Imitation Of Life

June 14, 2008

“Imitation Of Life,” a song trapped in the middle of an album that could not decide whether it wanted to be space-age pop or a sun-soaked vacation in affluence and muted neuroses, is so close to the classic archetype of an R.E.M. composition that it sounds almost as though the band deliberately tried to write something that sounded like themselves. Given the limited commercial potential for the other songs on Reveal, it seems somewhat likely that the band felt the pressure to deliver a sure-fire single. It’s just as likely that they — consciously or not — needed a song that grounded the record, and tied its more experimental moments to their earlier work. It definitely does the trick. If you have any love for IRS-era R.E.M., the song’s jangly guitars and lush harmonies have a sort of Pavlovian effect, making it easy to like, even if you can’t quite connect to it on an emotional level.

Lyrically, the song comes across as late period Michael Stipe boilerplate; another in his series of pep talk songs directed to frightened and confused younger listeners. “Imitation Of Life” has a pleasant sentiment and some nice imagery — I’m particularly fond of the references to literally sweet things in the chorus — but like the rest of the song, it can’t help but feel a bit recycled and overly familiar. (Almost as if to prove my point that the lyrics are Stipe-ish to the point of self-parody, the message of the song has essentially been re-written as “Supernatural Superserious” on Accelerate.)


March 10, 2008

Unfortunately for the character in “Disappear,” all of his epiphanies have come too far after the point when they would have been useful, and he’s stuck looking backwards, trying to figure out just where he went wrong. That said, the character is not awash in a sea of self-pity — if anything, he is too busy admiring his reflection upon the surface to dive into his sadness.  The song comes close to falling into the Michael Stipe pep talk category, but ultimately, its advice rings hollow. “The only thing worth looking for is what you find inside” rings out, but if it has any truth, it has been co-opted and corrupted by the singer’s apparent narcissism and nihilism.  It’s hard to feel bad for the guy — he’s  made himself into an emotional apparition, and if we take him at his word, it’s exactly what he wishes to be.

Chorus and the Ring

December 4, 2007

“Chorus and the Ring” is like a distant cousin of “Finest Worksong,” at least in the sense that its arrangement emulates the sound of machinery, and its lyrics contrast the frail humanity of its protagonist with cold, mechanical precision. Whereas the machines of “Finest Worksong” are fairly literal, the steady clockwork of “Chorus” is more metaphorical, standing in for a steady, fatalistic march towards inevitability. In either case, Michael Stipe and his underdog character rebel against their constraints, but in “Chorus,” the music is fragile enough to bend to his will, and the song builds to a majestic crescendo that would’ve provided a better conclusion to Reveal than the sentimental melodrama of “I’ll Take The Rain” or the lazy, luxurious “Beachball.”

The irony of “All The Way To Reno” is that no one actually goes to that city to become a star, but the song isn’t remotely mean-spirited or condescending. In fact, in spite of a bit of good-natured smirking, this is one of Michael Stipe’s better pep-talk songs. The singer clearly has a great deal of respect for the tenacity of his underdog subject, and his focus is placed more on the character’s search for freedom and self-expression rather than conventional notions of success. When Stipe sings “you know what you are, you’re gonna be a star,” it’s less about a narcissistic desire to become a celebrity, and more about achieving a certain level of grace and self-belief.

Peter Buck has described this song as being like “Jimmy Webb on Mars,” which is a good, pithy way of describing its sound. Like “The Lifting” and “I’ve Been High” before it, “All The Way To Reno” is a classic style pop ballad dolled up in retro-futuristic drag. After the song ends on Reveal, the album immediately takes a turn in another direction, which is unfortunate given the unique aesthetic and high quality of the record’s opening trio.

The Lifting

September 24, 2007

Reveal begins with a set of three very different types of ballads done up in spacey, neon-lit drag. It’s simultaneously kitschy and gorgeous, and it brings to mind an older generation’s notion of future modernity. There’s a strange, self-reflexive tension buried in the subtext — R.E.M. were clearly making an effort to modernize their sound, but there’s some kind of admission that they can only go so far, and so they embraced a quaint, dated concept of “futuristic” music. If only they’d kept going! As it stands, the record takes a turn on “She Just Wants To Be,” and though there’s some quality songs later in the sequence, the tone of the album becomes scattered and incoherent.

“The Lifting” starts off with a gentle quasi-psychedelic sweep, but kicks into one of the few truly grand productions of the band’s late period. The song bears some resemblance to “The Great Beyond,” but it follows an eccentric orbit that keeps its chorus from having the same arena-sing-along effect.

The lyrics are relatively straightforward, but it’s easy to lose track of Michael Stipe’s relationship to the main character — Is he a friend of the protagonist? An omniscient narrator? I noticed that the voice of the seminar leader is placed in quotations on the official lyrics sheet, but I rather like the idea of the entire song being sung from that person’s perspective, mainly because even the best advice and observations in the piece suddenly become unreliable and suspicious. Either way, a crucial aspect of the song is that the character being discussed is piecing together the narrative of his life based on other people’s impressions of its events. They try to help and guide the protagonist, but it becomes clear that despite good intentions, they are all making an effort to reinvent this person in their image.

Summer Turns To High

August 3, 2007

Yes, I’m writing about this song because it’s really, really hot out.

Reveal is a “summer album” in a rather self-conscious sort of way. Not only was the band going out of its way to evoke the heat-addled daze of late summer, but Michael Stipe’s lyrics were preoccupied with the same, to the point of being rather literal.  For example, “Summer Turns To High”  is about summer…turning to…high. Well, sort of. I’m being unfair — there’s a fair bit of emotional turmoil in the song, and the implication that Stipe’s character is throwing himself into lazy, luxurious pleasures as a way of keeping himself from thinking about a soured relationship. The music obviously owes a lot to the Beach Boys in terms of mood and percussion, but the lack of vocal harmony and guazy electronic textures that dominate the piece pull the track away from a more straightforward Brian Wilson homage a la “At My Most Beautiful.”

Beat A Drum

July 22, 2007

“Beat A Drum” seems to hover in the air like a slight breeze on a summer day, and…well, not a lot much more than that. It’s pretty, comfortable, and almost freakishly contented. It was originally titled “All I Want,” which is far more straightforward in terms of conveying the general gist of the song and going with the standard mnemonic device of naming a song after the key line of its chorus, but I get the feeling that the band needed to do something to make the song more interesting. In this case, it means pointing the listener in the direction of a line from the final verse; the bit that seems to invoke the “butterfly effect,” and subtly implies that this moment of calmness will eventually trigger a more troubling event further down the line.

She Just Wants To Be

June 15, 2007

Right around the time I started this project, I started listening to a lot of the R.E.M. music that I’d mostly ignored in recent years. (Actually, I’d mostly ignored the majority of it — as with a lot of my favorite acts, I tend to stop listening to them for extended periods of time in order to keep things fresh.) Anyway, on my way to visit with a friend who is also a big fan of the band, I listened to most of Reveal, and when I saw him, I just asked him: What exactly is the problem with Reveal? I mean, there’s definitely something wrong with it, but aside from “I’ll Take The Rain,” the songs are pretty good. Some of them are great, even. “She Just Wants To Be” is the perfect example of the Reveal dilemma — there’s some interesting ideas and a decent tune, but it just doesn’t come together. It’s like a beautifully decorated cake that could’ve used a bit more eggs and sugar.

There’s something a bit uncomfortable about the way “She Just Wants To Be” feels simultaneously strident and languorous, and Michael Stripe’s atrocious grammar ruins the lyrics for me. (In fairness, one shouldn’t come to rock music expecting excellent grammar, but “it’s not that the transparency of her earlier incarnations now looked back on weren’t rich and loaded with beautiful vulnerability” is a truly horrendous construction, especially if English is your first language.) It’s about a minute and a half too long, and in concert, Peter Buck extends it further with a guitar solo that is neither impressive or exciting. It’s not entirely unpleasant, but man, it’s hard to imagine someone actively wanting to listen to this song, much less perform it live.

I’ve Been High

June 8, 2007

Though I often point to Bill Berry’s departure from the band as being a major contributing factor to the weakness of some of R.E.M.’s songs from 1997 onward, his absence is on rare occasions a boon to the creative process of the remaining trio. It’s difficult to imagine what Bill Berry might have done with a song like “I’ve Been High,” but I think it’s rather unlikely that he would have pushed the tune in a direction that would be superior to the stark, simple acoustic percussion and layers of stuttering drum machine patterns that fill out the arrangement of the studio recording. (Of course, I’m assuming that Berry would’ve been opposed to the electronic percussion.)

The arrangement of “I’ve Been High” is airy and spare, but filled with a variety of colors and textures. As the organ drone lends the piece a steady tone, the drum programming flickers and sparkles, and its obviously synthetic texture creates the sense that what we’re hearing is taking place someplace busy, modern, and just a bit cheesy, like the backdrop of a sci-fi movie.

It’s a very clever move. The overtly electronic sounds distance it slightly from being a simple Adult Contemporary ballad while also nudging it closer to the ethereal yet bombastic aesthetic of early ’80s Phil Collins. That said, “I’ve Been High” is no “In The Air Tonight”. Phil aims for intense, widescreen drama, and R.E.M. opt for something far more delicate and romantic. There’s a potent sense of yearning to the song, but it’s not cloying or overblown. It works because the enormity of its emotion is acknowledged and fully and clearly expressed, but not exaggerated.

On a lyrical level, “I’ve Been High” is another one of Michael Stipe’s Optimistic Songs About The Future, but there’s a note of regret in his character’s quest to live out his fondest desires. It’s essentially the flip side of the musically similar “Electron Blue.” Whereas that song is from the perspective of someone in love with an exciting person who is caught up in the pursuit of adventure, “I’ve Been High” conveys the emotional state of someone who can’t bring themselves to sit still, even if it means breaking off profound personal connections. There is no ill will in either song — both sides recognize that it would be wrong to hold the other back — but the scenario in each is incredibly bittersweet and heartbreaking.

I’ll Take The Rain

May 7, 2007

Seriously now, were they even trying with “I’ll Take The Rain”? The verses plod along with what could very well be the least inspired strumming of Peter Buck’s career; the lyrics are treacly and clichéd; and the chorus reaches for a grandeur that it does not come close to earning. Michael Stipe undersings the entire song, but that doesn’t actually help matters — maybe if he’d gone for it a bit more, it might be more convincing as a corny power ballad. It’s exactly the sort of schmaltzy tearjerker that the band had been actively avoiding for their entire career, and all it does is prove that they were always right to avoid the obvious moves. There’s no poetry to “I’ll Take The Rain” at all; it’s just a bunch of empty dramatic signifiers pulled from bad movies, and it’s just waaaaaaaaaay too easy to imagine this being Zach Braff’s favorite R.E.M. song.

Saturn Return

April 13, 2007

“Saturn Return” may not sound much like any other R.E.M. song, but it’s a dead ringer for a Tori Amos number circa the late ’90s. Like most Tori tracks from that era, it is essentially a slow piano ballad filled out with ambient noise and looped synthetic percussion. The band had already dived headlong into fully electronic compositions on Up, but for some reason, even though an acoustic piano is foregrounded in its arrangement, “Saturn Return” still seems like a severe departure from their established aesthetic.  It’s hard to say why. Maybe it’s the fact that the vocal melody is as blatantly Tori-esque as the arrangement? Perhaps it’s got something to do with the vaguely aggravating sound of a referee whistle that cycles in and out of the drum loop?

The song has a very lovely melody, and though it works on its own terms, its placement at the center of Reveal does the record few favors. Once it begins, the album’s sluggish pace grinds to a halt for five long minutes. Michael Stipe sings the line “Saturn is orbiting nothing” on the chorus, and the music seems to echo that concept by sitting in a sort of holding pattern for the entire duration. If that’s intentional, it’s rather clever, but to be honest, the effect is rather dull.


March 30, 2007

“Beachball” seems to be R.E.M.’s version of “yacht rock,” and though it’s totally pleasant and generally trumps most of their contemporaries’ attempts to self-consciously craft modern and luxurious soft pop, the general tone is a bit too hesitant, and the arrangement sounds as though it is entirely comprised of musical elements stuck between quotation marks. The song belongs to the “Michael Stipe pep talk” sub-genre, but the affluent resort town milieu suggested by the lyrics place its characters at a bit of a distance if you don’t share or aspire to that sort of lifestyle. “You’ll do fine” is exactly the sort of light encouragement I would give to my own socially awkward friends, but somehow it comes off a bit tepid and uninspiring in this context, perhaps because Stipe sounds more than a little zonked out through the entire song.