Sunday, January 19, 2020

Certain Songs #1730: R.E.M – “Losing My Religion” | Medialoper

Album: Out of Time
Year: 1991

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File Under Spotlight

So let’s dispel a couple of myths surrounding Out of Time up front. It is neither R.E.M.’s “mandolin album,” nor is it their “switching instruments album.” Are there a couple of songs where Peter Buck plays mandolin? Yes, but there were more on Green. Are there songs where Bill Berry plays bass and doesn’t play drums? Yes, but those are drumless tracks. Does Mike Mills play a lot of keyboards on the record? Yes, but same goes for Lifes Rich Pageant.

That said, Out of Time does feature fewer uptempo straight-up electric guitar-based rock songs than any R.E.M. album previously released, and the arrangements are lusher, fuller and more experimental as well.

But honestly, to me, Out of Time still sounds completely different from any of their previous records while still be recognizably R.E.M. Or to put it another way: to the millions and millions of people for whom Out of Time was their first R.E.M. album — and given that here in the U.S. it sold twice as many copies as Green which sold twice as many copies as Document which sold twice as many copies as Lifes Rich Pageant, and that the U.S. sales were like a quarter of the worldwide sales — this what what R.E.M. sounded like. A weird baroque-pop band, clearly out of step with the metal, grunge, hip-hop and EDM that was dominating popular music.

Oh, life is bigger
It’s bigger than you and you are not me
The lengths that I will go to the distance in your eyes
Oh no, I’ve said too much, I set it up

But that was fine: there were still plenty of bands doing what R.E.M. did in the mid-1980s, and there were plenty more doing what they ended up doing in the mid-1990s, but in 1991/1992 they were ensconsed in their own bubble, which somehow also made them one of the biggest bands on the planet.

That’s me in the corner, that’s me in the spotlight
Losing my religion
Trying to keep up with you
And I don’t know if I can do it
Oh no, I’ve said too much, I haven’t said enough

And of course, a lot of it had to do with this song about an unrequited crush, driven by a riff that Peter Buck played on the mandolin, but, of course, was only a single element in an utterly classic pop song that was weirdly more ambiguous than their two previous top 10 hits, but also catchier, especially on the chorus.

I thought that I heard you laughing
I thought that I heard you sing
I think I thought I saw you try

It’s all brilliant: a decade of songcraft coming together at once. Peter Buck’s nimble lick on the mandolin, how the strings fill without overpowering the song; or how the perfectly the handclaps — of course “Losing My Religion” has motherfucking handclaps — pop in for a couple of measures and then sneak back out. Or how Mike Mills utterly enhances “I think I though I saw you try” almost out of nowhere.

And, of course, like so many R.E.M. songs, as “Losing My Religion” progresses, it gets weirder and darker, the sunniness of the music almost — but never completely — overwhelmed by the deepening obsession about which Michael Stipe is singing so beautifully.

Every whisper of every waking hour I’m choosing my confessions
Trying to keep an eye on you
Like a hurt, lost and blinded fool, fool
Oh no, I’ve said too much, I set it up

Consider this, consider this, the hint of the century
Consider this the slip that brought me to my knees, failed
What if all these fantasies come flailing around?
Now I’ve said too much

Of course, he gives himself an out: “but that was just a dream” he protests. But what, exactly, was the dream: the obsession he’s talking about, or the glimmers of returned affection he sings about in the chorus. Or maybe even both. He coulda called it “Losing My Shit,” or even “Losing My Mind,” but of course it wouldn’t have been nearly as poetic or ambiguous.

Driven by a luscious, lovely video — Michael Stipe smart enough to realize that lipsyncing for a music video could be a performance as much as not lipsyncing — “Losing My Religion” was, of course, R.E.M.’s biggest-ever song on nearly every single possible measure. While it didn’t top the pop charts, on June 22, 1991 — four months after it came out — “Losing My Religion” peaked out at #4, where it shared the top ten with Mariah Carey, EMF, Extreme, Paul Abdul and former Certain Song “Right Here, Right Now”.

And while it which while only two slots more than “Stand,” it somehow felt twice as big. (And in fact, a quick check of YouTube & Spotify shows that people have streamed “Losing My Religion” over a billion times on just those two platforms, while “Stand” comes in at less that twenty million plays.)

And, of course, both the song and the video won awards: the video famously won six VMAs back in 1991 — and somehow Michael Stipe had a message shirt for every single one — and a Grammy for best Short Form Video, while the song took home the prize for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals.

And as much as I love R.E.M., and love many many many more songs more than “Losing My Religion,” I understand that this song is how they’ll be remembered by the vast majority of people, and all things considered, that’s nothing to lose my religion over.

“Losing My Religion” official music video

“Losing My Religion” live at MTV’s 10th Anniversary, 1991

“Losing My Religion” live 1995

“Losing My Religion” live in Trafalgar Square, 2001

“Losing My Religion” live in Austin, 2008

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