One of my first musical memories is of sitting in the backseat of my dad’s car, a place where the air tasted stale and hot and comforting, listening to R.E.M.’s mandolin-driven masterpiece “Losing My Religion.” I was four when we moved to my current hometown, and I remember beginning to learn the layout of Petaluma, California as my dad drove around playing Out of Time. I loved the abrupt shifts of “Radio Song” (especially to KRS-One’s boisterous rap verse) and of course, the fantastically kid-friendly “Shiny Happy People” (a song I probably should have outgrown by now, but that gleaming guitar riff still does it for me) — but even my four-year-old ear could pick out the hit. “Losing My Religion” was melancholy, adult and was saying something absolutely real. It didn’t matter that I didn’t quite understand what that was; I felt it and believed it.
However, as it turns out, I don’t think that gap in understanding was between my childish mind and an adult one. I think it’s a gap between R.E.M. and any listener.
R.E.M., or more specifically singer and lyricist Michael Stipe, rarely communicates a clear narrative or message. There is an incredibly natural synthesis between R.E.M.’s instrumentation and the vocal delivery, but rarely a fully decipherable set of lyrics. This is not to say that Stipe is an ineffective writer. In fact, Stipe’s lyrics may be closer to the form of poetry than most rock lyricism, in their oblique refusal to explain their own significance.
What is striking about Stipe’s writing is that, generally speaking, it collapses completely without the music behind it. However, with the band backing him, his words achieve a unique power, in no small part because of Stipe’s warm, somewhat nasal and beautifully flawed voice. I can think of no more moving vocal tic than the slight cracks in Stipe’s voice in “Nightswimming.”
This makes sense; R.E.M. is famous for having been a highly democratic operation, in which all four members (drummer Bill Berry left in 1997; the other three continued on until 2011) had an equal voice in the construction of the songs, although Stipe always penned the lyrics himself. This balance is evident in their music; all four elements are remarkable in their own right, but together they just make sense in a way few bands do.
Trying to summarize what is great about R.E.M. is difficult, because there are so many different R.E.M.’s. There’s the introverted but supremely tuneful folk-rock of the early ‘80s, the gradually more muscular and commercial rock of the late ‘80s, the experimental, melancholy baroque-pop of the early ‘90s, whatever one calls the semi-grunge sludge of 1994’s Monster, the subdued, forgettable flailing that followed Berry’s departure, and the reinvigorated arena-rock of the mid ‘00s, R.E.M.’s final incarnation.
Which is the best R.E.M.? That question is open for debate; unlike many other bands, there is no universally accepted “greatest” R.E.M. album. Some would say debut Murmur, others might suggest the hard-rock Document, others would champion the beautifully sad Automatic for the People. (Side note: Lifes Rich Pageant is the band’s most varied and representative work, and in my opinion R.E.M.’s best entrance point. Side note two: don’t sleep on the criminally underrated New Adventures in Hi-Fi.)
Despite its knowing indirectness, R.E.M.’s music lacks the irony that was the pride of many alternative-rock bands that coexisted with and followed them, such as the Smiths, Pavement and Nirvana. The most fitting heir to R.E.M.’s legacy of restless experimentation might be Radiohead, except that Radiohead never put its heart on its sleeve in the unabashed way that R.E.M. does. There is an earnesty to R.E.M. that left it vulnerable to snobbish condescension. Sometimes this earnesty descends into maudlinism (“Everybody Hurts”) or cheesiness (“Stand”). Mostly, however, R.E.M.’s emotional, if not literal, directness results in profoundly moving music.
I returned to Out of Time in sixth grade, when I was investigating my parents’ CD collection and discovering a whole new world outside of the Pirates of the Caribbean soundtracks that had previously made up my musical diet. Out of Time’s penultimate track is a song called “Country Feedback” and is Stipe’s professed favorite R.E.M. song. I don’t think I had ever heard it before, because my dad and I rarely got past the halfway point of the album while driving around.
“Country Feedback” was an exciting find as a sixth grader, because of its single, emphatic use of “fuck.” I found the song a bit monotonous, but I listened to it anyway solely because of that thrilling moment. Listening to it now, I have a much deeper appreciation for the song’s tense, weary depiction of a relationship nearing its end. The end of the song finds Stipe repeating the phrase “I need this,” and I think that moment encapsulates everything I love about R.E.M. The song is about mood and image rather than narrative, and so what “this” refers to is not perfectly clear, but I can think of no delivery of a lyric that I believe in my gut more. You don’t understand or decipher R.E.M.’s music; you feel it, you believe it. The silly and wonderful words of one of their finest songs say it best: “I believe in coyotes / and time as an abstract … I believe.”
Jack Jones is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected] Despite All the Amputations runs alternate Wednesdays this semester.