Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Certain Songs #1716: R.E.M. – “Fall On Me” | Medialoper

Album: Lifes Rich Pageant
Year: 1986

. . .

“Fall On Me” just might be my favorite R.E.M. song.

It might be Michael Stipe’s, too: during the introduction of “Fall on Me” for their first MTV Unplugged performance in 1991, he said just that.

And why not? “Fall on Me” is absolutely exquisite piece of music, a song that I still can’t believe didn’t break R.E.M. back in 1986, because I couldn’t imagine anybody — anybody!!! — hearing it and not falling in love with it. Thinking about it now, I’m guessing that maybe it didn’t quite give people anything to work with on the verses like their later massive singles.

I mean, let’s face it: “There’s a problem, feathers, iron” isn’t nearly as catchy as “This one goes out to the one I love,” or “stand in the place where you are,” or even “ahhhhhh life, gets bigger.”. But for fucks sake, it was catchy enough, especially over Peter Buck’s overdubbed twirly tangle of electric and acoustic guitars, and a beat that only felt slow after the torrent of “These Days.”

There’s the problem, feathers, iron
Bargain buildings, weights and pulleys
Feathers hit the ground
Before the weight can leave the air

Michael Stipe’s vocal here is straightforward and sincere: not even the remotest hit of distance or irony, and I love how he goes to the top of his register singing “the weight can leave the airrrrrrrrrrrrr”, as well as the pre.

Buy the sky and sell the sky
And tell the sky and tell the sky

And that’s they hit the first chorus: Michael Stipe and Mike Mills, singing around each other in perfect lockstep, as Bill Berry sneaks into a double-time on his snare.

Don’t fallllllllllllllll on meeeeeeeeeeeeeee
(What is it up in the air forrrrrrrr?)
Fallllllllllll on meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee
(If it’s there forrrrr lonnnnnng?)
Falllllllllllllllll on meeeeeeeeeeee
(It’s over, it’s over me)

It’s a marvel of space and time, that chorus: Stipe elongating the title in what might be a futile attempt keep you from noticing what Mills is singing, while Mills ends with the ominous “it’s over, it’s over me,” meaning you know that said falling is imminent.

And now that he’s on the song, Mills is going to run with it: running counterpoint on the second verse, though way more buried in the mix, to the point where I’m even going to hazard a guess to what he’s singing. And that second verse, which is over just after “Fall On Me” hits the 1:00 mark, is the last verse in the song — from then on, it’s nearly all chorus.


After the second chorus — now sweetened by an organ — Stipe adds an extra heartfelt “don’t fall on meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee” and while Peter Buck tosses some extra licks and Bill Berry quietly “ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhssss”, Mike Mills has it all by himself.

Well, I would keep it above
But then it wouldn’t be sky anymore
So, if I send it to you
You’ve got to promise to keep it whole

Now I know that the initial inspiration for “Fall on Me” was acid rain and later on Stipe said that “Fall On Me” was about oppression in general, but I — and given the summer of 1986, I coulda been projecting — always read “Fall on Me” as being about the end of a relationship, and wanting to avoid that sickening “sky is falling” feeling that happens when you know its going to end and you don’t want to deal with it.

That’s why, after the bridge, Michael Stipe goes from telling the sky — could it be the same sky Ray Davies once sang about — to asking the sky. Pleading with the sky. Begging the sky. Don’t fall on me.

Buy the sky and sell the sky
And lift your arms up to the sky
And ask the sky and ask the sky

But of course, the sky has other ideas. Which goes to Bill Berry’s addition to the chorus: “it’s gonna fall.”

So now Stipe, Mills and Berry are all singing three completely different things: Stipe is asking the sky not to fall, Mills still questioning the sky’s existence and purpose and Berry just shrugging his shoulders. And it. Is. Wonderful.

Don’t fallllllllllllllll on meeeeeeeeeeeeeee
(What is it up in the air forrrrrrrr?)
(It’s gonna fall) Fallllllllllll on meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee
(If it’s there forrrrr lonnnnnng?)
(It’s gonna fall) Falllllllllllllllll on meeeeeeeeeeee
(It’s over, it’s over me)

They repeat that chorus a few times before the end, and is gorgeously agonizing, because Bill Berry backs away from the double-time each time Mike Mills sings “it’s over me”, making you think it’s probably over, and then with a slightly-off whack of his floor tom, kicks the chorus back into gear until it mercifully fades out.

One postscript: on pretty much every live version I’ve ever heard, Berry — or a substitute after he left — is singing the “it’s gonna fall” from the very beginning.

And while “Fall on Me” was the first R.E.M. song to enter the pop charts since “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry),” though it stalled out at #94, so that barely counts. On the other hand, it was a pretty big hit on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock charts, making it all the way to #5, probably because of my constant tweeting of “PLAY ‘FALL ON ME,’ YOU COWARDS!!!” at various radio stations. Or it could have been MTV, which actually played the Michael Stipe-directed video.

“Fall on Me”

“Fall On Me” official music video

“Fall on Me” live in Germany, 1985

“Fall on Me” live in 1989

“Fall on Me” MTV Unplugged, 1991

“Fall on Me” Rio, 2001

“Fall on Me” performed in Austin, 2008

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