by Cat Pick
Twenty years ago this week R.E.M. released Green, their first record on the Warner Brothers label. A follow up to the very successful Document (1987), Green failed to match Document’s sales, but still managed to go double platinum, bolstered by the giant singles “Pop Song ’89,” “Stand,” and “Orange Crush.”
Up to this point, I had loved every R.E.M. release, right from Chronic Town. But there was something different about Green. It had a dark and melancholy feel; even the seemingly upbeat songs were tinged with a kind of sadness, a world weariness maybe. As much as I had loved Lifes Rich Pageant (1986) and Document, this album spoke to me more than any other R.E.M. record had before. Much had always been made about the inscrutability of R.E.M.’s lyrics; not only were the meanings obtuse, the vocals themselves were often rather obscured and indistinct. But Green’s songs immediately seemed more concrete, more personal to Michael Stipe, and just more clear. Thus they became more personal to me.
Green starts with the upbeat “Pop Song ‘89” but I’ve always interpreted the song as a realization that perhaps you don’t know your intimates as well as you thought; that what you assumed was intimacy wasn’t and that in a flash everything had changed. In “Get Up,” I was immediately amused by Stipe’s repeated over-enunciation: “You’ve got all your lif-fa” , Peter Buck’s richocheting guitar and the big presence of Mike Mills' background vocals (which abound on the whole record). But before you can lose yourself in the song, Stipe drops the sobering line, “dreams, they complicate my lif-fa.” The line is tempered somewhat by that over-enunciation, but still the simple truth of those words always stops me short.
“You Are the Everything” has always been particularly evocative:
“You're in the back seat laying down
The windows wrap around
The sound of the travel and the engine
All you hear is time stands still in travel
And feel such peace and absolute
The stillness still that doesn't end
But slowly drifts into sleep
The stars are the greatest thing you've ever seen
And they're there for you
For you alone, you are the everything”
For most of my childhood we lived just a block and a half from a highway, I could see it from our front porch, and on late summer nights I would lie awake listening to the sounds of the cars and the trucks rushing by on the way to somewhere else. And just like Stipe, I would think of car travel with my parents; of being stretched out in the back seat, in the dark, the radio playing softly, my head against the cool vinyl upholstery while I gazed out the windows at the dark sky. Every time I hear the song, even now, even today, I’m transported to that backseat and I can feel the rumble of the car’s engine and the whoosh of the 18-wheelers passing us. And for a moment I can leave my adult life with its responsibilities and schedules and just be that little kid staring at the stars.
“Stand” is a bit of joyful noise, to me the most overtly optimistic of tunes on the record. It’s hard to remember now its initial impact, since the song became such a gigantic hit. The video was a mainstay on MTV (back when MTV actually showed things that didn’t “star” Lauren Conrad) with its goofy line dancing and folksy, rural imagery. The simplicity and naturalness makes me yearn for the days before every moderately successful musician employed a personal stylist.
Green continues to tool along on a lugubrious note until finally ending with an unlisted, untitled piece of hopeful melancholia so powerful I have come close to weeping every time I hear it. I’ve always thought the song was a paean to Stipe’s parents; a plea to for them to stay healthy and safe as he traveled around the world, miles and miles from home.
“I've seen the world and so-awake
And stay up late to hear me sing (keep her strong)
Just hold her
I've seen the world and so-awake
And stay up late to hear me sing (keep him strong)
Just hold him
Hold her and keep her strong (I've seen the world and so-awake)
While I'm away from here (So stay up late to hear me sing)
Hold him and keep him strong (I've seen the world and so-awake)
While I'm away from here (So stay up late to hear me sing)”
It’s a sweet and simple little song, starting with clicking percussion, with Mills' plaintive backing vocals adding just the right poignancy to an already emotionally-charged song. Call me sentimental, but when I hear this song I’ve always had a mental picture of an older couple, in robes and slippers, sitting on a couch, the blue glow of the television reflected in their glasses as they watch their rock star son with pride.
It’s hard to believe these songs have been with me for 20 years. Green, like all the best music, my favorite music, has the curious capacity to at once seem fresh and brand new while remaining comforting and familiar. It turned out that Green was the last R.E.M. album that I cared about; there were songs here and there that I loved, but never again (so far at least) did they put together such a beautifully cohesive set of songs such as this. I suppose it’s appropriate that this rather doleful record ended up an epitaph of sorts of my love affair with this band.