Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Certain Songs #1726: R.E.M. – “World Leader Pretend” | Medialoper

Album: Green
Year: 1988

. . .

File Under Freedom

While it was never released as a single, “World Leader Pretend” is a very important song in the R.E.M. canon for a couple of different reasons. For one thing, it’s the first set of lyrics that Michael Stipe was comfortable with printing on an album sleeve. This felt like a huge deal at the time, putting the spotlight on “World Leader Pretend” in the same way that Led Zeppelin had put the spotlight on “Stairway To Heaven” 17 years previously.

Which, of course, was on purpose, though the two songs couldn’t be more far apart on pretty much every level. But given that Peter Buck played a mandolin on three of the Green songs and “The Battle of Evermore” was on that fourth Led Zeppelin album, there’s no way it was a coincidence.

The other reason is that — out of the all of the songs on Green — “World Leader Pretend” really presaged the more sophisticated, acoustic-based arrangements that would dominate Out of Time and Automatic For The People. I think this is a bit of a take, because usually people point to one of the other acoustic songs on Green — “You Are The Everything,” “The Wrong Child,” and “Hairshirt” — as the harbinger because they all have the mandolin, which of course drove “Losing My Religion.”

But that’s incredibly reductive: I’ll obviously have more to say about “Losing My Religion” in a few days, but it was way way way more than a song that had a mandolin.

From the very opening — Buck’s guitar jangling in the background, Jane Scarpantoni’s cello soaring overhead, Bill Berry’s offsetting extra percussion and double backbeat, Bucky Baxter’s pedal steal adding flavor — “World Leader Pretend” feels both lush and full, a perfect background for Michael Stipe’s confession, augmented by what sounds like a castanet, because why not.

I sit at my table and wage war on myself
It seems like it’s all, it’s all for nothing
I know the barricades
And I know the mortar in the wall breaks
I recognize the weapons, I used them well

Then, as Mike Mills starts singing “freeeeeeeeeeeeeeedom,” Stipe continues into the chorus.

This is my mistake, let me make it good
I raised the wall and I will be the one to knock it down

The cool thing about “World Leader Pretend” is how it continually changes the instrumentation in the background without changing the feel. During the bridge, the pedal steel guitar leaps to the forefront, and Buck’s guitar is nowhere to be heard. And after that, it’s the final verse, driven by Mike Mills piano — no drums or electric guitar of any kind — over which Michael Stipe climaxes the song.

This is my world and I am the World Leader Pretend
This is my life and this is my time
I have been given the freedom to do as I see fit
It’s high time I razed the walls that I’ve constructed

It’s, of course, an incredibly relatable lyric, but also somewhat hopeful, as razing the walls he’s previously raised is not just a good bit of wordplay, but also a resolution to do better, to get better. And unlike its more bombastic cousin “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” Michael Stipe’s confession of Imposter Syndrome didn’t fill me with dread over what I could achieve while not being a rich and famous rock star.

“World Leader Pretend”

“World Leader Pretend” live from Tourfilm, 1989

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