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.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.”

Low Desert

July 22, 2007

If New Adventures In Hi-Fi is a sort of travelogue, and “Zither” is the sound of aimless downtime between destinations, “Low Desert” is the song about actually being on the road, moving down endless highways. It’s not about being in a traveling band — it’s pretty clearly about a person driving on their own, and finding their way out of something or other. There are hints about what they are leaving behind, but it’s not as important as the fact that they’re moving on to something else. Some albums have title tracks, but “Low Desert” is more like the cover track of Hi-Fi — its title matches the arid expanse of the front sleeve on a literal level, but the photograph also evokes the same feeling of restlessness and wanderlust as the rickety, spacious sound of the song.

Bittersweet Me

June 25, 2007

“Bittersweet Me” is more or less a forgotten single — it flopped on radio and MTV, it wasn’t included on In Time, it’s never been performed live. It’s from an album full of fan favorites, but I don’t think I’ve ever encountered anyone that has expressed a special fondness for the song. But still, it’s actually pretty obvious why the label selected it as the second single from New Adventures In Hi-Fi — basically, they needed an obvious radio song after “E-Bow The Letter” bricked spectacularly in the marketplace, and “Bittersweet Me” followed the soft/hard/soft formula of a mid-90s alt-rock hit more than any other song in the band’s discography. Also, its verses have the mild jangle of “old school” R.E.M., and it probably seemed like a good idea to reach out to older fans who were mostly alienated by the sound of Monster.

Yeah, so, all of that seems great on paper, and it’s a good catchy tune. But it didn’t work, and that lack of success seems to have retroactively tainted the song. In the context of Hi-Fi, it’s purely a case of a good song getting overshadowed by some seriously GREAT songs. In the marketplace, it was just another nice R.E.M. song when they needed something extraordinary in order to ward off a major commercial backlash. In retrospect, it really didn’t matter which singles were chosen from Hi-Fi — a large chunk of their mainstream audience was just looking for a reason to bail on them, and frankly, a lot of them had already jumped ship shortly after Monster came out. “E-Bow The Letter” was too solemn and arty, “Bittersweet Me” was too ordinary, “Electrolite” was too late. Hi-Fi had the songs, but it had no cultural moment.

The Wake Up Bomb

June 13, 2007

“The Wake Up Bomb” is essentially the dark side of “Crush With Eyeliner.” Whereas the latter is a celebration of creativity and affectation, the former is sung from the perspective of a vain, vapid person who fashions himself into the image of a star for the sake of being famous. It’s rock music as nothing more than a game of dress-up and make believe, and the work of inspired musicians reduced to a string of empty signifiers. It’s what happens when deeply unimaginative people decide to become rock stars, and I’m sure you can make a very long of celebrities who match this description just from the past four years or so.

Stipe’s character is petulant, self-congratulatory, and ambitious in all the wrong ways, but he’s also a bit disillusioned and disgusted by the thing he has become,though not enough to change. The lyrics are not extremely judgmental, but the protagonist of the “The Wake Up Bomb” is certainly one of the more bitter and unflattering characters presented in an R.E.M. song, along with the “Sad Professor,” the creepy sociopath of “I Took Your Name,” and the defendant in “Diminished.”

In some ways, the song tempts the listener to turn on the band a bit — the music is a 70s glam pastiche, and the band’s image in 1995 openly embraced retro kitschiness — but the shallow, blank fashionista of the lyrics is at odds with the character Michael Stipe, whose oddball persona has always strayed far from mainstream expectations of rock and roll stardom. It could be that the lyrics find Stipe imagining himself as the pop star he could have been if he was ever able to repress his distinct, quirky personality.


May 7, 2007

Though “Zither” is somewhat unimpressive as an instrumental composition, its placement on New Adventures In Hi-Fi is crucial to the album’s sequence and conceptual conceit. Hi-Fi is R.E.M.’s most sprawling and eclectic album, and the one thing holding it together is the notion that it is a travelogue of sorts, recorded in fits and starts while they toured throughout the United States in 1995. The album sounds informal and raw, and by foregrounding the means of its creation, certain key themes are emphasized — a sense drift and dislocation; a hardened sentimentality; exploration and self-discovery. “Zither” is the one track that hammers home the “travelogue” concept. Whereas the other cuts imply a sense of movement from place to place, “Zither” is clearly intended to represent (literally and figuratively) a quiet moment of repose between destinations. Essentially, it is the time we kill at airports, hotel rooms, rest stops, diners, and gift shops. The music feels a bit zonked out and slightly bemused, and in the context of the sequence, it’s a welcome palette cleanser between the sexual crisis of “Binky The Doormat” and the stern, martial intro of “So Fast, So Numb.”

New Test Leper

April 18, 2007

“New Test Leper” is the first half of what appears to be an intentional diptych of tracks on New Adventures In Hi-Fi that deal with the conflict of organized religion and secular humanism. Michael Stipe’s character in the song is an agnostic who has somehow found himself as a guest on a televised talk show. He’s pitted against argumentative believers, but can’t bring himself to get too combative — he ends up turning Biblical quotations back on his opponents, and getting cut off for commercial breaks.

The song isn’t really about this specific debate, but rather how commercialized forums tend to reduce serious discourse to reductive “us vs. them” binary conflicts fought out with quick, harsh sound bites between advertisements for car dealerships and laundry detergent. The singer is patient and well-intentioned, but all that comes across to the audience is his alienation and condescension. Stipe sounds deflated and resigned from the start, and even when he acknowledges that the program is unflattering, he still seems mildly surprised when he realizes how poorly he has expressed his point of view in a venue that rewards bluntness and antagonistic rhetoric.

So Fast, So Numb

April 7, 2007

I’m embarrassed to admit that it took me eleven years to notice two very obvious things about New Adventures In Hi-Fi — first, that it’s mainly comprised of songs that emphasize briskly strummed guitar chords as opposed to Peter Buck’s usual penchant for “jangly” arpeggiation, and second, that a majority of its songs either dress down or reach out to very damaged individuals. With that in mind, “So Fast, So Numb” can be seen as the quintessential Hi-Fi track in the way it hitches its confrontational tough love lyrics to a composition built around harsh acoustic strumming and crisp, propulsive percussion. Though the song conveys a strong sense of frustrated exasperation, Michael Stipe nevertheless manages to express a great deal of empathy in both his words and his performance. He seems bitter, betrayed, and more than a little disgusted by his ex-lover’s apparent drug problem, but unwilling to completely abandon him.

“How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us” is unquestionably the weirdest opening track on any R.E.M. album. Its set of musical reference points are somewhat eclectic (a “hip hop” beat, jazz-ish piano, ersatz R&B and “world music” signifiers) and the composition is deliberately off-center, but the effect is surprisingly intuitive, giving me the sense that the arrangement emerged organically rather than coming out of some formal experiment sketched out on a legal pad by Mike Mills. Actually, it’d be really interesting to know who kick-started the writing process on this particular song — the emphasis on rhythm makes me suspect that it was Bill Berry, but given that the lead instrument is piano and that the only thing I ever remember reading about the track was Mills explaining that he was trying to play like Thelonious Monk on the solo, there’s a good chance that he was the principal author.

Michael Stipe’s lyrics on the chorus allude to the band’s medical tribulations on the Monster tour with a bit of dry humor and some subtle commentary on what must be one of the more disconcerting elements of being incredibly famous — everything about your life becomes a narrative for public consumption. He seems very detached from the events of his own recent past, and more than a little bored by having to hear the story told so many times over in increasingly simplified ways. Each chorus is punctuated by a limp shout that falls somewhere between an expression of half-hearted frustration and the sound you might make if you dropped a filing cabinet on your toes. It’s not exactly a pleasant sound, but it’s the perfect release for a song containing so much muted anxiety.