I realize that saying I greatly prefer the early to mid-period R.E.M. that favored mystery, myth, and beautifully evocative, often cryptic songwriting puts me in with the vast majority. Michael Stipe has proven to be an occasionally powerful songwriter in the straightforward, sympathetic self-help style he’s leaned on since “Everybody Hurts”, but I find most R.E.M. songs post Up that attempt to heal and save to be mawkish at best and, at worst, kind of unlistenable. It’s the biggest problem for me with the otherwise pleasant sounding Collapse into Now – a record that tries to resurrect virtually every creative idea they’ve had since 1992. But after about a half dozen spins this week, I want to like Collapse more than I actually do. It’s not that I doubt Stipe’s sincerity; if anything I admire his ability to approach his writing from such compassionate perspectives. I just find sentiments like “this place is the beat of my heart” (from “Oh My Heart”) and “that’s how heroes are made” (from “Every Day Is Yours to Win”) to be way too clichéd for someone who was one of the music industry’s most expressive writers for so long.
“Hairshirt” is a highlight from Green, R.E.M.’s 1988 major label debut. Musically, along with “You Are the Everything” and “The Wrong Child”, the song predicts their most successful period – the mostly acoustic Out of Time and Automatic for the People from 1991 and ’92, respectively. Lyrically the song is a precursor to the smeared, stream-of-consciousness style that marked some of R.E.M.’s best and most mysterious 90s songs – “Losing My Religion”, “Country Feedback”, “Nightswimming”, and “E-Bow the Letter”. Taken line by line the “Hairshirt” lyrics don’t make a lot of linear sense, but altogether they conjure strong feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and, ultimately, strength in numbers. As far as the latter goes, the song also foreshadows Stipes’ later fascination with empathy (“here I am, in your life, it’s a beauuuuuutiful life”) without ever approaching the cloying sentimental mushiness that mars so many late-period R.E.M. songs. There’s a thin line with life-affirming songs, for me, between ones that make me want to barf and ones that make me want to be a better person. This song, nearly unrivaled in my collection in terms of pure emotive force, makes me want to believe in all the clichés it so effortlessly avoids.
MP3 :: Hairshirt
(from Green. Buy here)
The kicker to all this though is that I wouldn’t change anything about modern R.E.M. if I could, despite the fact that I would undoubtedly like them so much more. The fact that Stipe has been brave enough to sacrifice so much of the band’s hipness and critical good will by indulging in this unquestionably “uncool” side of his writing is perhaps the most punk thing about modern R.E.M.
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