stand in for different stages of the Kübler-Ross model of grief.

The guitar feedback is the most emotive element in the song. The part threatens to break out into a solo during the bridge, but it chokes on its own emotion like a person fighting to hold back their tears. Peter Buck’s performance is subtle but exceptionally moving, and lends a gentle complexity to a song that might be nothing more than a cloying tear-jerker in less capable hands.

Star Me Kitten

March 28, 2007

“Star Me Kitten” is a deliberately misleading song with an arrangement that suggests gentle romance, and a title that implies sweetness and affection. Michael Stipe sings in his low register, and his words recede into the background except for a few fragments that support the notion that we’re listening to a straight-forward romantic love song. I’m not sure how long it was before I ever realized that it wasn’t — I must have known the tune for at least two or three years before I ever saw the lyrics in print with the sheet music.

“Star Me Kitten” is sung from the perspective of one half of a failed long-term relationship. The lyrics are generally dry and unsentimental, and focused on the material detritus of their broken affair — keys, cars, rings. There’s a moment of nostalgia (“you, me, we used to be on fire”), but not a single note of regret as they negotiate the terms of their separation. Even at the end, when Stipe seems to invite some half-hearted farewell sex, he is cold and aloof, and his use of the affectionate nickname “kitten” takes on a tone of cruel irony and condescension.