Thursday, January 16, 2020

Certain Songs #1728: R.E.M. – “(Untitled)” | Medialoper

Album: Green
Year: 1988

. . .

File Under ” “

There was a lot of change in the air when Green came out on Election Day, 1988.

While it was, sadly, a foregone conclusion as to who our next President would be, it was going to be the end of the Reagan years, which had to be a good thing. The awful summer of 1988 finally ended, which was also a good thing. Even better, I started playing music with some of the people who I’m still playing music with, and — of course, because there was a new R.E.M. album — started a relationship that lasted until just before Out of Time came out, my longest one yet!

And of course, change was in the air for R.E.M. — though they continued a long-running joke by pointing out on the label that all of songs on the album were “Administered The World Over” by Unichappell Music — Green was the first record where they started mixing up the instrumentation. Of course, a pretty easy thing to do when both guys in your rhythm section are multi-instrumentalists. Still, for me, the most successful example that was the final song on the “metal” side of Green (the first side was the “Air” side), which featured Peter Buck playing a drum part that only a non-drummer could come up with.

And yeah, it’s really bad — Bill Berry was all “I can’t play this poorly on purpose for a whole song” — but, of course, it circles back around to being great, especially when the rest of the band builds a happy song around the weird kick-snare pattern Buck wrote.

This world is big (This world is big)
And so awake (And so awake)
I stayed up late (I stayed up late)
To hear your voice
This light is here (This light is here)
To keep you warm (To keep you warm)
This song is here (This song is here)
To keep you strong

Featuring an ever-overlapping call-and-response by Stipe, Berry and Mike Mills, “(Untitled)” features a weird, shimmering guitar which might actually be a keyboard, and in between the verses — there’s no chorus — a straightforward beat over which Mills plays a pretty organ riff before they drop back into the verses.

In a weird way, it’s almost show-offy: weird rhythm, offbeat instrumentation, but completely held together by the strength of the vocal performances.

(I’ve seen the world) Hold her
(And so awake) And keep her strong
(So stay awake) While I’m away from here
(To hear me sing)
(I’ve seen the world) And hold him
(And so awake) And keep him strong
(So stay awake) while I’m away from here
(To hear me sing)

Oh, and just like printing the lyrics of “World Leader Pretend” — but only “World Leader Pretend” — on the other hand, the untitled nature of “(Untitled)” was yet another reference to the fourth Led Zeppelin album, which also didn’t have a title, and so what exactly to call this song has long been a puzzle, even to a guy who is putting out an album in a couple months that is called Untitled.

Given the challenges of the drum part for Berry, “(Untitled)” wasn’t played very often in concert. A little over a dozen times in 1989 and never again. And while it ended the uneven Green on an up note, what we couldn’t have known was that R.E.M. was about to — like their friends in U2 — go away and dream it up all over again.

And while the lack of new material from either band in 1989 and 1990 — not to mention the break ups of Hüsker Dü and The Smiths (and the growing up of the ‘mats) — meant that those two years lacked something that I’d come to expect over the previous decade. But then again, who can argue with what happened next for R.E.M.?


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