For a band who at the beginning were labeled as insular and introspective, R.E.M. sure knew how to write catchy little numbers. “Radio Free Europe” features some wonderful lyrical nonsense (“Keep me out of country in the word”?), but nobody cared when the quartet’s expertly orchestrated indie-rock hammered away at that bouncy groove.
A beautifully romantic portrait of Los Angeles, the closing track off 1996’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi is a jaunty piano-and-strings ditty about driving along iconic Mulholland Drive, which overlooks the city with its dangerous hairpin turns. Stipe sounds positively giddy as he falls in love with L.A.’s old-school Hollywood vibe while excitedly looking toward the future.
Automatic for the People is haunted by death, and “Try Not to Breathe” is the record’s most underrated examination of mortality. Sung from the perspective of an old man preparing for the end, this mournful acoustic tune is unsentimental in its depiction of waiting for the great beyond.
Probably the greatest song to feature the phrase “two-headed cow,” “Pilgrimage” marries an elliptical guitar figure in the verse to a downright bouncy chorus. This Murmur track showed early on that although R.E.M. weren’t interested in being conventional songwriters, they knew their way around a hook.
Stipe is known for his outspoken political views, but “Cuyahoga” is easily the band’s most disarmingly moving political song, partly because it sounds so hopeful. An evocation of an idyllic past in which American Indians roamed free, this song is rousing and poignant without falling into the heavy-handed sermonizing that can sometimes derail songs with messages. And Mike Mills’ bassline is one of his most iconic.
A song ostensibly about pollution and gravity, “Fall on Me” is more forthrightly a song about spiritual isolation and the need to connect to a larger community. Highlighted by acoustic guitars and Mills’ exquisite background vocals, this Lifes Rich Pageant track is also a spotlight for Stipe’s growingly assertive vocal presence as R.E.M. began moving closer to the mainstream.
An early example of R.E.M.’s skill at delicate ballads, “Perfect Circle” may not make a lot of literal sense but wears its air of melancholy beautifully. “Standing too soon/Shoulders high in the room,” Stipe sings mournfully, but it’s the dime-store piano that gives the tune its piercing ache.
Bill Berry’s drums kick-start “The One I Love,” but they also signaled the ascension of R.E.M. on the pop charts, driving home the ingenious guitar hook that made the song a radio staple. In the spirit of the Police’s “Every Breath You Take,” R.E.M.’s breakthrough single was a love song that was decidedly unromantic and treacherous, which made it all the more enticing to lots of listeners.
The brief snippet of a string section warming up at the beginning of “Nightswimming” heralds the fact that this Automatic for the People ballad has aspirations beyond the conventional worlds of pop or rock. No, this song of loss and regret is scored exclusively by strings and piano, which give the tune a stately, ghostly elegance that makes it better suited for a concert hall than an arena. It’s the band’s most purely emotional and nakedly heartbreaking song.
Peter Buck decided he wanted to take a break from the guitar. So he picked up a mandolin for 1991’s Out of Time, and out came “Losing My Religion,” a poignant, endlessly captivating song about romantic desolation. Backed by a subtle but utterly brilliant set of strings, the song found R.E.M. embracing the pop audience but, even more amazingly, bending it to their will.