Walk Unafraid

June 12, 2008

If R.E.M.’s discography is in some way The Story Of Michael Stipe, then “Walk Unafraid” is the climax of that narrative. It’s not hard to trace the evolution of Stipe’s character over the course of his career, even if he (somewhat accurately) insists that he rarely writes from a confessional point of view. He begins as a shy young man prone to mumbling obtuse lyrics and suffering from “conversation fear”, but over the course of the band’s IRS period, he transforms himself into a sloganeering political activist. He gradually develops the courage to write proper love songs, confront his mortality, express his sexuality, and openly examine his personal relationships. The progress seems to come to a natural conclusion with “Walk Unafraid”, in which Stipe emerges as a confident, emotionally mature adult who accepts himself and is finally “prepared to look you in the eye.” That song earns its sense of triumph – I have no doubt that it is the very real culmination of the arc of one man’s struggle with his insecurity. The problem is, if part of the appeal of R.E.M. is based on the cult of personality surrounding Michael Stipe, the dramatic tension is lost somewhat after this point, which helps to explain why Reveal and Around The Sun often seem so lacking in purpose and direction — he was writing his own fan fic, The Further Adventures Of R.E.M. The band only got fully back on track by refocusing their attention to the outside world.

Though it is sung from the declarative first person, “Walk Unafraid” is a classic Stipe advice song. It’s essentially an anthem of non-conformity designed to speak for itself, but trigger a strong sense of identification in the listener. Its words can be slightly awkward — I’ve never been particularly fond of how the title fits into the song, mainly because Stipe seems conflicted about what the phrase is supposed to mean. When it is first introduced, he’s rebelling as those who “claim to walk unafraid,” and electing to be “clumsy instead,” but as the song progresses, the chorus drops the qualification, and it starts to sound like walking unafraid is a rather good thing. I mean, why wouldn’t it be? If this is a song about shaking off insecurity and embracing one’s self warts and all, wouldn’t the end result be a lack of fear?

“Walk Unafraid” has become a concert staple, and for good reason. Compared to its live incarnation, the studio recording seems a bit awkward and sterile. The song thrives on a connection with the audience, and the urgency of live performance. The version on Up strives for a foreboding atmosphere, if just to better fit into the sound of that album, but it misses the mark somewhat and dilutes the impact of the song. The version on the unfortunately titled Live dvd/cd set is the definitive take — tighter, louder, heavier, and far more emphatic.

The Apologist

May 13, 2008

The character in “The Apologist” is a monster. This isn’t apparent in the first verse — he seems contrite, and genuinely remorseful. As the song progresses, the truth gradually slips out: He’s a delusional narcissist who cannot comprehend why he can’t just be forgiven for his past misdeeds simply because he’s come around to apologizing as part of some 12-step ritual. He’s only concerned with his own emotional well-being, and can’t help but to transform prayer and rehabilitation into a grotesque mockery of atonement. It’s always tempting to go a bit overboard when writing songs from the point of view of toxic hypocrites, but Michael Stipe’s lyrics are nuanced and understated, and are written in such a way that I can imagine that some listeners may even relate to, or at least feel pity for, the character. The tone of the song is rather grim, but there’s a sense of half-formed sadness in its drones and minor key chords that hints at conscience muffled by self-serving insincerity.

A title note: I briefly considered calling this site The Apologist, but decided against it, mainly because I felt it was far too self-deprecating and defensive.


February 17, 2008

In “Suspicion,” the sound is the setting: The gentle chimes and subdued beats evoke the image of an immaculate, artfully decorated high-end hotel lounge. The textures of the piece are understated but incredibly suggestive — you can hear the light shifting in the room, the sparkle on the edge of the glasses, the colors and the curves of the furniture’s retro-modern design. We’re right there with Michael Stipe’s protagonist, but he’s distant and aloof, doing everything he can to keep himself from thinking about his slowly disintegrating love affair. He can numb himself a bit, but he can’t shake his doubts, or his infatuation. The strings carry much of the song’s quiet melancholy, but Stipe’s understated performance is what kills. His expression of love is sincere, but he can’t overcome his paranoia, or repair the growing rift between himself and his lover. In the end, all he can do is listen to the music, and retreat into the world of dreams.


January 18, 2008

I wonder if, when the band settled on the name R.E.M. back in their early days, Michael Stipe had any idea that he’d end up spending the rest of his adult life writing a body of work overflowing with references to sleeping and dreams. The topic comes up in a huge number of the band’s songs, and though there’s no clear message to the motif, it’s pretty clear that Stipe finds the dream state to be a source of endless inspiration. I’m right with him on this — dreams may be our only window into the workings of our unconscious minds, and their content is arguably the result of our most intuitive, creative, and deeply mysterious thought processes. We spend a huge chunk of our lives sleeping and dreaming, and it may be foolish to write off all that time. It’s an essential part of our existence, and when we fuck up our sleep patterns, there is a clear physical and mental consequence.

“Daysleeper” is essentially a song about what happens when dreams cease to complement or complicate our lives. The character is listless and emotionally drained, and forced by circumstances to work through the night, and sleep through parts of the day. It’s a forced, artificial sleep — the blinds are pulled down, he’s got a machine to create a comforting sonic ambiance to cancel out the world outside his home. All of his time is spent moving against the nature of his body and the culture around him, and so he feels isolated and lonely. The song’s most poignant line — “I cried the other night, I can’t even say why” — suggests that he’s even become removed from his own emotions. The poor guy is a wreck, but he’s barely got the energy to notice.

The prominent crisp acoustic arpeggios and plaintive lead vocals make “Daysleeper” the most traditional song on Up, but the most essential element of the song’s arrangement is actually the droning keyboards that create the hazy ambiance of the piece, and convey the lethargy and disconnected mental state of its protagonist more effectively than any of the lyrics. The keyboards push what would have been a lovely yet sorta ordinary folk pop song into something more remarkable: A character study that places the listener right into a cramped, fluorescent-lit cubicle in the far corner of its subject’s mind.


December 13, 2007

1. If you’ve never been very ill or known someone who has struggled with a serious illness or injury, it can seem a bit facile when you hear people say that someone going through something like that is very brave. It sounds like a cheap platitude — and sometimes it is — and from a distance, their “struggle” looks a lot like passivity. The thing is, the bravery isn’t in taking medication, or going through physical therapy or whatever treatment is being prescribed, but rather in being forced to reckon with your mortality, and seriously consider your faith in science and religion. It’s in coping, and finding the strength to fight, or the courage to give up. That’s what “Hope” is about.

Michael Stipe sings most of the song in the second person, but nearly every line describes what he understands to be going on inside his friend’s mind, which is not necessarily the same thing as that person’s interior monologue. The only time when he speaks for himself is when he admits to feeling powerless and confused — every other moment finds Stipe marveling at the bravery of his friend. I don’t think there’s another character in the entire R.E.M. songbook that Michael sounds more in awe of than the person he’s singing about in “Hope.”

2. Sometimes I wonder how much better things would’ve been if “Hope” was less of an experiment for R.E.M., and was instead the template of their post-Bill Berry sound. Sure, other songs on Up nudge in a similar quasi-electronic direction — “Falls To Climb,” “Airportman,” and “Parakeet” come to mind — but “Hope” is the most elaborate and sophisticated by far. The arrangement is a carefully composed array of rhythms, melodies, and textures that swirl around Michael’s steady vocal performance, an interpolation of Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne.” The constant movement is necessary in keeping the track from feeling too repetitive and samey, but also in achieving the song’s sense of calm in the midst of uncertainty. “Hope” has a certain boldness to its sound, but its beauty comes in the subtle touches — a stray piano line, a buried acoustic guitar strum, a turn of phrase, the stunned empathy in Michael’s voice. It’s one of the most impressive compositions of the band’s career, and perhaps the single best argument in favor of the group carrying on as a trio following the departure of Berry.

3. I’m not going to front: I still get a little bit excited when I hear Michael sing my name in this song. (“They did the same to Matthew / and he bled ’til Sunday night.”) I can’t remember too many specifics, but I think it may have actually been a key influence in terms of my decision to phase out calling myself “Matt” in favor of my full given name. (Well, that and the fact that “Matt” doesn’t exactly suit me.)

I’m Not Over You

November 15, 2007

What if R.E.M. decided to break up after the departure of Bill Berry, and they never made Up? What if Michael Stipe went off and started a solo career? You know, like a singer-songwriter thing where he just sings and strums an acoustic guitar? What would that be like? Well, “I’m Not Over You” is the answer, tucked away behind “Diminished” like a secret photo stashed between the pages of an old book. It’s short, slight, and simple, but it’s nothing to be embarrassed about. Sure, Michael isn’t much of a guitar player, but his fragile, tentative playing makes him sound like he’s trying very hard not to mess it all up, and it nicely complements the theme of his lyrics. Stipe flips the relative weakness of this song into a major strength, and it fits perfectly as a brief lo-fi aside on the otherwise meticulously arranged Up. That said, it’s pretty clear that an entire album of this sort of thing would’ve been rather ill-advised.


October 9, 2007

As if the metronomic ambiance of “Airportman” was not enough to signal Up as a departure from anything the listener might have previously associated with R.E.M.’s sound, the ersatz R&B number “Lotus” drops in immediately afterwards to further mess with the audience’s preconceptions. The arrangement is like a checklist of odd textural elements — perky carnival organ, discordant strings, psychedelic guitar, odd vocal effects that warp Michael Stipe’s voice into something rather ghoulish — but it all somehow falls in place around one of the best grooves of the band’s career. The song is playful yet twisted; the sound of a man self-consciously flailing about in a manic stage between bouts of depression, and making an exhibitionistic show of his attempts to self-medicate.

More than any other track on the album, “Lotus” has a sound that practically screams “I was written and recorded in the late ’90.” It aims for lushness but seems inadvertently chilly and brittle, much like most of Jon Brion’s work from the era, particularly with Fiona Apple. Sure, “Lotus” is a bit more perverse and unusual, but even the arrangement’s most counter-intuitive decisions seem very much of its time, and dependent upon the technology of that particular moment.


September 10, 2007

Have you ever imagined doing something terrible, and then following the thought through to its logical — or illogical — conclusion, i.e. a scenario in which you’re trapped, ruined, and helpless? It’s dramatic and hysterical, and as much as you talk yourself out of ever finding yourself in that situation, it seems just a bit seductive, in as much as it is extraordinarily eventful and romantic, and ordinary life is…usually not. You can take “Diminished” at face value, but given that Michael Stipe  made a point of casting a famous singer as the defendant in his miniature legal drama, it’s more interesting to think of the song as being an elaborate persecution fantasy. His character is antsy, bouncing from one idea to the next and back again, but never straying from his focus on himself, and his fate. Despite the fact that someone close to the singer has died, he never exhibits much in the way of guilt — he’s too busy declaring his innocence and plotting ways to play the legal system and beat his charges. Despite the fact that Up includes a few songs that portray damaged, twisted characters in a deeply unflattering light, the alleged murderer of “Diminished” seems rather sympathetic thanks to Stipe’s soft, low-key vocal performance and the piece’s subtle, melancholy arrangement, which makes a lot of sense if you consider that this sort of dark fantasy is more likely to end in self-pity rather than condemnation.

Falls To Climb

August 22, 2007

The protagonist of “Falls To Climb” is a potentially delusional sad sack with extremely low self-esteem. He sulks his way through the song, lamenting his poor choices, bad luck, and is overly eager to take the blame, presumably for things that are not even his fault. He’s kinda pathetic, but still, somehow,  it’s hard not to feel bad for the guy. There’s a transparent cynicism in his desire to become a martyr, but that doesn’t exactly negate his willingness to sacrifice himself, or deny him the dignity that he claims at the end of the song. Most of the Up deals with characters who find themselves at a low moment, and either rise to the occasion or fall deeper into despair, and the ascension at the conclusion of “Falls To Climb” ends the album on a positive, if somewhat depressing, note. The arrangement underplays the drama of the piece, but allows for moments of miniaturized grandeur, most notably when the diffuse track suddenly picks up at its climax with clumsy, abrupt drum rolls that become a steady beat as the character becomes more confident.

You’re In The Air

August 1, 2007

The arrangement of “You’re In The Air” is constantly shifting focus, leaving the impression that its instrumental elements are lifting, sinking, or passing through each other as if they were intangible. The one point of consistent emphasis is Michael Stipe’s voice, which itself is quietly shifting between emotions without ever expressing a single, intense, uncomplicated feeling. Every thought and every emotion in the song is burdened with history and conflicted desires, and so even when he sounds as though he’s found some sort of clarity or control, his words seem punctuated by a row of question marks. Stipe’s words mainly draw on the automatic romance of the stars and the elements, but the most stunning moment in the song comes when he cuts straight to the heart of the matter, singing “you say you want me” like a question, a challenge, and a reminder to both himself and his lover.

Sad Professor

July 22, 2007

I was there when R.E.M. debuted this song at the Tibetan Freedom Concert in 1998. I taped the show on a crappy walkman, and listened to the songs over and over for weeks, savoring this song and “Suspicion” in particular. For some reason, I was convinced that “Sad Professor” was going to be an enormous hit, but I didn’t know what it was called back then — Michael Stipe introduced the song with a line like “this is…it,” and so I figured that it was called “It.” The chorus in that version was a lot more dramatic, with Michael’s voice shooting up on the line “I started, I jumped up.” The album recording is deliberately understated — his voice is alternately reversed, clipped, and awkward, and the accompaniment jangles along in slow motion as ambient noise hangs behind it. There’s no percussion, and when the dynamics shift, it’s like someone fumbling around in a hungover haze.

That last bit is not an accident. The title is very literal: It’s a song about a despondent, alcoholic academic who breaks down and wallows in self-pity. Stipe’s view of academia is rather bleak — “professors muddled in their intent / to try to rope in follows / to float their malcontent” — but his character rings true, and his stilted, pretentious words prop up his ego while distancing himself from his “readers.” Even when he’s hit rock bottom, he still tries to put himself in a position of superiority and authority. He knows he’s a bore and a drunk, but his sob story just seems like a self-conscious attempt to spin his broken life into something sort of glamorous — a “lit invention,” as he puts it. There are more despicable characters in other R.E.M. songs, but the “Sad Professor” may be Stipe’s most pathetic protagonist.


May 29, 2007

“Airportman” is the first song on R.E.M.’s first album without Bill Berry. It was also the first song in their first concert without him on June 14th, 1998 at the Tibetan Freedom Concert in Washington, DC. It was the first song at my first R.E.M. concert, and they have not played it since.

The version that they played on that day was even more ethereal than the recording that would eventually be the lead track on Up. If I recall correctly, the percussion was 100% live, and there was a greater emphasis on the chimey sounds, almost like straight-up New Age music with a muted new wave pulse. Stipe’s voice was buried in the mix even more so than on the album, and it pretty much sounded nothing at all like what anyone would have ever expected from R.E.M. back then, or even now.

Opening that show and the album with a song as mellow and atmospheric as “Airportman” was a very bold move, but then again, where the hell else were they supposed to put a composition like that? It’s the sort of track that either goes at the start or nowhere at all. Out of all of the opening cuts in R.E.M.’s catalog, it is by far the most gentle and cinematic as it eases us into the mood of the piece before dropping us into the action of the subsequent track.

Why Not Smile

May 21, 2007

“You’ve been sad for a while / why not smile?” is not an easy lyric to pull off without seeming sappy, cloying, reductive, or flat-out insulting. The only reason it works in “Why Not Smile” is because R.E.M. are fully aware of that, and so those words hit the listener with exactly the right note of fatigued optimism. Unlike “Everybody Hurts,” this isn’t a song for the depressed person — it’s for the people who struggle to support friends, family, and lovers who can’t break free from their despondency. Michael Stipe sounds sober and worn out, but above all, empathetic and patient as he admits his frustration while maintaining that he would do anything to help the person he’s addressing. The music builds as the song progresses, but it’s not at all melodramatic. Every new element in the arrangement is gentle and warm as it wraps around its melodic center, making the tune feel like the musical equivalent of an intimate, heartfelt hug.


April 11, 2007

I really like what J. Edward Keyes had to say about this song in his excellent “Playing God” essay about Up for Stylus a few years ago:

Made almost entirely out of neon tubing, “Parakeet” hums and glows like, well, like a mechanical bird. 100% electronic piano, “Parakeet” sounds like the karaoke track to another, bigger song.

That’s a pretty accurate description of its sound, but it doesn’t quite address my favorite thing about the song — i.e., the way it twists a feeling of discomfort and dislocation into an oddly pleasurable sensation. “Parakeet” is essentially about a bird yearning for an escape from confinement and existential dread, and though it seems to find a safe haven by the end of the song, it’s pretty clear from the beginning that it’s all just a fantasy. Though the lyrics are rather bleak and hopeless, the general tone of the piece is that of pensive resignation, not despair or depression. There’s a subtle hint of contentment in both the music and the words, or at least enough to acknowledge the vague comfort of limitations, especially when they are self-imposed.

At My Most Beautiful

April 1, 2007

Depending on how you parse some lyrics, there’s a fair few sentimental love songs in the R.E.M. discography, but none of them are nearly as straightforward and sweet as “At My Most Beautiful.” Musically, it’s an obvious Beach Boys pastiche, and one of the few post-Berry numbers to strongly emphasize vocal harmonies. It’s a very pretty track, but without Michael Stipe’s wonderfully specific lyrics, it wouldn’t be much more than yet another tribute to Brian Wilson’s gift for evoking the innocent beauty of new love.

Stipe’s voice is soft and demure as he finds the romance in mundane details — his lover is exceeding patient when listening to his stilted poetry; he saves their phone messages to hear their voice; he’s always pleasantly surprised that they always say their name when leaving a voice mail “like I wouldn’t know it’s you.” If you have a heart, there’s only one way to respond to all of this: Awwwwwwwwwww!

Stipe seems remarkably vulnerable in this song; just helplessly in love. The title is “At My Most Beautiful,” and crucially, he makes it clear in the second verse that he only feels beautiful in the reflection of his lover’s adoration. It’s not the most assertive sentiment in the world, but it’s humble, honest, and emotionally true.