June 21, 2007

The eleventh untitled track on Green is one of R.E.M.’s finest moments; a song in which half of the group wobbles slightly in unfamiliar roles, while the other plays to their greatest strengths. Peter Buck and Bill Berry’s instrument swap is key — Buck’s beat holds steady but seems hesitant and unsure, neatly echoing the sentiment of the piece while Berry’s hopeful guitar part lingers in the background of the mix. Their rhythm holds the song together, but the focus is placed squarely on the vocals. Michael Stipe’s lead performance ranks among his most emotive and soulful, while Mike Mills follows behind him with a sweet, simple harmony.

It’s essentially a song about missing someone while on tour, but the words are so careful and specific that it’s far more effective than the vast majority of tunes with similar themes. The lyrics are fixated on taking comfort in the sound of another person’s voice, whether it’s Michael making long distance calls to the people he loves (and making a list of things to say because he hasn’t much time on the line), the audience staying up late to hear him sing, or his loved ones finding strength in a song written for them. The music overflows with humility, generosity, and a genuine affection that applies to every kind of love. The world may seem “big and so awake,” but the love expressed in this song is far greater.



May 22, 2007

Though “The One I Love” was most likely the very first R.E.M. song that I ever heard, “Stand” was the first time I ever listened to the band with an awareness of who they were. Around the time I was eight or nine, I went through a phase of being realllllllly into radio countdown shows, most especially American Top 40 with Casey Kasem. I distinctly remember sitting on the fuzzy green stairs just outside my bedroom one Sunday morning and listening to Kasem cheerfully introduce the band and the single, which was only a modest hit at the time, maybe somewhere in the mid-30s. I liked it well enough, but I don’t think it left that much of an impression on me — I didn’t buy a copy of Green until at least two years later, though it was my first R.E.M. record. I’m not sure how long it was before I figured out that “The One I Love” was also by R.E.M., or what the third song I heard was, though I also have a very strong memory of seeing the video for “Pop Song 89,” and I’m fairly certain that was what inspired me to buy the tape. That was also around the same time that “Stand” was the theme song for Chris Elliott‘s short-lived sitcom Get A Life, which seemed like a big deal to me though I don’t think I had any idea how weird the show was, or that it was actually a terribly unpopular program.

“Stand” is a rather cheery and innocent bubblegum pop song, and so it tends to get overlooked or downplayed by fans and the band themselves, which is a shame given that it’s a fantastic, well-constructed tune that happens to boast the most charming key change in the entire R.E.M. discography. Michael Stipe’s lyrics for the song make for a very stark contrast with the dark, cynical tone of Document — as on “Get Up,” his words are direct, endearingly optimistic, and eager to inspire the listener to action. Throughout the song, Stipe pushes the listener to acknowledge their place in their environment, and question why they do not spend more of their mental energy noting their connection to their surroundings . It’s one part Be Here Now, and two parts Think Global, Act Local. It’s certainly one of the most hippie-ish songs the band have ever produced, but it’s remarkably devoid of the sort of unintentional toxic smugness  that usually goes along with that territory. “Stand” isn’t preachy or judgmental — Stipe only attempts to highlight the absurdity of ignoring one’s place in their community, or their responsibility to the place where they live.

Get Up

April 27, 2007

A lot of songs that implore the listener to “do something” with their lives can seem awfully smug and self-satisfied, but R.E.M.’s “Get Up” side-steps that trap by making it clear from the start that the singer is addressing himself as much as the audience. The lyrics are intentionally vague about what Michael Stipe wants us all to do, but the basic point is abundantly clear: No matter who we are or what we do, we need to resist the empty comforts of apathy and become active members of society. The song is meant to apply to everyone, whether they are a teenager who needs some kind of permission to pursue a life in the arts or sciences, an office worker who needs the extra push to get involved with local politics, or a member of a pop band who needs to do more than just indulge in hedonism.

As noted by Marcus Gray in his book It Crawled From The South, “Get Up” is essentially a “lullaby in reverse.” The song hops in place like an impatient and excited little kid, and its peppy bubblegum hooks place it among the most joyous and immediately ingratiating songs in the band’s repertoire. It also boasts a rather clever arrangement full of interesting details that aren’t exactly subtle, but fit together without distracting the listener from the tune. The chorus features one of the best examples of the band’s contrary approach to writing lyrics for background vocals — as Michael sings “dreams they complicate my life,” Bill Berry counters him with “dreams they complement my life.” It’s not really an argument, though. Even if the song is an exhortation to action, it acknowledges that our dreams supply us with an essential motivation as long as we don’t get lost within them.

The Wrong Child

March 30, 2007

There’s a good chance that “The Wrong Child” would be nothing more than a tear-jerker about a troubled little kid if it didn’t have its skewed, vertiginous arrangement. In its way, it seems like an attempt to approximate the aesthetic of Cubism in the format of a pop song, presenting its emotional content from multiple perspectives simultaneously in order to provide a greater context. Michael Stipe sings two contrasting leads on the verses — the foregrounded part is highly earnest and expressive, and the secondary vocal is dispassionate and monotone, lagging behind enough so that they barely overlap. Much of the band’s approach to background vocals involves the secondary lyrics implying a dialogue by commenting on or challenging the lead, but “The Wrong Child” makes a point of remaining self-contained in order to emphasize the character’s sense of isolation. The arrangement is filled out with a slow drone of acoustic guitar, a mesmerizing high pitched lead figure played on a mandolin, and a strangely reassuring piano part on the bridge that marks the most obvious dynamic shift in a piece that purposefully obscures its own structure. The only moment of clarity in the otherwise disorienting song comes on the chorus (“I will try to sing a happy song…”) which sounds hopeful and optimistic in the most emotionally gutting way possible.