Find The River

June 13, 2008

Automatic For The People is commonly understood as being R.E.M.’s Album About Death, but it’s more accurate to say that it’s actually about living with the awareness of mortality. As if to stress this point, the album leaves us at the beginning, with a character about to leave the comfort of childhood and search for their own path in a big, scary, beautiful world. It’s not an easy thing, but even through our protagonist’s fear and frustration — “nothing is going my way!” — he is aware that some unknown reward for his strength and courage is somewhere out there on the horizon. If “Everybody Hurts” is telling you to hold on, “Find The River” is explaining why: Your just deserve is only just light years to go, and all of this is coming your way. 

The song is among the most deliberately pastoral in the entire R.E.M. discography, to the point that perhaps a quarter of the overall lyrics refer to herbs, roots, and vegetables. (It is, no doubt, the most delicious of all R.E.M. songs.) The river and water imagery calls back to Reckoning, but this time around, it’s not quite so menacing. Instead, the river is a simple metaphor for a rambling, natural path to a greater destination. 

“Find The River” is not a complicated song, but it may be one of the finest and most powerful arrangements of the band’s career, drawing on most of the quartet’s greatest musical assets while not sounding quite like any other song in their catalog. Peter Buck’s acoustic rhythms and melodies are outstanding despite — or more likely because of — its elemental simplicity, and Michael Stipe’s vocal performance on the album recording ranks among his all-time best studio takes. Crucially, the contrasting vocal harmonies carry much of the song’s emotional weight. As Bill Berry sings a humble, low key part, Mike Mills gives a passionate, deeply affecting performance that nearly rivals the power of Michael’s lead vocal.

West Of The Fields

June 13, 2008

As the final song on Murmur, “West Of The Fields” revisits the core themes of the record — dreams, mythology, difficulty with communication, synesthesia — bringing the album full circle, while ending on what feels more like a set of ellipses rather than a declarative full stop. This is very appropriate to the general aesthetic of Murmur — it’s enigmatic, off-kilter, and aloof; it makes perfect sense that it’d just mumble some cryptic words and sprint off into the distance in its final moments.

In the broadest sense, “West Of The Fields” appears to be a song about the significance of the dreamscape and its connection to our understanding of the waking world and the collective unconscious. Michael Stipe describes a “dream of living jungle” as if it were a distant memory of a primal state, and that thought overlaps with a dream of the Elysian fields — the final resting place of the heroic in Greek mythology. It’s hard to tell what Stipe is implying, or if he’s really trying to make a statement at all, but there seems to be some line drawn from the notions of religion and mythology to the uncivilized, untamed nature of animals in the wild. Either scene would seem to take place in some idealized past, and the tone of the song suggests a feeling of dread, particularly when the chorus hits. (Mike Mills’ backing vocals in the call-and-response seem especially panicked in contrast with Stipe’s more defiant tone.)

Of all the songs on Murmur, “West Of The Fields” has the greatest feeling of urgency, to the point that it feels vaguely like a horror movie. This is due largely to Bill Berry’s brisk tempo, and the range of textures in Peter Buck’s uncharacteristically complicated chord progression. Amid many intriguing chords and flourishes, the most memorable bit is arguably Mills’ vaguely funky descending bass line at the end of each verse.

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.


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.

Orange Crush

June 6, 2008

Though “Orange Crush” owes a significant stylistic debt to Gang of Four, a band R.E.M. have name-checked throughout their career, the song is actually more like R.E.M.’s equivalent to U2’s “Bullet The Blue Sky.” U2’s song predates R.E.M.’s by about a year — by the time The Joshua Tree was in stores, an early draft of “Orange Crush” became a setlist staple on the tour for Document. There are some major differences between the two, but the songs have extremely similar utilities in the context of each band’s live repertoire. Essentially, both songs evoke the sound of “war,” mainly by abstracting martial rhythms and nervous, trebly guitar parts into something that somehow has the same effect in an arena as a thundering metal riff. For each band, the arrival of the song in their set signals two things to the audience:

1) Now It Is Time For Us To Rock Hard, In A Very Serious Way

2) War Is Very Bad; Please Think About That While We Rock

U2 have embraced the abstracted, amorphous quality of “Bullet The Blue Sky,” and have done their best to reinvent the song for each new tour. This is a good idea in pragmatic terms, but in practice, it’s gutted the song, and in some cases, canceled out its original sentiment. Chris Conroy explains:

“Bullet The Blue Sky” suffers from pretty much the exact same identity crisis. It’s been played on every tour since it was written, largely because the band don’t have any other songs in their catalogue that will allow them to show off bruising hard-rock chops. It, too, is a profoundly anti-violent song — it was written in disgust at how the American military was used to subjugate dissent in Central America — but every time it gets trotted out, Bono desperately tries to make it new and relevant by pointing it at some other conflict. On the Elevation tour, he came the closest he’s come to successfully making it matter again, turning it into a sharp attack on gun violence with a hammy-but-haunting riff on the murder of John Lennon by Mark Chapman. Seeing that song shoved down America’s throat when it was played on the first leg of Elevation was remarkable: here was a band that actually did have the balls to say something that large segments of the audience might not like; here was a band who wrote songs that represented their ideals, and performed them with conviction. But after September 11th, the band dropped that level of interpretation from the song, and hearing it played in New York City became a disturbing experience: inside the arena, it felt like the audience was taking the song up as a battle cry, as a “we want revenge” violence fantasy, losing themselves in the brutality of the music and not in its lyrics of condemnation for the exercise of force.

On the Vertigo tour, “Bullet The Blue Sky” has become spectacularly muddled. It’s obviously impossible to sing a song about the American military abroad in this climate without having that song be about the Iraq war, and Bono knows it; he’s been incorporating “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” into the lyric, and suddenly the song becomes bizarrely, schizophrenically, pro-soldier — at last night’s show, Bono quite literally dedicated the song to “the brave men and women of the United States Military.” How are we supposed to take that? Obviously conflicts like the Iraq war can produce a difficult line to straddle — it’s virtually impossible to respect what the soldiers are being required to do, but it’s impossible not to respect the impulse to serve one’s country in the name of idealism. A song about hating the sin but loving the sinner could definitely be a rich gold mine for the band to explore, but “Bullet The Blue Sky” is not that song.

Much to their credit, R.E.M. have never lost sight of what “Orange Crush” is about, and despite being performed on every one of their tours since 1987, it’s certainly not played often enough to become the tired ritual that “Bullet” has become for U2 fans. Lyrically, “Orange Crush” is in a peculiar zone in which the words are a bit too vague to draw out a particular narrative, but specific enough that it’s impossible to remove the song from its context — the American army, and the Viet Nam war. That said, its central theme is easy enough to suss out: In American society, young men are taken out of their ordinary lives and sent overseas, often to perform horrific duties in the name of freedom.

There is certainly some implied question of whether this is a Good Thing, but that’s not necessarily the focus. Instead, Michael Stipe seems far more concerned with what happens to individual soldiers, and how they may deal with being thrown into these intense, life or death scenarios, and how they may cope with being complicit in acts of large scale violence. The chorus of the song is atypical but highly effective; its odd contrast of anguished moans, howls, and incomprehensible distorted words places the listener in the mindset of a soldier thrown headlong into chaos.

Stipe’s empathetic approach no doubt comes from the fact that his father served as a helicopter pilot in Viet Nam. The band have insisted for years that the song is not about Michael’s father, and I’m inclined to agree, at least not in the sense that the lyrics are meant to express anything specific about that man’s experience. The important thing is that Stipe’s connection to his father informs his concept of war, and goes a long way towards humanizing a song that would not have to be anything more than vague signifiers and empty platitudes in order to connect with a large audience.

Feeling Gravitys Pull

June 5, 2008

Whereas a huge number of songs in the R.E.M. discography in some way examine the relationship between dreams and waking life, “Feeling Gravitys Pull” is fully immersed in Michael Stipe’s dream world. The song works against all odds — dream logic is almost always extraordinarily difficult to describe in a way that does justice to the workings of your unconscious mind, and anyone who has ever humored a friend as they attempt to recount a particularly evocative dream knows that it’s often a very dull chore. Stipe’s lyrics work mainly because his imagery is vivid and interesting enough to be effective in any context, and he’s not writing about a dream so much as writing about the experience of dreaming in general. In the song, the dreamscape is both a thing of mysterious, somewhat terrifying beauty, and a domain where a person can overcome the rules of society and the laws of physics, and achieve a sort of power and freedom they could never know when awake and in the real world. The song is defiant; the sound of someone finding power in a life in which they have no choice but to be passive to the humbling forces of nature.

“Feeling Gravitys Pull” is among the band’s finest compositions. It’s a very tense and moody piece of music, and much of its power comes from the way the group are capable of subtly shifting between dense, claustrophobic passages and sequences that are both grandiose and ethereal. In particular, Peter Buck shines with one of the most distinct guitar parts in his repertoire — a sinister lead line that alternates with a clanging, metallic rhythm that chugs along with Mike Mills’ thick, menacing bass part and Bill Berry’s subtly vertiginous percussion on the verses.


May 28, 2008

You probably don’t know “Harpers.” It’s not an R.E.M. song, but Michael Stipe co-wrote it with the band Hugo Largo, and it appeared on that band’s Stipe-produced debut EP Drum. That’s not the reason why the song is included on this site, though. Between Berry, Buck, Mills, and Stipe, there are quite a few random collaborations that ought to be considered non-canonical; “Harpers” gets the nod because Stipe performed the song a cappella at the overwhelming majority of R.E.M. concerts between 1986 and 1990. The tune normally popped up at some point in the encores — this was back in the day when R.E.M. could be expected to play as many as four sets of encores on any given night — and was relatively brief, rarely cracking the two minute mark. It’s a gorgeous song, but not quite within Michael’s range, and it forced him to reach up to the tippy top of his highest register, usually with mildly embarrassing results. Weirdly enough, this was something Stipe seemed to enjoy doing during this period — you can hear him do the same thing on “Dark Globe” and “After Hours,” and he’d toss it into his own songs here and there. It’s kinda adorable, but also a bit annoying.

Thanks to Kirsten.

I Took Your Name

May 27, 2008

Monster is essentially an album about identity — or more specifically, the fluidity of identity. “I Took Your Name” takes that core concept and pushes it to the most evil extreme: Malicious identity theft and deliberate, sadistic defamation of character. There are a handful of R.E.M. songs sung from the perspective of creepy individuals, but the character in “I Took Your Name” is the only one that is played as a straight-up super villain, right on down to the fact that he’s fairly obsessed with making sure that his nemesis is aware that HE is the one responsible for their downfall, like a bad guy in a James Bond movie. That’s pretty crucial, actually. Our antagonist here is defined by his vanity, and he’s overly concerned with style and affectation. Much of the song is about co-opting and corrupting the image of his rival, who I suppose we can glean to be some sort of rock star, given the references to Iggy Pop and master tapes. It’s a pretty funny song, actually — all of the character’s claims, however menacing, are a just bit skewed and over-the-top.

The arrangement echoes Michael Stipe’s delicate balance of the silly and the sinister, mainly by reprising the thick, heavy-handed tremolo effect of “Crush With Eyeliner,” but applying it to a much darker groove. Basically, if Peter Buck’s guitar effect on “Crush With Eyeliner” is a bit like the image of heat waves rising off of hot concrete, “I Took Your Name” is like the disorienting aftermath of getting hit in the head with a frying pan.

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.

The Great Beyond

May 22, 2008

“The Great Beyond” is the closest thing to a sequel in the R.E.M. discography. The song was composed for the soundtrack of Milos Forman’s Andy Kaufman biopic Man On The Moon, and its thematic and musical continuity with the band’s hit of the same name does not seem like an accident. Whereas “Man On The Moon” grounds the spiritual quest of its agnostic protagonist in folksy chords and country affectations,  the mild psychedelia of “The Great Beyond” seems to launch its character deep into the cosmos. It’s still the same journey, but “The Great Beyond” is just further along — Kaufman remains a sort of patron saint, but this time around,  he’s not called out by name. Instead, by being less specific, we get to the heart of why Kaufman was invoked in the first place: Michael Stipe is essentially characterizing the artist — any artist, but he chose comedians, probably because they are seldom taken seriously — as a person whose job it is to interpret the world, and attempt to suss out its meaning. “Man On The Moon” is loose enough to be universal; it could be anyone’s search for truth and reason, but “The Great Beyond” emphasizes the notion that any sort of understanding must spring from intuition, creativity, and courage.

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.

King Of Comedy

April 27, 2008

“King Of Comedy” evolved from another unreleased song from the Monster sessions called “Yes, I Am Fucking With You.” I assume that there are two reasons why that title did not carry over to the finished product: First, and most obviously, it would have caused some problems for the band at retailers such as Walmart. Secondly, that title would’ve made it a little too easy for the listener because yes, Michael Stipe is fucking with you in this song.

There’s a great deal of irony on the Monster album, but “King Of Comedy” is by far the most ironic track, to the point that it’s very difficult to discern whether or not there’s even the tiniest moment of uncomplicated sincerity in its three minutes and forty-one seconds. Throughout Monster, Stipe distorts his voice in order to distance himself from his characters, and this song is the most extreme example, with his processed, mechanical staccato delivery rendering him nearly unrecognizable. The lyrics overflow with cynicism, not just in its advice for advancing a career in the arts, but also in how an artist relates to their audience. It’s easy to take it all as being a simple mockery of ambition and celebrity, but the reason the piece works comes down to the reality that on some level, Stipe relates to the pragmatism and pessimism in the song’s advice.

“King Of Comedy” speaks to a deep ambivalence about the singer’s motivation, and a conflict between self-image and public image. In a way, it picks up where “Turn You Inside-Out” leaves off, with a performer who has become acutely aware of the power he wields over an audience, and attempting to feel out a way to hang on to it while clinging to his dignity, ethics, and pride. At the end, when he repeatedly exclaims “I’m not commodity,” the emotional meaning seems to vacillate between mourning his complicity in the creation of his celebrity, and putting on a show of false modesty.

It’s worth noting that, even aside from its distorted lead vocal, “King Of Comedy” is a very strange sounding song. Monster is often written off as a “return to rock” album that doesn’t quite deliver, but that’s only if you’re expecting a straight rock record. The truth is, it’s more of a queer rock record, full of skewed, campy glam songs with audio textures that evoke a haze of super-saturated colors. The album doesn’t sound quite like anything else, and with its odd collision of industrial rock, arty noise, and disco, “King Of Comedy” in particular is unlike any other song I’ve ever heard.


April 27, 2008

Though I will always remain baffled by the band’s decision to leave “It’s A Free World, Baby” in non-album limbo, it’s not all that hard to understand why “Fretless” was discarded despite its obvious quality. The problem of “Fretless” is that while it is exceptionally good at evoking this potent, heartbreaking melodrama, it just seems so maudlin in the context of other R.E.M. songs, particularly those on Out Of Time. If it was going to work anywhere, it’d be Automatic For The People, but as far as songs about familial dissolution go, “Sweetness Follows” is far more successful, in part because it doesn’t seem to be actively tugging on the listener’s heart strings. Interestingly, “Fretless” may be the saddest song to ever feature a vocal performance by Kate Pierson — she sounds atypically cold and distant, but she ought to given that she’s standing in for the voice of the mother in this broken family.

Fall On Me

April 26, 2008

In terms of craft, “Fall On Me” may very well be the finest pop song in the R.E.M. catalog. Like many of the best pop tunes, it lands in that rare sweet spot between complexity and simplicity in which every element of the song flows together so perfectly that the listener is so caught up in the effect of the composition that they may never stop to consider its components.

Hey, you know what? Let’s stop to consider the components.

1. There are several guitars — both acoustic and electric — playing on “Fall On Me,” but the arrangement is so light and airy that even when the song thickens on the chorus, the piece still feels light and airy. The shift in textures from one moment to the next is exceptionally subtle, and the mix is so crisp and clean that it’s hard to imagine there were actually any overdubs at all.

2. Mike Mills absolutely shines on this song. Most obviously, his high harmony vocals provide a crucial counterpoint hook in the chorus, but perhaps more importantly, his bass line lends the composition both a sense of lateral motion and emotional weight.  Whereas Michael Stipe’s vocals and Peter Buck’s guitar arpeggios seem to either ascend or hover over the ground, Mills parts tether the piece to the ground, and give voice to the understated melancholy at the heart of the song.

3. Though the lyrics of “Fall On Me” are somewhat vague for what essentially amounts to a protest song calling attention to our complicity in the deterioration of our natural environment, Michael Stipe’s voice and vocal melody is especially earnest and straight-forward. Arguably, this is the first truly mature performance of his career, and among the first Stipe performances to fully trade out slurred phrasing for a skewed approximation of R&B and gospel melisma.

4. Without Bill Berry, “Fall On Me” would be just another pretty folk-pop song.  Without upsetting the tone of the piece, his performance on the drums is remarkably brisk and assertive, which keeps the song from coming across as either wimpy or ethereal. Basically, the band applied 80s production value — loud, reverbed, hard-hitting drums —  to a 60s-style harmony-driven pop tune, and the result is something that feels rather timeless. If Mills’ parts connect the song to the ground, Berry’s parts (including his low vocal harmonies) are the earth itself — heavy, steady, and firm.

All The Right Friends

April 22, 2008

I can’t be fair with “All The Right Friends.” It’s a competent but unremarkable bit of R.E.M. juvenilia that has been totally poisoned for me by its context. First, the song was resurrected from obscurity for the soundtrack of  the utterly dire Tom Cruise vehicle Vanilla Sky. Okay, fine, whatever, it’s not as if the movie really reflects on the quality of the song either way. It was probably a favor, who cares, move on. But then, FOR SOME REASON, the band decided to include it as a track on In Time: The Best Of R.E.M. 1988-2003, which is a very problematic thing if you happen to take greatest hits records even a little bit seriously. First, it makes a lie of that album’s title twice over — most obviously, it’s entirely anachronistic. Not only does the song predate Murmur, its very presence among songs written much later in the band’s career is extremely jarring. Secondly, the song is plainly not the best of anything! Several excellent, highly worthy hits from the 1988-2003 period — “Bang and Blame,” “Pop Song 89,” “Turn You Inside-Out,” “Get Up,” “Drive,” the enormously popular “Shiny Happy People” — were omitted from In Time in order to make room for this totally mediocre tune that wasn’t good enough for the IRS records the first time around. It’s just ridiculous. The only real justification for pushing this song at that point in the band’s career was to make an appeal to old school fans desperate for another taste of the band back in their salad days.  Otherwise, it makes no sense at all.

We Walk

April 8, 2008

If you take the whole of Murmur as something that takes place over the course of one long night, the spritely “We Walk” is like a brisk stroll in the waning moonlight, just before dawn. The tune sounds especially perky and innocent, but its child-like tone is tempered by a slight drowsiness, and faint, ominous booms that punctuate the track like distant thunder. (R.E.M. trivia buffs ought to know that this sound was created by manipulating the recording of balls colliding on a pool table.)

Michael Stipe’s explanation for the song’s lyrical content is somewhat intriguing. Apparently it’s based on visiting a place in Athens called the Print Shop. To get to the main room, one would have to go up a flight of stairs and through a bathroom, where occasionally there would be a person bathing with their arm leaning over the edge of the tub, recalling Jacques-Louis David’s portrait of Jean-Paul Marat, the French Revolutionary who was stabbed to death in his bath by an assassin.  It’s an odd and striking image to be sure, but it’s a curious basis for a song, especially since there is so little to the lyrics aside from the repetition of this sideways allusion to a famous painting.

Around The Sun

April 5, 2008

“Around The Sun” is the first title track of R.E.M.’s career, but ironically, it’s not particularly representative of the album that bears its name. Whereas much of the Around The Sun album leans on adult contemporary balladry and synthetic gloss, “Around The Sun” the song comes off like a hybrid of the folksy jangle of  the band’s IRS period and the solemn beauty of Automatic For The People.  It’s one of the few unqualified successes on the record; a number that allows the band to play to some of their greatest strengths as songwriters and as musicians. If much of the problem with Around The Sun comes down to the group overworking their material out of a fear of repeating themselves, this song shows just how unnecessary it is for them to be anything but themselves. It also goes to show how that impulse can lead to self-sabotage — there’s a moment halfway through “Around The Sun” where the tune could either get bigger, like “Man On The Moon,” or sorta drift away into a gentle reverie. They opt for the latter, and though it’s definitely quite lovely, it’s hard not to get the feeling that they deliberately kept the song from reaching its full potential.


April 3, 2008

“Animal” is a rare and precious thing: A hard rocking R.E.M. song written and recorded after the departure of Bill Berry in 1997, and before the Accelerate sessions in 2007.  Of course, it’s not exactly a conventional rocker — though it gets nice and crunchy on the chorus, most of the song is a cosmic haze carried by a lead guitar hook that somewhat resembles the piano part from “I Don’t Sleep, I Dream.” Lyrically and musically, it’s the closest the band have come to straight-up sci-fi — as  Michael Stipe ponders the future, messages from alien visitors, and the 4th dimension,  the band evoke the feeling of hurtling through time and space, and vibrating at the speed of light. It’s a strange, delirious tune that seems to delight in its own awe and confusion. It’s pretty funny, too — when faced with the promise of truth and salvation via divine/alien intervention, Stipe simply utters a deadpan, Keanu-esque “…whoa!”

Everybody Hurts

March 26, 2008

One of Michael Stipe’s greatest strengths as a singer and lyricist — and presumably, also as a human being in general — is his seemingly effortless ability to convey genuine empathy. This is why so many of his “advice” songs work as well as they do, and why his corniest sentiments are often the most affecting. There’s just something there in his voice that indicates a sincere desire to see people do well, and a root of optimism that anchors even his most dark and cynical moments. As he moves on through his career, he brings up the future with greater frequency in his lyrics, and it makes perfect sense — much of the R.E.M. catalog is concerned with moving onward into the future, and finding ways to improve upon the flaws of the present in that future.

“Everybody Hurts” is an essential R.E.M. song, primarily because on a very basic level, it is about convincing another person that should want to be a part of this future. Out of everything they have ever recorded, it may be the most direct in its mission. Really, it kinda has to be — there is absolutely no use for ambiguity if the object of your song is to console the depressed and talk them out of suicide.

“Everybody Hurts” is a public service, and its arrangement is precisely calibrated to appeal to a person in a state of melancholy, and subtly, gently lift them up into a feeling of hope. There are no empty promises, and no expectations of easy salvation in the song, but there is kindness, generosity, friendship, and the encouragement that pain and suffering are not everlasting things, and that we often have the power to flip those negative experiences into something beautiful and constructive.

If you don’t need to hear any of this, you might find Stipe’s sentiment to be obvious, saccharine, and maybe even a little embarrassing. Good for you, but the reality is, the best, most important advice we ever get is the most simple and straight-forward. When we’re lost, lonely, and hopeless, we need the honest, obvious truth: Everybody hurts sometimes, so hold on. You are not alone.

A Birthday Note: This post marks the first anniversary of this blog’s first entry, and also the 20th birthday of my little brother Andrew. This song is for him.


March 23, 2008

“Bandwagon” is a good old fashioned b-side. It doesn’t require any context to be enjoyable, and it thrives without having to live up to any sort of expectation. It’s doesn’t have the oomph of a proper a-side, and wouldn’t have made much sense if it had been included on Fables of the Reconstruction, but it’s a happy little gem that serves as a fine complement to the levity of “Can’t Get There From Here.”  The song is carried by Peter Buck’s breezy, cheery chord progressions, which is contrasted with a rather cynical and sarcastic lyric by Michael Stipe that gently mocks herd mentality, and comes about as close as he has ever come to telling other musicians not to bite his band’s style.