You Are The Everything

June 24, 2008

“You Are The Everything” is a rarity in the R.E.M. catalog, at least in the sense that it’s one of very few songs Michael Stipe has written that expresses a deep fear of the future. At the start of each verse, the singer nakedly declares his anxiety, and pointedly, it applies to both himself and the world around him. Rather than to elaborate on this dread, he copes by “eviscerating” his memory and revisits a moment of beauty and tranquility from his past. Stipe’s flashback in the first (and third, it repeats) verse ranks among his finest achievements as a lyricist; he sets the scene with language so precise and evocative that I would not blame anyone if they had ever confused it with one of their own childhood memories.

“You Are The Everything” is a clear turning point in the R.E.M. songbook, both musically and lyrically. Most obviously, the arrangement anticipates the emphasis on acoustic instrumentation that would come to define both Out Of Time and Automatic For The People. Lyrically, the song falls in the context of the overtly political writing on Lifes Rich Pageant, Document, and Green while deliberately diminishing the Big Picture in favor of a smaller, more personal narrative. It’s a love song, but not in the traditional romantic sense. It’s the sort of love you feel for your parents and your family, or your best friends, or maybe in your best moments, humanity at large. “You Are The Everything” is  the heart and soul of Green; the song that gets to the core of why a person may feel compelled to try to make the world around them a better place.

Orange Crush

June 6, 2008

Though “Orange Crush” owes a significant stylistic debt to Gang of Four, a band R.E.M. have name-checked throughout their career, the song is actually more like R.E.M.’s equivalent to U2’s “Bullet The Blue Sky.” U2’s song predates R.E.M.’s by about a year — by the time The Joshua Tree was in stores, an early draft of “Orange Crush” became a setlist staple on the tour for Document. There are some major differences between the two, but the songs have extremely similar utilities in the context of each band’s live repertoire. Essentially, both songs evoke the sound of “war,” mainly by abstracting martial rhythms and nervous, trebly guitar parts into something that somehow has the same effect in an arena as a thundering metal riff. For each band, the arrival of the song in their set signals two things to the audience:

1) Now It Is Time For Us To Rock Hard, In A Very Serious Way

2) War Is Very Bad; Please Think About That While We Rock

U2 have embraced the abstracted, amorphous quality of “Bullet The Blue Sky,” and have done their best to reinvent the song for each new tour. This is a good idea in pragmatic terms, but in practice, it’s gutted the song, and in some cases, canceled out its original sentiment. Chris Conroy explains:

“Bullet The Blue Sky” suffers from pretty much the exact same identity crisis. It’s been played on every tour since it was written, largely because the band don’t have any other songs in their catalogue that will allow them to show off bruising hard-rock chops. It, too, is a profoundly anti-violent song — it was written in disgust at how the American military was used to subjugate dissent in Central America — but every time it gets trotted out, Bono desperately tries to make it new and relevant by pointing it at some other conflict. On the Elevation tour, he came the closest he’s come to successfully making it matter again, turning it into a sharp attack on gun violence with a hammy-but-haunting riff on the murder of John Lennon by Mark Chapman. Seeing that song shoved down America’s throat when it was played on the first leg of Elevation was remarkable: here was a band that actually did have the balls to say something that large segments of the audience might not like; here was a band who wrote songs that represented their ideals, and performed them with conviction. But after September 11th, the band dropped that level of interpretation from the song, and hearing it played in New York City became a disturbing experience: inside the arena, it felt like the audience was taking the song up as a battle cry, as a “we want revenge” violence fantasy, losing themselves in the brutality of the music and not in its lyrics of condemnation for the exercise of force.

On the Vertigo tour, “Bullet The Blue Sky” has become spectacularly muddled. It’s obviously impossible to sing a song about the American military abroad in this climate without having that song be about the Iraq war, and Bono knows it; he’s been incorporating “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” into the lyric, and suddenly the song becomes bizarrely, schizophrenically, pro-soldier — at last night’s show, Bono quite literally dedicated the song to “the brave men and women of the United States Military.” How are we supposed to take that? Obviously conflicts like the Iraq war can produce a difficult line to straddle — it’s virtually impossible to respect what the soldiers are being required to do, but it’s impossible not to respect the impulse to serve one’s country in the name of idealism. A song about hating the sin but loving the sinner could definitely be a rich gold mine for the band to explore, but “Bullet The Blue Sky” is not that song.

Much to their credit, R.E.M. have never lost sight of what “Orange Crush” is about, and despite being performed on every one of their tours since 1987, it’s certainly not played often enough to become the tired ritual that “Bullet” has become for U2 fans. Lyrically, “Orange Crush” is in a peculiar zone in which the words are a bit too vague to draw out a particular narrative, but specific enough that it’s impossible to remove the song from its context — the American army, and the Viet Nam war. That said, its central theme is easy enough to suss out: In American society, young men are taken out of their ordinary lives and sent overseas, often to perform horrific duties in the name of freedom.

There is certainly some implied question of whether this is a Good Thing, but that’s not necessarily the focus. Instead, Michael Stipe seems far more concerned with what happens to individual soldiers, and how they may deal with being thrown into these intense, life or death scenarios, and how they may cope with being complicit in acts of large scale violence. The chorus of the song is atypical but highly effective; its odd contrast of anguished moans, howls, and incomprehensible distorted words places the listener in the mindset of a soldier thrown headlong into chaos.

Stipe’s empathetic approach no doubt comes from the fact that his father served as a helicopter pilot in Viet Nam. The band have insisted for years that the song is not about Michael’s father, and I’m inclined to agree, at least not in the sense that the lyrics are meant to express anything specific about that man’s experience. The important thing is that Stipe’s connection to his father informs his concept of war, and goes a long way towards humanizing a song that would not have to be anything more than vague signifiers and empty platitudes in order to connect with a large audience.

I Remember California

January 20, 2008

I fully intended to visit California before I wrote about this song and one other, but that just won’t be happening in the time I’ve given myself to finish this project. It’s not a big problem though, mainly because in a way, I don’t actually need to go to California to have memories of the place. Much like the version of California that exists in my mind, the place described in “I Remember California” is a collection of visual and cultural fragments — some distinct, some generic — that fall together naturally, but never seem to connect.  It’s all images and concepts taken from books and photographs and films, a vast landmass flattened and abstracted into a rainbow-colored Rorschach inkblot mess.

Michael Stipe’s California is gorgeous and ominous, an epic coastline that marks the westernmost boundary of the United States and the fulfillment of Manifest Destiny. There’s a suggestion in the song that the state’s culture is inextricably linked to its frontier roots — the land may be conquered, claimed, and developed into oblivion, but the spirit of the pioneer exists in every person attempting to reinvent themselves, or their culture. There’s another more disturbing subtext to the piece: Once the United States ran out of viable land to conquer and annex on our continent, the country was unable to contain its collective urge for expansion and took a greater interest in exerting its influence abroad.

“I Remember California” is a stadium-sized dirge, a mournful lament writ large on huge, rumbling drums that mimic the ocean tides described in the lyrics of the chorus. It feels huge, but the arrangement is quite nuanced, with evocative turns from every player and instrumental element. As the song moves toward its conclusion, Peter Buck’s grim lead guitar motif gives way to a resigned, dead-eyed march through desert sand, clouds of smog, and wildfire flames into the ocean, and the end credits of history.

Turn You Inside-Out

December 23, 2007

A three-way collision of trebly post-punk guitar, thundering arena rock drums, and melismatic gospel, “Turn You Inside-Out” ranks among R.E.M.’s weirder hit singles. In lesser hands, the song may have come across as disjointed and gawky, but the band managed to put the piece together well enough that the final result does not call much attention to its unlikely, somewhat asymmetrical combination of genre signifiers. It’s a huge, bombastic song, but it’s actually quite subtle in the way it plays upon audience expectations, and implies this passionate stadium anthem without following the traditional form of such a thing. Map it out — there’s only one verse, but there’s two different choruses and a bridge. The song is in a huge hurry to push the listener to ecstatic heights, and it’s not at all an accident — it’s a manipulative song about a manipulative character.

“Turn You Inside-Out” is a song about the power a performer has over their audience. The type of performance is left purposefully vague — we’re meant to read between the lines and equate the skill set of an actor or musician with that of a charismatic politician. It’s essentially the same theme as Living Colour’s “Cult Of Personality” (which came out only five months prior to the release of Green in 1988), but R.E.M.’s take on the subject is more nuanced, and considerably less literal and ham-fisted. The big difference is that Michael Stipe is not at all strident in this song, and though the lyrics certainly work as an auto-critique, it’s not exactly an exercise in self-flagellation. If anything, it’s a work of art that makes us understand what it feels like to wield power over an audience of any kind. It’s an intoxicating rush, it’s terrifying, it’s occasionally morally dubious. There’s no clear value judgment in “Turn You Inside-Out,” no assumption that having this sort of power automatically makes a person corrupt. It’s more about asking the audience to be aware of this type of power dynamic, and to recognize its patterns and pitfalls.

Pop Song 89

October 20, 2007

“Pop Song 89” may be R.E.M.’s most peppy and light-hearted song about “conversation fear,” but its straight-forward, understated lyrics absolutely nail the dull aggravation and quiet anxiety that even the most well-adjusted people can feel when to having to make small talk with people they barely know. The song is essentially a playful inversion of the aggressive extroversion displayed in the Doors’ “Hello, I Love You,” with Michael Stipe playing the passive role and doing his best to stay polite while also mildly resenting the silly social game he’s being forced to play.

The lyrics are broad enough to apply to virtually everyone, but lines like “I think I thought you were someone else” take on a slightly different meaning in the context of Stipe’s celebrity. We all have to deal with awkward moments in which people know us but we cannot remember them, but for anyone in a position of celebrity, it happens more often and the social pressure of the situation is exacerbated by their fame. The chances of hurting someone’s feelings are far greater because you’re running the risk of people reaching a bitter and somewhat unreasonable conclusion along the lines of “oh, he’s an asshole big shot rock star, he didn’t remember me from that one day from fifteen years ago.” If you’re trying to maintain a self-image based upon the notion that you’re just a normal guy, it can be extremely nerve-wracking. Thankfully, “Pop Song 89” does not sulk or pout about the nuisance of engaging in fluffy banter, but rather attempts to dismiss it all with a good-natured shrug and  a few cheery power-pop hooks.

Hairshirt

September 28, 2007

When Peter Buck strums his mandolin in “Hairshirt,” every note is so bright that the track seems as though it is being bathed in pure white light. The instrument thoroughly dominates the song — there is no percussion, and a subtle bass line and organ drone blend in so well that they are only noticeable upon close listening. Buck’s part is gorgeous and open-ended, and floats along with a gentle, mellow grace that isn’t quite like anything else that I’ve ever heard aside from perhaps “You Are The Everything,” which obviously came from the same recording sessions.

Michael Stipe’s vocal part benefits greatly from having been improvised in the studio. For one thing, it complements the loose, relaxed tone of the piece, which in turn provides a nice touch of contrast on the record as it falls between two of the most tightly composed tracks in the band’s discography. The approach also adds to the sense of intimacy in the recording, and the chorus-free structure allows Stipe plenty of space to emote. It’s one of his most soulful performances, and not just in terms of affectation. He seems genuinely overwhelmed by his feelings throughout the song, and when he likens entering a crowded room to being dropped into the middle of the ocean, it comes across like a genuinely heartfelt confession rather than just another set of lyrics.

World Leader Pretend

August 6, 2007

“World Leader Pretend” is the first song in the R.E.M. catalog to be released with its lyrics printed in the liner notes. This would not be tremendously interesting and significant if the band had not cultivated at least some of its initial popularity based on the combination of Michael Stipe’s somewhat inscrutable lyrics and his occasionally impenetrable diction, or if the band didn’t come off like the sort of people who were withholding printed lyrics in the packaging as some kind of point about their art. Also, it wouldn’t be such a big deal if it was not the only song from the album to have its lyrics printed, thus giving the impression that we’re supposed to think that the words are especially important, i.e., these are lyrics that the band want you to notice and think about a bit more than, say, “Get Up” or “Stand.” Michael has said that the lyrics were printed mainly because he felt that the song was the key track on the album, and it kinda is, at least in the sense that it is the selection that most fully integrates the personal and political themes of the set.

“World Leader Pretend” is essentially about a troubled, delusional loner who has cut himself off from the world, but ironically, he interprets his internal monologue in the terms of political policy. He’s essentially a man poisoned by his acute self-awareness — he notes every minute change in his mind, depersonalizes his emotions, and attempts to reduce complex feelings into simple, rational causes and effects. The implication seems to be that though the personal may indeed be political, it’s a folly to turn our personalities into politics.

The band’s arrangement for “World Leader Pretend” is rather stark and solemn. The jangling rhythm guitar and brisk beat are vintage R.E.M., but the transitions between sections involving cello, piano, and pedal steel guitar are elegant and understated, mainly because the parts do not repeat or overlap. The composition carries us through gradual emotional shifts, but the singer’s epiphanies are presented as isolated moments in time. The backing vocals by Mike Mills are equally clever, and geared towards underlining and expanding concepts from the lyrics, most especially in the way the words “sympathize” and “empathize” overlap in such a way that complicates and confuses the sentiment, and nearly makes the line sound like “it’s amazing what devices you can synthesize,” which seems somewhat intentional in the context of a song about a man who invents his own reality.