This Song Is Here To Keep You Strong: R.E.M.’s Green   

This Song Is Here To Keep You Strong: R.E.M.’s Green  

By 1988, R.E.M. had been moving very fast, and working very hard, for a long time. After releasing an album every year since 1983, they had finally broken through to US mainstream radio with the previous year’s Document. This coincided with the end of the band’s contract with IRS Records, a small label that had nurtured the band through the decade. Free to sign with any label they wanted, R.E.M. chose Warner Brothers, a multinational mass media and entertainment corporation that would pay them many millions of dollars in exchange for another five albums. R.E.M. may have still lived in the same small college town they had started out in,[1] but they were now playing on the biggest stage imaginable.

Green was the first record of their new contract. Released in 1988, it remains one of the band’s more misunderstood albums. It’s easy to see why. Green is the album in the R.E.M. catalogue that is the least sure of what it wants to be. It refuses to sit still.. Even the album’s title is open-ended. Green as in innocent; Green as in the environment; Green as in money. All three of these interpretations applied to R.E.M., who had just made the kind of commitment that might cause a band to question who they were, and who they wanted to be. At its heart, Green is ultimately a hopeful album, but the stories it tells are always about struggle—to wake up, to sing, to stand, to empathize, to be accepted.

Green is the sound of four individuals[2] in their late 20s/early 30s trying to make sense of what it means to be alive. As a result, the album not only asks difficult questions, it questions the answers it comes up with. It questions itself. Green refuses to be pinned down. The lyrics are saturated with indeterminacy and ambiguity. The background vocals of Mills and Berry function as a Greek chorus, frequently undercutting, and even contradicting, a line that Stipe has just sung. ‘Orange Crush’’s narrator says follow me, and is answered back by voices saying don’t follow me. In this respect, Green uses vocal harmonies to create dissonance in a way reminiscent of Love’s Forever Changes.

Nothing here is ever quite what it seems. Stand presents itself as goofy bubble gum, but it turns out to be a deep exploration of a cartography that is rooted in the personal and the political. Michael Stipe sings the line ‘I will try to sing a happy song’ on what is actually the album’s saddest song, ‘The Wrong Child’, and he does it without any irony. Like a yin-yang symbol of darkness and light, Green in one moment projects beauty on the surface and danger underneath, and in another moment, danger on the surface and beauty underneath.

Green may contradict itself at every turn—both in its music and in its words[3]—but it does this in order to arrive at a deeper truth. To borrow a line from ‘Get Up’, it complements[4] itself even as it complicates itself. When the album places two opposing ideas next to each other, they don’t negate themselves. Instead, they resolve into something that is more human, and more vulnerable. Maybe because we all live out our own contradictions.

Even the album’s very first lines – “I know you, I knew you” – present a contradiction. Does the narrator know this person or did they used to know this person? But it sounds more like Stipe correcting himself – “wait, do I actually know this person?” This is a perfect example of how Green mines contradictions to arrive at a deeper truth. When we meet a person, even someone we know, they aren’t necessarily the same person they were when we last saw them. Maybe they’ve experienced a catastrophic loss. Maybe they started a new job. The song becomes an acknowledgement of how our friendships and identities are always in flux. Even the singer says, “I think I can remember my name”, as if there might be some doubt.

The album marked the first time R.E.M. printed the lyrics to one of its songs on the record sleeve, and Green emphasizes the importance of words. It is an album where you hear the singer say something, think for a moment, and correct what he just said, or amend it, or even contradict it. Not in an effort to be difficult, but in an effort to be true. Even as Stipe sings on ‘You Are the Everything’ that he feels “such peace in absolutes,” he consistently rejects that peace. He’d prefer to wrestle with difficult truths than settle for false comforts. He does this overtly in some places, but more subtly in others. For example, ‘I Remember California’, the title of which allows Stipe to play with the vagueness of memories.  I recall it wasn’t fair… recollect it wasn’t fair. Or at the end of the song when he changes the line “at the end of the continent” to at the edge of the continent.”

Ambiguity might be a more accurate word than contradiction, but it wrongly implies that Stipe is playing a game with his audience, or trying to create a sense of mystery, when all he’s trying to do is be honest. When he sings that you should stand in the place where you are, and also stand in the place where you were, he includes both ideas because they are both true. You need to be present and remember where you came from. Given what we know now, it’s easy to read all this ambiguity and fluidity through the lens of Stipe’s sexuality, especially as the singer has publicly embraced the term queer precisely because of its fluidity. And while it would be foolish not to see the album through a queer lens, it would be equally foolish to see it exclusively through that lens. The interpersonal conflicts on Green extend far beyond sexual identity. The struggle of the people in these songs—to be honest with themselves and others, to allow themselves to be vulnerable—is something we all experience, regardless of where we might place ourselves (or more accurately, be placed) on a particular erotic spectrum.

‘World Leader Pretend’ not only dramatizes this struggle, it finds its way through it. The song opens with its narrator sitting at their table, alone, trapped in an emotional stalemate of their own making. They have built walls around themselves, for protection, in order to be safe. The song overflows with hard, brutal imagery—barricades, mortar, weapons—as the narrator examines the role they’ve played in creating their isolation.

The song opens up, both musically and emotionally, in its bridge, as Stipe sings “Reach out for me and hold me tight.” The song’s narrator allows himself to be vulnerable, as they call on the power of memory and instinct to help them navigate their way back to feeling. The song’s final verse sees the singer recognize they can choose to live differently–that they must choose to live differently.  “I have been given the freedom to do as I see fit.” They resolve to knock down the emotional walls, to correct their mistakes, to “make it good.”

Green is an album about empowerment that, on ‘Turn You Inside Out’, warns about the abuse of that power. The song’s chorus, “I could turn you inside out / What I choose not to do”[5] cautions that if we find ourselves with power, even power given to us willingly by another, that we need to consciously choose not to use it to coerce and control. Green insists we have obligations to one another, and obligations to ourselves, to try and live an ethical life. that to dishonour those obligations.

Green constantly comes back to the importance of making choices. The narrator of Hairshirt decides to hang their hairshirt, presented here as a symbol of self-torture, “way up high in the attic” and open themselves up to the beauty of life, choosing to be fed “banks of light” instead of swinging their megaphone and long-arming the rest—a deeply poetic way to express using one’s power (or charisma, or pain) to keep others at a distance.

Green’s music also depicts a struggle to make sense out of conflicting ideas. Moving from electric to acoustic and back again, the album veers between extremes of bombast and humility. One moment it is screaming noise, and the next it’s calm deliberation. Half of it looks back towards the noisy rock of the band’s previous two albums, Document and Lifes Rich Pageant, while its serious and more pastoral moments look ahead to Out of Time and Automatic For The People.

At one point, the band considered placing the album’s electric songs on one half and the acoustic songs on the other, but someone must have realized that would have been a huge mistake. It would have created a kind of schizophrenic listening experience, and negated the resolution the album keeps desperately trying to reach. It also would have defined the songs on a purely surface level, despite the fact that ‘You Are The Everything’, a gentle song with mandolin and accordion, has more emotional force than a song like ‘I Remember California’, where all the instruments are plugged in and the amplifiers cranked.

Interestingly, early on in the writing process, Stipe asked his bandmates to try and make music that didn’t sound like R.E.M. And while there are plenty of songs on here that sound like R.E.M., the band were inspired to switch instruments during their writing sessions in an attempt to do something different. On Green, even the roles of the band members were in flux. Mike Mills moved over to piano and accordion, while Bill Berry picked up Mills’ bass, and Peter Buck brought out a recently purchased mandolin. This resulted in some songs where the musical arrangements are breathtakingly spare alongside noisy rock numbers, but the opposing music styles don’t negate the album’s meaning. Instead, much as with the lyrics, they create a widescreen synthesis. The music on Green not only supports Stipe’s lyrics—the brooding of ‘World Leader Pretend’’s cello evoking the brooding of the narrator—it dramatizes and shapes those words like a film director bringing a script to life. Berry’s snare at the end of ‘Stand’ sounds like nails being pounded into wood, a structure being built that can serve as a fortress for the song’s narrator as they make their stand. Or in the case of ‘Orange Crush’, the machine gun drums and marching feet evoke the horror of war.

The violence of ‘Orange Crush’ at first feels like an outlier. If ‘You Are the Everything’ is Green’s moment of transcendent bliss, ‘Orange Crush’ is its stark opposite. The former song takes place in the back seat of the car, then on a front porch, while the latter is immersed in the jungles of the Vietnam War. ‘Orange Crush’ would be the darkest song on Green even if it didn’t reference spinal deformations and chemical warfare. The chorus consists of the word “home” stretched across eight syllables, sung in a way that is both a yearning and a promise. It’s important to remember that for many people in that stupid, illegal, unnecessary war, both Vietnamese and American, home was a place they never would reach. If the old adage is true that we can’t experience true joy without knowing true suffering, or vice versa, then ‘Orange Crush’ serves as a necessary balance to Green’s moments of idealism. Most of the album is set in the singer’s immediate surroundings, but ‘Orange Crush’, a song about a war that Stipe knew only peripherally, is a reminder that it isn’t enough to stand in the place where you live. You also need to think globally, you need to send your conscience overseas.

The album’s final song doesn’t even have a title. Poets often call a poem ‘Untitled’ or even ‘Poem’ when they don’t want it to bear the extra ontological burden of a title, but R.E.M. refuses that easy option, as well as the even easier option of calling it ‘This Song Is Here.’[6] It features a stutter-step drum beat that Peter Buck played himself because drummer Bill Berry thought it was so stupidly inept. The switching of genders throughout the song can be heard as some kind of queer signalling by the still publicly-closeted Stipe, but we can also hear it as an effort to be all-inclusive, a wish to keep everyone strong, whoever they might be, and for everyone to be held. In this light, the lack of title can be interpreted as a refusal of the ego of ownership, a rejection of jealousy in favour of generosity and love. The song is a conclusion that refuses to present itself as a resolution, which is, in its own way, the exact resolution an album like Green, with its labyrinths of meaning and resistance to easy answers, deserves.[7]

The reason Green isn’t a mess of contradictions, the reason it coalesces into an emotional whole, is because it offers these kinds of lessons. The album may not have a definite view on the role dreams play in our lives, but time and time again, Green tells stories about the pain and suffering that comes from social isolation and reminds us that it is only through being connected to one another and being open to the possibilities of life that we might be able to find meaning and joy.

R.E.M. continued (and continued, and continued) to make albums after Green. Some of them were, in their own way, even better. But those albums were also simpler and more straightforward, as they dealt with themes that were easier to understand. If Out of Time is about love, Automatic For the People about death, and Monster about sex, Green is about, to borrow a phrase from an earlier R.E.M. song, life and how to live it, with all the messiness that implies. And so Green keeps widening its scope, spinning out more and more ideas in an attempt to arrive at some kind of conclusion, some kind of truth, until it accepts that nothing stays the same. Life moves too fast, and is too complex. Everything is in flux. Everything changes and is eventually gone. This is the tragedy of life, but it is also the source of its beauty. The only thing we can do is embrace life’s complexity and mystery, or at least accept it.

It is the bravest album R.E.M. ever recorded. Green tells us we are here to stand. We are here to get up. We are here to say hello to the people we come across in our journey through the world—to talk about the weather, and also talk about the government. We are here to think about direction and wonder why we haven’t before. We are here to divine our deeper motives. We are here to see that our life, it’s a beautiful life. We are here to see that you are here with me, that you have been here, and that you are everything. And when I can not be there with you, I wish for someone to be there while I am away, to hold you and keep you strong.

There is an aspect of Green that feels inexhaustible, nearly bottomless. I have so many more thoughts about this album, and yet I worry I’ve already gone on too long. I haven’t even talked about my personal relationship with Green—how I bought it in the springtime of my junior year of high school, and how we were studying Transcendentalism and I immediately thought of ‘You Are the Everything’. And then, 30 years or so later, I would come across a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote, “Nature is one thing and the other thing in the same moment,” and realize my teenage intuition was, for once, correct. Or how I was on my high school track team that year, and when the coach told us to go pull the high jump pits out of the shed, my friend Marc and I laid in there for an extra 15 minutes taking turns listening to Green on my Walkman. I think about how Marc thought Stipe was singing “Should we talk about togetherness” on ‘Pop Song 89’, and how I laughed at him and how I feel bad about that now. But those are all stories for another time, or possibly another life. For now, I have gone on long enough and I’m choosing to rest.

[1]  Tuscaloosa, Alabama, I think

[2]  In alphabetical order: Bill Berry (drums), Peter Buck (guitar), Mike Mills (bass), Michael Stipe (voice). But you already knew that, which is why it’s in a footnote.

[3]  Even its cover—which features the word GREEN in big black letters splayed across a background that is….orange.

[4]  Complement as in ‘a thing that is added to another thing that creates something better,’ not compliment as in ‘hey baby, you look sexy tonight.’ I spend enough time on the internet to know that many of you don’t know the difference, though I also spend enough time on the internet to know that you, yes you, do indeed look sexy tonight—in spite of your terrible grammar.

[5]  I’ve always heard the line as ‘But I choose not to do,’ which to me makes more sense, but every lyric site online says it’s ‘what.’

[6] Weirdly, the song was given a title when an instrumental version of it was included as a b-side on the 12” single of Stand, though the fact they called it (The Eleventh Untitled Song) doesn’t help at all. Yes, it’s the 11th song on Green, but the way it’s written, you’d think it was the 11th song to not have a title. And what the parentheses are doing there is anyone’s guess. Anyway, I’d rather call it nothing than call it (The Eleventh Untitled Song).

[7]  This song also almost always makes my stomach flutter when I hear it, and then something in my body located between my heart and my diaphragm begins to swell and I feel like I’m about to start crying in a way that I might not be able to stop.

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.