by Laurent Kelly
REM were the pioneers of the alternative rock movement engaging listeners with their versatile music style and enduring lyrical power for close to three decades. Given their recent split I thought I’d pay tribute with what I feel are the ten greatest tracks from one of my all time favourite bands.
10.) POP SONG 89 (1989)
An accurate song on the forced and mundane nature of small talk and in particular trying to chat someone up at a party or social event. “Should we talk about the weather” sums up the awkwardness of meeting people and not really knowing what, how and when to say things, an uncomfortable sensation which I’m sure most of us can relate to.
With the rather downbeat lyrics juxtaposed by a pacey soundtrack Pop Song 89 captures a common truth whilst also making us feel better by mocking it at the same time.
9.) BEGIN THE BEGIN (1986)
I have no idea what this song is about but its instrumental force is so raw, intense and catchy that I don’t really mind. The contrast in vocals from the brooding verses to the pacey, urgently sung chorus creates a fantastically layered sound which makes each new listen refreshing and just takes you into another place for a few minutes. Just an awesome musical achievement.
8.) TRY NOT TO BREATHE (1992)
A commendanble song for making a dark subject seem uplifting. A man or woman on their deathbed is trying not to breathe because they want their life to end on their own terms and not become a robot who is no longer in control of their physical behaviour or emotions. “These are the eyes that I want you to remember” perfectly sums up the situation in this fascinating song which manages to be political without rambling and emotional without appearing over the top.
7.) SWEETNESS FOLLOWS (1992)
A deeply moving song about coming to terms with grief (in this case bereavement) and trying to reassure with the optimistic chorus line that “sweetness follows.” The singer wonders whistfully about how one minute a family unit was “lost in their own little lives” but then suddenly death has caused everything to be magnified and horrifyingly real. Nonetheless the promise that some sort of sweetness will follow with time and that perhaps these little things will become meaningful again coats the song in a stirring blend of optimism and depression.
6.) SO CENTRAL RAIN (SORRY) (1984)
The singer sadfully reflects on a relationship that for whatever reason never came to fruition encapsulated in the line “Go build yourself another home, this choice isn’t mine.” In the chorus he merely repeats the word “sorry” letting each delivery linger desperately in the air, the passion of the vocal deeply contrasting with the passionless recital of each verse. Is he struggling to resign to his fate and apologising one last time in the hope that his voice will be heard by the woman he loves? Or is he saying sorry for not being the man that she wanted?
I don’t know but I do know that this song is awesome with enigmatic, thought provoking lyrics and an unforgettable tune.
5.) EVERYBODY HURTS (1993)
Easily the most accesible song on Automatic for the People and though it lacks the lyrical ambiguity and instrumental complexity of other songs on the album it is undoubtedly its most outright moving and powerful.
On paper Everybody Hurts appears quite sickly in its overwrought transparency but Stripe sings with such tenderness and the tune is so beautifully melancholy that it makes lines such as “Sometimes everything is wrong, Now it’s time to sing along….” sound both stirring and inspirational.
All in all the execution of the record helps to make Everybody Hurts a heart rendering ballad about finding hope in a dark situation.
4.) TONGUE (1995)
Stripe shows off his wide ranging vocal skills as he actually adopts a higher pitched more feminine falsetto to get into the mindset of his female protagonist. Coming off the back of what appears to be a nasty break up Tongue reveals how the once sweet details of a relationship i.e. “a make up painted face”, and “that name on the record player” now appear agonising and heartbreaking to behold. Still however the most telling line is where Stripe sings that he “should” toss these things away but doesn’t because these are bittersweet memories which are upsetting but precious all the same. A lesser songwriter would have rejoiced in the enpowering sensation of someone destroying these past artefacts but Stripe is much more in tune with the twisted mindset of his unfortunate subject.
Does this song remind anyone else of Tracks for my Tears?
3.) DRIVE (1992)
There are numerous interpretations for this intensely constructed classic but for me it has always resonated as a song about the nature of escapism. Some “walk”, others “drive” others “rock around the clock” basically whatever it takes to be at peace with yourself and find solace within stressful situations. The lyrics “nobody tells you what to do” and “maybe your crazy in your head” make me think about being in a secret place where one is free to act naturally and be themselves rather than confront the rigid rules of society. Accompanied by a sweeping operatic tune this song gets Automatic for the People off to a hell of a start.
2.) LOSING MY RELIGION (1991)
A much loved mainstream record which also manages to be impressively ambigious. For me the song resembles a couple coming towards the end of their relationship and the singer trying to stop it all from crumbling by “keeping up” with his partner which seems to imply that he is trying to change himself in order to appeal to them so that he doesn’t have to keep noticing “the distance in (their) eyes.”
As it all disintegrates he feels like he is losing his religion which has been the faith instilled in his relationship as he tries desperately to win the affections of his loved one whilst also finding himself caught up in a constant and dreaded state of panic as to whether or not he is opting for the right approach, a sentiment which is perfectly encapsualted in the lines “Oh no I’ve said too much / I haven’t said enough.”
Meanwhile he imagines for a moment that his partner is also trying to save the relationship but he solemenly reflects at the end that this was just a dream both literally and in the everyday hopefulness that he relies upon to keep his faith strong.
Oh and it’s also ridiculously catchy.
1.) NIGHTSWIMMING (1993)
With the line “these things they go away, replaced by everyday” Stripe captures the thematic drive of this beautiful, haunting record. Nightswimming is an admiably crafted reflection on the divide between adulthood and childhood and the self-consciousness and self-doubt that makes the former long so passionately for another taste of the latter.
The “photograph on the dashboard” which is positioned so that each streetlight reveals a memory in reverse is a fascinating description of how our minds remember the past in little bits and pieces and probably more fondly than it actually was at the time.
Sung with heartfelt nostalgia and carried through with a relaxed and moving instrumental orchestration Nightswimming is pretty much a timeless record.