Electrolite

June 11, 2008

The problem with writing about “Electrolite” is that Michael Stipe already did it, and he summed up the concept of the lyrics with such remarkable clarity and grace that I would find it very difficult to discuss the song without deferring to his explanation, or straight-up plagiarizing him. Back in 2006, he was asked to write about the song for an article in the Los Angeles Times about Mulholland Drive, which is the setting for the lyrics.

This is what he wrote:

Mulholland represents to me the iconic ‘from on high’ vantage point looking down at L.A. and the valley at night when the lights are all sparkling and the city looks, like it does from a plane, like a blanket of fine lights all shimmering and solid. I really wanted to write a farewell song to the 20th century.

20th century go to sleep.
Really deep.
We won’t blink.
And nowhere seemed more perfect than the city that came into its own throughout the 20th century, but always looking forward and driven by ideas of a greater future, at whatever cost.
Los Angeles.
I name check three of the great legends of that single industry ‘town,’ as it likes to refer to itself. In order: James Dean, Steve McQueen, Martin Sheen. All iconic, all representing different aspects of masculinity—a key feature of 20th century ideology. It is the push me-pull you of a culture drawing on mid-century ideas of society, butt up against and in a great tug-of-war with modernism/rebirth/epiphany/futurism, wiping out all that that came before to be replaced by something ‘better,’ more civilized, more tolerant, fair, open, and so on … [see ‘reagan,’ ‘soylent green,’ ‘bladerunner,’ current gubernatorial debates]
The ‘really deep’ in the lyric is, of course, self-deprecating towards attempting at all, in a pop song, to communicate any level of depth or real insight.
Mulholland is the place in films where you get a distance, and the awe, of the city built on dreams and fantasy. Far away enough to not smell it but to marvel at its intensity and sheer audacity. Kinda great.

It says a lot about the mindset of Michael Stipe that he decided to write a farewell song to the entire 20th Century about five years before it was even over. The song memorializes the past, but it’s really about wanting to move on to the future, and standing in awe of the possibilities offered by the blank slate of a new era. Stipe’s sentiment is extremely optimistic — he imagines that it is possible for us to move on into a future that is not fully poisoned by even the best bits of the past. Over twelve years after the song’s release, and with only two years left of the century’s first decade, its hope for the future seems at once depressingly quaint and idealistic, and inspiring because we still have so much time left to make this era — our era — a time of progress, and a source of pride.

The music for “Electrolite” is gorgeous, albeit in a very low-key sort of way. It seems very likely that the arrangement was settled on before Stipe wrote his lyrics, but either way, it has a sound of recent antiquity that complements its concept rather well. It’s nostalgic for the past, but is firmly rooted in the romance of its present tense. True to the era, the band give the decade a perfect Hollywood ending, literally and figuratively. It’s one last slow dance, and a long, slow kiss goodbye before heroically heading off into the sunset, ready and searching for new adventures.

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Binky The Doormat

March 18, 2008

The lyrics of “Binky The Doormat” read like a string of non sequiturs and inside jokes, but it nonetheless comes together as a fractured, impressionistic portrait of a man thrown into the deep end of sexual confusion and frustration.  If I am to believe what I read on the internet, the title is lifted a cult film that I’ve never seen, and it comes from a sequence in which a depressed clown launches into a self-pitying, coke-fueled rant about his poor luck in relationships. That’s just the starting point, really — this isn’t necessarily a song about a clown, but rather a desperate person with low self-esteem who is willing to humiliate himself to gain approval and acceptance.

Basically, the character in the song is a passive, self-deprecating type who is doing everything he can to stand up for himself despite the nagging feeling that he deserves to be treated badly.  The first verse finds the character playing it cool — there’s a hint of kink, but he’s owning up to feelings of distance and insecurity. In the second verse, he’s feeling a bit more confident and throws in a great little “I’m a grower, not a shower” gag, but he seems addled and confused. Then comes the third verse…yikes. It’s the most confrontational part of the song, but also the moment when we get a sense of his emasculation, and complicity with his own degradation. He manages to defend himself, but in a moment he’s backsliding, and telling his abuser how beautiful they are despite their cruelty. Depending how you read the context, this is either totally hot, or totally pathetic.

An organ note: This song has a brilliant organ part, but it’s buried beneath the guitar in the album mix. It is more audible and prominent in the version featured in Road Movie, but I think I prefer it to be hidden in the mix because it has a nice subliminal effect, and sort of sounds like this tiny bit of self-respect being drowned out by Peter Buck’s overwhelming wall of guitar fuzz. Similarly, I enjoy the way Mike Mills’ whiny shouts — “go away, go away!” — are made to sound tiny and weak.

Be Mine

February 14, 2008

Michael Stipe’s love songs tend to be either self-absorbed or self-effacing, but “Be Mine” manages to be both simultaneously, which may speak to exactly why it’s so effective in hinting at the neuroses that come along with most any expression of unconditional love and devotion. The song is full of sweet, slightly odd hyperbole, but every moment is vulnerable and sincere, the words of a man who will do anything to hold on to this person that he loves. He feels humbled by their beauty, but even though he promises to admire them and give them space, he seems mostly focused on the insight and adventure he stands to gain from his lover’s company. This is not unreasonable — if anything, this is a totally honest way of depicting this sort of romantic love, because when you’re caught up in it, all you can think about is the magic, and hope that what you’re feeling is only the beginning of something that will last forever. Though “Be Mine” works well as a simple, straightforward love song, it is perhaps better understood as a character study of a man who is totally over his head in love, to the point that it pains him to imagine himself separate from the object of his affection. It’s not really about the person so much as it’s about the thrill of hope, and the fear that it could all fall away at any moment.

Undertow

January 26, 2008

In its way, “Undertow” is a gospel song for atheists and agnostics. Whereas traditional gospel music allows a singer to  express their faith and revel in their spiritual convictions, “Undertow” is sung from the perspective of a person who is emphatically stating that he does not want or need organized religion to get by, and that if anything, he feels suffocated by its presence in his life.  The song is not hostile to religion, but it is dismissive of its merits, at least in the context of his own life.  It’s important to note that the song’s message  is not “religion is not good,” but rather “religion is not good for me.” At its root, “Undertow” is essentially asking the listener to acknowledge that religion and secularism are equally valid ways of approaching life.

It’s not for nothing that “Undertow” contains such vivid imagery relating to water. In the verses, water is part of a beautiful, natural ecosystem full of creatures who — as far as we can tell — have no need for religion, just like the singer. In the chorus, water is a conflation of several essential elements of Christianity —  Baptism, holy water, the Great Flood of the Book of Genesis, Jesus walking on water, and turning water to wine and walk at the Marriage at Cana — and it symbolizes the way Stipe’s character feels suffocated by the religion.

“Undertow” is one of four songs on New Adventures In Hi-Fi that was recorded live in concert, and it is probably the one that benefits the most from its raw production values.  There’s a spark of spontaneity in the guitar and keyboard noises that may have been lost if the band had been given too many opportunities to overdub them in, and there’s a profound, go-for-broke urgency to the chorus that may not have easily captured otherwise. Perhaps unintentionally, but the live recording fits in nicely with the notion that this is essentially a gospel song in reverse: It’s a field recording of sorts, but instead of being taped at a home or church, “Undertow” was performed in a sports arena.

Leave

November 4, 2007

One of Bill Berry’s final major contributions to the R.E.M. catalog was the instrumental basis for “Leave,” the epic centerpiece of New Adventures In Hi-Fi. The title and lyrics seem prescient  in retrospect, but since it’s very unlikely that Berry had much to do with either, it’s best not to read too much into that. Though the finished product is certainly a group effort, Berry dominates the track with an urgent, thundering percussion track that holds together a song that rocks back and forth between emotional extremes. The incessant car-siren synthesizer effect that carries through the entire main body of the piece is perhaps the boldest, least orthodox, and most potentially aggravating musical element on any R.E.M. album, but it’s extremely effective in conveying a sense of constant panic, even as the song shifts into a chorus that promises escape and relief. Without that consistent, nagging paranoia, the  emotional release may have seemed too easy, but even when it’s buried beneath crunching chords and Michael Stipe’s soaring vocals, the siren is there to remind us that our protagonist hasn’t actually left anything just yet.

If you were wondering, I only have two words to describe the alternate version that can be found on the bonus disc of the In Time compilation: Failed experiment. No, wait, here’s two more: Ruined song. If you don’t understand my point of view on this matter, please read the first paragraph again.

E-Bow The Letter

October 3, 2007

There is a tendency to directly attribute New Adventures In Hi-Fi‘s relatively lackluster sales to R.E.M.’s decision to release “E-Bow The Letter” as the album’s lead single, but you know what? I think that’s mostly bullshit.

Why?

1) It wouldn’t have been the first R.E.M. album to be heralded by a song that was either unconventional or relatively uncommercial in comparison to the planned second single.

2) It’s really key to understand that despite Monster‘s enormous sales, that record was already piling up in used cd shops before Hi-Fi was even announced. The backlash was well underway, and it’s actually sort of miraculous that it happened so late in the band’s career.

3) Call me a conspiracy theorist all you want, but I don’t believe that it’s entirely a coincidence that several high profile releases by acts with vocal left-leaning political sensibilities all simultaneously flopped just after the Telecommunications Act of 1996 passed and allowed right wing corporations such as Clear Channel to monopolize the airwaves.

I don’t think that any of the songs on New Adventures In Hi-Fi had a shot at major success in the fall of 1996, especially not when the band was unwilling to tour or participate in very much of the whoring and glad-handing necessary to prop up a record at that moment in time, or really, any time since then.

“E-Bow The Letter” may not be anyone’s idea of a mainstream pop hit, but I think it actually was the most logical formal introduction to the album. For one thing, it’s one of the finest songs on Hi-Fi, and easily one of the most distinct and original compositions of the band’s career. Though it is most certainly a melancholy dirge, it is actually rather catchy, with two strong hooks on the chorus and verses that flow with a subtle, rambling melody that is far more careful and composed than it initially seems. Peter Buck’s contributions to the piece are key, and stand as one of the all-time best examples of his skill for composing elegant, meticulous tracks comprised of rather simple, understated parts. In other hands, “E-Bow” may have come across flat and gloomy, but Buck’s arrangement carries us through the nuances of its emotions rather than settle into an ill-defined moodiness.

True to its title, “E-Bow The Letter” reads like a bit of intimate correspondence taken out of its context, and so we’re left to work out the meaning of a fragment of a conversation that seems as though it is an index to the themes of New Adventures In Hi-Fi as a whole. Most obviously, there’s romantic turbulence, which is played out in a duet with Patti Smith, whose vocal performance on the track is simultaneously seductive and terrifying. There are references to aging, glam androgyny, drugs, religion, and a pronounced ambivalence about living with fame. There are moments of horror and beauty, and a sense of movement through time and space. It’s a heady, potent brew of ideas and emotions, but its tangents do nothing to pull us away from the central drama of the lyrics. If anything, the context only makes the relationship seem more real, and increases the intensity and urgency of the song’s sexual anxiety.

Departure

August 28, 2007

“Departure” has three verses, and though each seems to be coming from a very different place, they all arrive at the same point:  No matter what you do or how hard you try, there’s no way to fit every experience into one life.  The world is too big, life is too short, and some things just aren’t meant for everyone. It’s a bittersweet realization, but amid the song’s rapid-fire blast of free-associative lyrics, Michael Stipe slips in some pretty simple advice on how to deal with the limitations of mortality: “Go, go, go, yeah.”