Best tunes of 1992: #20 R.E.M. “Sweetness follows”

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If you were alive back in 1992, you knew R.E.M.’s  “Automatic for the people”. If not the whole album, at the very least, one of or a handful of its six (!) amazing singles.

I had already become a fan of R.E.M. by the time it was released, having discovered them with 1988’s “Green”, bought a copy of 1991’s “Out of time”, and gone back to explore their back catalogue, I was eagerly awaiting this album’s release. When I originally heard the first single, “Drive”, I knew we were in for it. And we definitely we. Now more than 25 years after its release, it is easily considered their finest hour. It was also a huge commercial success, selling millions upon millions worldwide and obtaining platinum status, in some cases multiple times over, in more than ten countries.

It was the singles that I loved from the beginning and they were definitely great but I’d be hard-pressed to point out a weak song on the album. And nowadays, it’s the less obvious that have stuck with me and become favourites. Case in point is today’s focus, “Sweetness follows”. It was never released as a single and is almost hidden on the album at track six, just behind the lone instrumental tune on the album. But it is there nonetheless. Beautiful.

I think its inclusion on the soundtrack for Cameron Crowe’s “Vanilla sky”, almost a decade later, was what did it for me. The film itself wasn’t wonderful, a Hollywood remake of an excellent Spanish film, and starring Tom Cruise, but the soundtrack was a masterpiece. Glancing at the names, you might be forgiven for calling it eclectic. Listening to it, especially as a backdrop to the film, is a whole different experience and it almost saves the film, giving it its overarching mood and surreal feel. This song’s appearance late in the film was a pleasant surprise but while watching it play out, I realized that I may have not ever listened to it properly before that moment.

The reverberating and distorted cello shares a space with an acoustic strum, a sustained organ wash, and of course, Stipe’s inimitable vocals, forelorn, sad, and lost. It is all about death and loss and darkness and of course, the sun rising after the bleakest of nights, washing away the dread and sadness and the most heart-wrenching of nightmares.

“Oh, oh, but sweetness follows.”

Yep. Beautiful.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 1992 list, click here.

Best albums of 1988: #5 R.E.M. “Green”

R.E.M.’s sixth album “Green” was the first album I owned by the band. In fact, this album’s second single, “Stand”, was my introduction to R.E.M.. I distinctly remember watching a music video show, though I can’t recall now whether it was a countdown or not, and the video for “Stand” being played in the same segment as Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t worry, be happy”. (If that song gets stuck in your head today, I’m truly sorry.) I bought the album shortly afterward on cassette tape, but not just your run of the mill cassette. No. It was a ‘metal’ cassette, whatever that means. I likely paid a few extra dollars for that adjective too. Did I notice a difference? I was fourteen or fifteen, so likely not. Indeed, the only reason I remember this piece of trivia at all is that I still have said ‘metal’ cassette tape amongst my ‘things’ in a box in the basement.

“Green” was R.E.M.’s first album released on major label Warner Bros., having fulfilled their contract with I.R.S. the previous year. It was the second album of five produced by Scott Litt, a run of albums that can easily be considered R.E.M.’s glory years. It was the first album to introduce Peter Buck’s use of the mandolin, which would later be used as a basis for some of their biggest hits. So yeah, they were still being experimental and provocative on a major label and yet they saw greater success with the money backing them. The album hit both the US and UK album charts, saw a couple of hit singles, and went double platinum in the states. Perhaps the commercial success was related to those singles, which are easy to pick out from the album, sounding as if the band made a concerted effort to write hits, a possible concession to their label for allowing them such creative freedom.

It was these singles that definitely drew me to R.E.M. but I grew to love all of “Green” with repeat plays. As I mentioned above, this was my gateway to their excellent back catalogue and kept me coming back for future albums throughout the 90s. Two of my three picks for you are from these hit singles and the other, well, it’s a personal fave.


”Stand”: “Stand in the place where you live. Now face north. Think about direction. Wonder why you haven’t before.” The chorus of “Stand”, words which I’ve sung along with countless times, never wondering what they were all about, are, according to Michael Stipe and Peter Buck, among they stupidest and inane the band has ever come out with. Perhaps subconsciously this is why I’ve never thought too hard on them. Yeah, the song which introduced me to the group was purposely crafted to sound on par with the pop songs they loved from the 60s. It’s no wonder, then, that it’s so infectious and catchy. (Maybe not to the degree of “Don’t worry, be happy”. Whoops. Sorry.) The beat and melodious guitars just beg a hop and wriggle dance, not unlike the one featured in the video.

”World leader pretend”: Even before I learned that track five on side one was Stipe’s tribute to Leonard Cohen, I loved the tune. The wordplay, like on many R.E.M. tunes, is great, but particularly so here. “This is my mistake. Let me make it good. I raised the wall and I will be the one to knock it down.” The inner turmoil and internal war-waging game is strong and we are left guessing whether he wants to correct his mistake or make it a real doozy. Likely, it’s a bit of column A and a bit of column B. The instrumentation has always appealed to me on this song too, the pedal steel and cello further dampening the melancholy with a fresh run of tears. And Stipe nails it, resting his vocals on the low ledge, tentative and introverted.

”Orange crush”: “Stand” was a huge hit for the band but it wasn’t their first. “Orange crush” was the advanced promotional single and it was massive. Widely misunderstood, which is definitely not hard with Stipe’s purposefully vague lyrics, it is an anti-war song. And the hints are there, from the sampled military cadence and shuffling of boots to the machine gun guitar riffs and drum rhythms. The title is a reference to Agent orange (not the soda drink), a chemical weapon that was used indiscriminately during the Vietnam war, which brings a whole other level of hurt to this line. “I’ve had my fun and now it’s time to serve your conscience overseas (over me, not over me). Coming in fast, over me.” Heart breaking and beautiful and still with that R.E.M. jangle and shine.


Check back next Thursday for album #4. In the meantime, here are the previous albums in this list:

10. The Sugarcubes “Life’s too good”
9. Erasure “The innocents”
8. Billy Bragg “Worker’s playtime”
7. Jane’s Addiction “Nothing’s shocking”
6. Leonard Cohen “I’m your man”

You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.

Best tunes of 2011: #22 R.E.M. “ÜBerlin”

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A couple of days ago I posted a tune from the era that is arguably R.E.M.’s apex for my Best tunes of 1991 list and today I present my favourite tune from the end of their career. “ÜBerlin” was the third single released off the American alternative rock band’s fifteenth and final album, “Collapse into now”. And yeah, it’s awesome.

R.E.M. had just come off one of their most successful albums in years, 2008’s “Accelerate”, and during the tour in support of it, all three members had independently decided that it was time to go out on a high note. With this in mind, they recorded their last album, knowing that these sessions would be the last time they would perform together. Then, they broke up officially, six months after its release. There are apparently hints throughout the record that this would be it but if the clues are there, I never heard them. Perhaps it’s because I didn’t want to hear them. I remember first listening to “Collapse into now” and falling for it, much like I did “Accelerate”, and thinking “They’re back”. I had lost interest in the band in the 2000s, feeling that they had stopped challenging themselves, though I am sure that’s not the case. Regardless, I didn’t hear a lot to be excited about on those years. So imagine my disappointment when I learned R.E.M. were done after being lured in by them all over again.

As I mentioned above, “ÜBerlin” was not just my favourite on the album but likely my favourite of their tunes for a decade or so. It’s because it feels so personal. Peter Buck’s acoustic strum and pluck is pushed forward in the mix, closely shadowed by Mike Mills’ bass, the tricky-tack drum beat and organs just add ambience. It’s a crowded coffee house, mugs are clinking and baristas are busy steaming milk but Stipe is there, in the corner with his stool, and his band in the shadows. It’s German noir, black and white, save for a red technicolor balloon. And this is hope. A hope that everything will be okay in the absence of R.E.M.

Five years later and I’m still not so sure but at least we have a recording like this to soothe us.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2011 list, click here.