I Believe

July 19, 2008

If R.E.M. has a credo, it is most certainly “I Believe.” Though the song has its share of self-deprecating jokes and baffling Michael Stipe-isms, it is essentially a litany of virtues and aphorisms that inform the band’s outlook on politics and life in general. It’s earnest, but it’s also rather playful. One of the best tricks in the song is the way Stipe strings together aphorisms until they collapse into nonsense, which has the curious effect of making the listener reflect on the actual meaning of cliches that normally go in one ear and out the other. Some may take Stipe’s humor and obscure language as a sign of immaturity and a need to cling to inscrutability like a security blanket, but it’s actually essential to the piece, not simply because it keeps the lyrics from getting too Pollyanna-ish and preachy, but in that Stipe values levity and mystery just as much as change, honor, and “time as an abstract.” 

Stipe sings about his adult convictions in the context of his experiences as a little kid. He recalls childhood illnesses, outdoor adventures, and the moral codes encouraged by scouting, and rather obviously wishes to reconnect with his former innocence and curiosity about the world. At its core, “I Believe” is a song that expresses a desire to regain the idealism of childhood, and to cast off the ethical compromises that mark adulthood. The sentiment of “I Believe” is ultimately rather poignant because both the audience and the singer know the truth: Though you can draw on youthful idealism and do great things, you can’t turn back the clock and become naive again. 

A baffling Michael Stipe-ism note: The line “example is the checker to the key” makes very little sense in or out of context, but according to Marcus Gray’s It Crawled From The South, it is a reference to Michael’s car at the time — a checkered cab.

Fall On Me

April 26, 2008

In terms of craft, “Fall On Me” may very well be the finest pop song in the R.E.M. catalog. Like many of the best pop tunes, it lands in that rare sweet spot between complexity and simplicity in which every element of the song flows together so perfectly that the listener is so caught up in the effect of the composition that they may never stop to consider its components.

Hey, you know what? Let’s stop to consider the components.

1. There are several guitars — both acoustic and electric — playing on “Fall On Me,” but the arrangement is so light and airy that even when the song thickens on the chorus, the piece still feels light and airy. The shift in textures from one moment to the next is exceptionally subtle, and the mix is so crisp and clean that it’s hard to imagine there were actually any overdubs at all.

2. Mike Mills absolutely shines on this song. Most obviously, his high harmony vocals provide a crucial counterpoint hook in the chorus, but perhaps more importantly, his bass line lends the composition both a sense of lateral motion and emotional weight.  Whereas Michael Stipe’s vocals and Peter Buck’s guitar arpeggios seem to either ascend or hover over the ground, Mills parts tether the piece to the ground, and give voice to the understated melancholy at the heart of the song.

3. Though the lyrics of “Fall On Me” are somewhat vague for what essentially amounts to a protest song calling attention to our complicity in the deterioration of our natural environment, Michael Stipe’s voice and vocal melody is especially earnest and straight-forward. Arguably, this is the first truly mature performance of his career, and among the first Stipe performances to fully trade out slurred phrasing for a skewed approximation of R&B and gospel melisma.

4. Without Bill Berry, “Fall On Me” would be just another pretty folk-pop song.  Without upsetting the tone of the piece, his performance on the drums is remarkably brisk and assertive, which keeps the song from coming across as either wimpy or ethereal. Basically, the band applied 80s production value — loud, reverbed, hard-hitting drums —  to a 60s-style harmony-driven pop tune, and the result is something that feels rather timeless. If Mills’ parts connect the song to the ground, Berry’s parts (including his low vocal harmonies) are the earth itself — heavy, steady, and firm.

Begin The Begin

February 1, 2008

The first time I saw R.E.M. perform “Begin The Begin” was the last time I saw them in concert, which was kind of a long time ago: It was the night after George W Bush won a second term as the President of the United States back in 2004. The band opened the show with “It’s The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” which was very unexpected and droll way of dealing with the crushing disappointment, but as soon as they ended, the launched into “Begin The Begin,” and the context underscored everything great about the tune.

Most obviously, “Begin The Begin” rocks with great force and urgency. Within a couple seconds of the intro, the entire band sounds focused and driven, as if on a life or death mission. It’s not the heaviest or fastest song they’ve ever written, but it’s certainly one of the most aggressive. On one hand, it seems designed to shake the listener out of their apathy, and on the other, it’s meant to inspire and motivate. “Begin The Begin” isn’t a passive sort of protest song, it’s not just some bitter commentary on the poor state of the world; it’s a call to arms. By the second minute of the song, the thesis of Lifes Rich Pageant as a whole is laid bare: You don’t like the way things are? You hate the way our institutions have become corrupted? Well, let’s begin again.

Much to his credit, Michael Stipe doesn’t ever pretend that a new beginning  is something that could come easy. He’s not spouting revolutionary language for the sake of it, but instead acknowledging that real, lasting change is something that takes time, work, and often a great deal of failure.  “Begin The Begin” isn’t about the short term; it’s not an exhortation to riot. It’s asking the listener to become an active participant in their society — if there’s any hope of standing up to the powers that be, you have to engage, create, and build. You need to have a voice, and more than that, a voice that can and will be heard. After all, “silence means security, silences means approval.”

These Days

November 18, 2007

Lifes Rich Pageant marks the beginning of R.E.M.’s blatantly political period. Admirably, R.E.M. didn’t leap into the deep end of facile sloganeering, but instead crafted lyrics that mixed social/political critiques with an expression of optimistic idealism and self-aware humility. “These Days” in particular comes off like a rock n’ roll stump speech, with Michael Stipe semi-coherently hitting all of his talking points and selling us on his vision without letting us know exactly what that might entail. Applying the aesthetics of a political speech to a rock song is a brilliant move, especially when you consider that there’s quite a lot in common between hitting the campaign trail and touring in support of an album. The most important effect of “These Days” is that without saying all that much, it makes the listener believe that the band is extremely passionate about something, and that mysterious something involves imagining a better future. Throughout the song, the emphasis is placed on inclusiveness, to the point of mocking its own starry-eyed sincerity when Michael claims “we have many things in common, name three,” and the rest of the band sing “three, three, three!” in reply. The humor is absolutely necessary — without an acknowledgment of its irony, the song would actually seem a bit disingenuous.

Superman

October 31, 2007

“Superman” doesn’t quite qualify as a bonus track, but it’s not exactly the proper conclusion of Lifes Rich Pageant. Coming on after a brief period of silence after the somber “Swan Swan H,” the cheery tune serves as an encore of sorts for the record. Though R.E.M. made a habit of significantly altering the tone of many of the songs they covered in the ’80s, “Superman” is rather faithful to the original studio recording by the Clique. This is most likely due to the incredible obscurity of the source material, but also probably because there’s really not a lot to fix. The song is perfectly formed, and any shift in tone would disrupt the irony of a perky song about a creepy guy who wishes that he had the powers of Superman so that he could more effectively stalk a girl. Though Michael Stipe appears on the track, Mike Mills’ voice dominates the recording, and he sells both the meekness and the sinister edge of the song’s character without tipping too far in either direction.

Underneath The Bunker

September 11, 2007

“Underneath The Bunker” sounds like ethnic music, but it’s so jumbled and odd that it’s hard to place it properly — it’s a bit Latin, a bit Greek, a bit gah, who knows. It seems like a moment of weirdness and levity in the middle of Lifes Rich Pageant, but given its lyrics implication of war and/or nuclear devastation, it actually may be the bleakest cut on the record. Michael Stipe doesn’t even turn up til near the end of the song, and even then, he’s virtually unrecognizable what with the severe distortion and his odd, put-on accent. Its inclusion on the album is totally counter-intuitive, but somehow it works perfectly as a bridge between “Hyena” and “The Flowers of Guatemala.” I can’t imagine what possessed the band to push for the song’s inclusion, but it worked out fairly well.

There isn’t much in the lyrics of “The Flowers Of Guatemala” to indicate that Michael Stipe is singing about the disappearance of dissidents in Guatemala, or that the flowers in question are covering mass graves. I would never have known that this was the subject of the song if I hadn’t read quotes from Stipe and Peter Buck explaining its context.

Here’s an example from Marcus Gray’s It Crawled From The South:

“Forty people a week disappear in Guatemala,” said Peter, following the album’s release. “Why? Where do they go? Why do we support that?” Of the song itself, he said, “It doesn’t mention political oppression or the death squads, but I think it gets across.”

Hmm. I don’t know. I’m pretty sure that I read about this right around the time I bought Lifes Rich Pageant, so I have no way of knowing what I’d get out of it, though Michael sounds rather troubled when he sings “there’s something here I find hard to ignore.”

Musically, “The Flowers Of Guatemala” is a key song in the band’s catalog, at least in the sense that its combination of gentle, sentimental arpeggiation and ambient distortion make it an ancestor of “Everybody Hurts” and “Strange Currencies.” It’s a gorgeous, graceful tune full of little details that give it a strange, spectral glow — the feedback hum is understated and mournful, the metallic percussive accents add a certain sparkle to the piece, and Mike Mills’ backing vocals seem pass through the chords like a pained apparition.