Country Feedback

June 16, 2008

A lot of the time, when we think back on traumatic events, our memory holds on to the odd, seemingly trivial fragments. “Country Feedback” is partially comprised of these sort of random, evocative images; some of them come across like flashes of painful memories, the rest are the bits of scenery you may get a fix on when you can’t bear to look someone in the eye. On the printed page, they seem like non-sequiturs, but in song, they resonate, and not simply because they are stunning bits of language. (I’m particularly fond of “a paper weight, a junk garage, a winter rain, a honey pot.”) We can intuit the personal meaning, and project what we need on to these bits to make the song our own.

The remainder of the song’s lyrics are disarmingly straight-forward. Out Of Time is an album of love songs, and “Country Feedback” is love’s bitter end. Blame is passed back and forth, guilt and confusion do the singer’s head in, and he’s left battered and broken, simultaneously lamenting a million mistakes and clinging to the past. He says that he needs the relationship, but it’s plain as day: What he wants and what he needs has been confused. 

The arrangement for “Country Feedback” is more or less exactly what the title suggests: It’s a country dirge paired with a mournful electric guitar part by Peter Buck that recalls Neil Young at his most despondent. In live performance, Buck’s solo at the conclusion is extended significantly, drawing out the pain until it fades into resignation. Otherwise, the music is rather static, leaving Michael Stipe to provide the key dynamic shifts. 

A goofy note: 

Matthew Perpetua: I’m doing a big one today — “Country Feedback”

marathonpacks: Whoa

Matthew Perpetua: Or wait…
is it “Country Feedbag”?

marathonpacks: I think it’s “Country Feedbag”

Matthew Perpetua: I am pretty sure that Michael Stipe wrote it about the closing of a beloved all-you-can-eat country buffet
“it’s crazy what you could’ve had — ribs, chicken, greens!”

Shiny Happy People

May 26, 2008

Ah, yes. The most unfairly maligned song in the R.E.M. discography.

Actually, that’s not quite true: It’s actually one of the band’s biggest hits, though they’ve gone out of their way to distance themselves from it by never performing it in concert, and omitting it from their second greatest-hits collection in favor of several songs that were not even close to being popular.

Though I can understand why the song would not work well in concert — the string accompaniment is crucial, and perhaps the single best thing about the composition — it’s a bit sad that the band are not proud of it, or at least enough to acknowledge that it is one of their most successful and best-known singles. It’s a lovely song, and it takes the band’s long-established penchant for chiming, jangly chords and sunny harmonies to a logical conclusion: Full-on retro bubblegum, complete with a guest vocal from the high priestess of camp, Kate Pierson.

Clearly the trouble with “Shiny Happy People” is not the song so much as the lyrics. Frankly, it’s always a bit tricky to work out to what degree the song is meant to be ironic. There’s certainly a touch of irony in it — I mean, c’mon — but I think what puts some people off is that it’s mostly quite sincere. In the middle of an album of love songs and/or songs about love, “Shiny Happy People” takes it all to a radical extreme: It’s this relentlessly cheery vision of utopia where everyone is in love, all of the time. Whether you laugh at it, cringe, swoon, cry, or sing along, it’s revealing something about your outlook on life. It’s kinda like a Rorschach test that way.

Half A World Away

December 24, 2007

I did not own a cd player until the Christmas of 1994. When I received a small stereo from my parents that year, I also was given a number of cds, and among those was Out Of Time, which I’d previously only had as a dubbed cassette. (If I recall correctly, this is also how I came to own Murmur, Reckoning, Fables of the Reconstruction, and a good portion of the Beatles catalog.) For some reason, out of all the songs on Out Of Time, only “Endgame” and “Half A World Away” have been tied in to this memory of Christmas, or more specifically, its immediate aftermath. In regards to “Half A World Away,” I reckon that it has something to do with the specific qualities of the mandolin and harpsichord — I consistently associate treble with winter and Christmas, and the gentle melancholy of the piece is not far removed from many religious carols of the season.

Really, “Half A World Away” is not far removed from a lot of traditional folk music in terms of style, instrumentation or subject matter. Michael Stipe doesn’t quite shake off his penchant for mildly inscrutable poetry, but no matter how you look at it, it’s a lonesome ballad about being far away from someone you love. The words are mostly quite straightforward, but the song’s most gorgeous moments come when Stipe’s words lean heavy on images: “This storm it came up strong / it shook the trees / and blew away our fear,” “Blackbirds, backwards, forward and fall.” 

Me In Honey

October 29, 2007

Let’s just let Michael Stipe explain his motivation for this one himself, okay? This is taken from Marcus Gray’s It Crawled From The South:

Of “Me In Honey,” Michael admits, “Specifically, that song to me is an answer song to 10,000 Maniacs’ “Eat For Two.” It’s a male perspective on pregnancy, which I don’t think has been dealt with. There’s a real push-me-pull-me issue, saying, “I had nothing to do with it,” yet on the other hand saying, “Wait, I have feelings about this.”

Exactly one line in “Me In Honey” gives away the pregnancy angle — “baby’s got a baby with me” — and it’s kinda tossed off in the final verse, so it’s pretty easy to ignore that bit if you’d rather just hear it as song about a guy trying to save face with an angry lover. However, this song works far better just the way Stipe intended, with his protagonist expressing a mix of emotions that has him unsure whether he’s more freaked out by the onset of overwhelming responsibility, or the part of him that wants to escape from the situation.

There’s no doubt that the guy is going to do the right thing. The song overflows with love and goodwill, and despite its confusion, “Me In Honey” is among the most jubilant pieces of music R.E.M. have ever written, with Peter Buck’s circular rhythms driving the song towards percussive fills that push the tune towards its most ecstatic moments. Appropriately enough, the studio recording features backing vocals by the B-52’s Kate Pierson, who not only supplies the track with a wordless female counterpoint, but significantly boosts the tune’s dosage of soulful bliss.

Near Wild Heaven

August 23, 2007

“Near Wild Heaven” and “Texarkana” offer the audience a glimpse into what R.E.M. might have been if Mike Mills had been the band’s frontman all along. They aren’t exactly peaks into a grim alternate universe, but the songs make something very clear — compared to Michael Stipe, Mills comes up very short on charisma and mystique, and though his songs are exceptionally sweet and amiable, they aren’t very unique. “Near Wild Heaven” nails its cheery chord progression and breezy Beach Boys harmonies, but when it comes down to it, it’s not a lot more than a highly competent tribute to the sunshine pop of the ’60s. The song doesn’t exactly need to be weighty or weird, but the general lack of tension and subtext sets it apart from most any R.E.M. featuring Stipe as lead vocalist and primary lyricist.


August 2, 2007

“Belong” can be considered a sequel of sorts of “Disturbance at the Heron House,” at least in the sense that one can interpret the insurrection of the “creatures” as being the animal uprising suggested at the end of “Heron House.” The continuity isn’t all that important — we don’t learn much about that situation, other than the sudden instability is the backdrop for the minor yet potent drama of the song, which finds a mother attempting to face an uncertain future without breaking down in front of her child. The action of the lyrics is essentially bracketed by ellipses, hinting at neither the way “her world collapsed on a Sunday morning,” or what might happen, rather than emphasizing the conflicted emotion of the moment when you know that your world, or maybe the entire world, has changed. Michael Stipe sounds calm and collected in his spoken verses, but the gorgeous harmony carried by Mike Mills on the chorus is the wordless emotional center of the piece in the way it conveys a heartstring-tugging blend of fear, bravery, and sentimentality.


June 29, 2007

“Ba da la da da da da da, hi hi hi. Ba da la da da da da da, hi hi.”

“Endgame” has no real lyrics, but it is anything but an instrumental. Michael Stipe’s gentle, mellow vocal refrain is the crux of the song, and it twists around Peter Buck’s winding acoustic guitar figure, dropping out only to be replaced by woodwind instruments that carry the same tune. It’s a quiet, minor piece, but its arrangement is one of the band’s most elegant and refined. Every moment of the composition is calculated to maximize its pensive beauty, from the swell of the strings to the gentle ahhhs of Mike Mills’ backing vocals. The song’s melodies and textures vividly convey a sense of comfortable melancholy with incredible grace, and in all likelihood, words would have only gotten in the way.

Losing My Religion

June 2, 2007

I became a fan of rock music in the early ’90s, and so when I was a young teenager I just assumed that “Losing My Religion” was about Michael Stipe feeling conflicted about his relationship with his audience. Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder were the biggest rock stars in the world, indie was something that was being written about in every music magazine, flamboyant hair metal bands were deeply unfashionable, and somehow it just made a lot of sense that a skinny guy that looked like a high school English teacher would be singing a song expressing a deep ambivalence about his own fame and influence. I mean, what else are rock stars supposed to sing about? Hopeless unrequited crushes? C’mon, dude. This was the ’90s.

But yeah, “Losing My Religion” is most certainly a song about a hopeless unrequited crush, and not just because Michael has said so, several times over. Though I had my fair share of unrequited crushes throughout my adolescence, I don’t think I had the proper frame of reference for the song until I was a bit older, and everything in the lyrics snapped into focus: “Choosing my confessions.” “Oh no, I’ve said too much…I haven’t said enough.” “Consider this the hint of the century.” It isn’t just about desire, it’s about hiding it, and living in desperate fear that you’ll be humiliated by it. It’s about knowing that the sum of life is indeed bigger than the person you’ve fallen in love with, but succumbing to every irrational feeling anyway.

It’s not uncommon for people to note that “Losing My Religion” is a bit odd for a major hit single, but I’m not sure if I agree. Granted, it’s unusual for a hit song to feature a mandolin as a lead instrument, but it charted at a time when MTV Unplugged was the zeitgeist, and audiences were eager to buy into the notion that acoustic instrumentation automatically signified authenticity and sophistication. Also, the band were in a “now or never” scenario — they’d built up a substantial audience with previous hits and non-stop touring, and so much of heavy lifting involved in turning the public on to their aesthetic was already accomplished. Whether they knew it or not, a song like “Losing My Religion” was exactly what they needed: a driving ballad with grand, yearning chorus and an instrumental hook that was novel yet elegant. In many ways, it is actually one of the most obvious and accessible singles of their career.

A 90210 note: When “Losing My Religion” came up in a conversation with a girl I spoke to earlier this evening, she mentioned that she associated it with a scene featuring Brenda and Dylan on Beverly Hills 90210 back when she was ten years old. She said that it struck her as being a rather dark and mysterious thing at the time, and that the impression stuck. I never saw that episode, but it does seem like a rather bizarre song selection.

A “we’re making good time” note: This is the 50th entry on this site, which means I’m about one quarter of the way through the project.


May 2, 2007

Michael Stipe avoided writing straightforward love songs throughout the ’80s, and though he clearly had a lot of other things on his mind at the time, I suspect that the primary reason for this was that love was a deeply unfashionable subject matter in the post-punk era. As far as love songs go, the lyrics on Out Of Time are rather tentative and guarded, and clearly come from a person who seems unconvinced that he could tackle the issue without ending up with something boring and trite. What we get on the album is a rather common dodge — yeah, it’s about love, but it’s about fucked-up love, man! (The flip side of this is also in evidence on the record — lyrics that express a love so absurdly cheerful and optimistic that the listener is forced to assume that the band is being sarcastic.)

The music and lyrics of “Low” depict a love dulled and obscured by the haze of clinical depression. The arrangement shifts subtly throughout the track, but its gently rumbling percussion and somber organ drone lend the composition a quiet, static quality that approximates the endless, hopeless present tense of severe depression. As the song sprawls out along a bleak grey horizon, Michael mutters his words in a flat, indifferent tone. He says that he’s been laughing, and that he’s “been so happy,” but he couldn’t possibly seem more removed from himself or his emotions. When his voice lifts up on the bridge, he doesn’t sound any more passionate — instead, he just seems annoyed and frustrated, like a man asking you to leave him alone because he’s got a splitting headache.

The most revealing moment in the song comes when Stipe proclaims that he “skipped the part about love” on the chorus. It’s the point when we realize that the protagonist is so numb and miserable that he can barely register (much less express) this profound feeling. He’s not just alienated from the emotion; he feels superior to it: “It seems so silly and low.” The chorus can also be read as a self-aware explanation as to why the band had mostly steered clear of love songs up until the early ’90s, but actually, it seems more like an excuse.


April 7, 2007

“Texarkana” is the second of two songs on Out Of Time featuring Mike Mills as the primary vocalist, but unlike his perky, assertive take on “Near Wild Heaven,” he seems rather shy and reserved on this cut, giving the impression that the song is simply missing its lead singer, and Mills has been forced to carry the song with a part intended to be part of a harmony. Michael Stipe does turn up for a cameo on the bridge and a bit of help on the final chorus, but the track gains contextual strength from isolating Mills’ thin, earnest voice — he sounds lost and lonely in a song that’s a bit too big to navigate on his own.

Radio Song

March 29, 2007

If you’re capable of tuning out KRS-One’s extraordinarily lame vocal contributions, you might notice that “Radio Song” is in fact a very good tune with some exceptionally pretty moments. Surprisingly, the presence of KRS-One is not even the most dated thing about the track — that would be the lyrics, which reiterate the basic premise of Elvis Costello’s “Radio Radio” (ie, radio DJs are manipulative jerks who repeatedly play the same sad, sentimental songs in order to, um, make us feel worse?) with slightly less paranoia.

I suppose that we can still hear the song and agree that tight playlisting totally sucks, but ever since the radio consolidation boom of the late ’90s it is incredibly rare to hear a non-oldies station play any music that is actually sad (seriously, what was the last totally depressing major hit, both musically and lyrically?) , much less employ DJs who actually program their own shifts, and so you can’t really pay attention to the words without noticing the anachronism. Maybe it is best to reinterpret “Radio Song” as a “be careful what you wish for” sort of thing, since it’s very hard to imagine that its protagonists would be much happier in the post-Clearchannel world, even if their children are most definitely not growing up “prisoners” as lifelong radio listeners.