Monday, February 10, 2020

Certain Songs #1748: R.E.M. – “Electrolite” | Medialoper

Album: New Adventures in Hi-Fi
Year: 1996

. . .

File Under Sheen

“Electrolite” just might be my favorite R.E.M. song.

And if it isn’t mine, it’s reportedly Thom Yorke’s, so if it’s yours, you have good company. It’s also an important, epochal song in R.E.M. history, as it’s the final song on the final album that R.E.M. released with Bill Berry as a member. Of course, nobody but Bill Berry’s gut knew this as they were tracking the new songs and overdubbing the live songs for New Adventures in Hi-Fi, and I sure as shit didn’t know it as I was eagerly consuming it during the autumn of 1996.

And so, fittingly, the first thing you notice about “Electrolite,” recorded during a soundcheck in Phoenix in November ’95, is the beat: straightforward and simple, Berry doing the double backbeat on his snare on every other measure throughout pretty much the entire song.

Your eyes are burning holes through me
I’m gasoline
I’m burning clean
Twentieth century, go to sleep
You’re plasticine
That is obscene
That is obscene

That beat is in perfect time and tune with a great, understated Mike Mills piano part, augmented by Peter Buck on, er, banjo, and while I do hear what sounds like atmospheric guitar washes here and there, “Electrolite” is driven by the piano and the drums. Oh, and the utterly lovely chorus.

You are the star tonight
Your sun electric outta sight
Your light eclipsed the moon tonight
You’re out of sight

A love letter to Los Angeles — in and of itself an anomaly — or at least an idea of Los Angeles, the second verse finds Stipe driving on a road that skirts the top of the city, a road I drove on all the time when I was commuting to job in Beverly Hills in the mid 2010s, and yeah, sports some spectacular views and causes some spectacular daydreams.

If I ever want to fly
Mulholland Drive
I am alive
Hollywood is under me
I’m Martin Sheen
I’m Steve McQueen
I’m Jimmy Dean

And I’m pretty sure that nearly every time I turned onto, or even crossed Mulholland back then, this song came into my head, unbidden, no matter what else was on. Meanwhile, Stipe himself told a story on VH1 about how he shared a dentist w/ Martin Sheen and told Sheen about this song, and Sheen was impressed. Of course, that was before he became President, so he might have felt different a few years later.

About halfway through, violinist Andy Carlson comes in with what I think is still the only violin solo on a R.E.M. song (though maybe there was one I’m missing on Reveal or Around The Sun), all of which leads to the final verse, during which Stipe knowingly bids adieu to the decade and the album, and unknowingly, to that phase of his career.

Twentieth century, go to sleep
Really deep
We won’t blink
Your eyes are burning holes through me
I’m not scared
I’m out of here
I’m not scared
I’m out of here

So let’s sum up where we were at the end of “Electrolite:” In 15 years, R.E.M. had released 10 studio albums, one EP, and a couple of compilations. None of which were less than very good and most of which would rank with the greatest albums of their era, but ever. And they were still making great music. While it wasn’t unprecedented: The Rolling Stones made Some Girls & Tattoo You that late in their career, and we’ve discussed the longevity / quality arcs of Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Lou Reed & Prince ad nauseam, but the only other band — a much harder thing to keep together — that was still making great music with their original members this late into their career was U2.

In any event, it obviously seemed like they could go forever, or at least until December 31, 1999, a date which way back in 1986 somebody had joked was when they were going to break up for good.

Which just means that no one, most of all Michael Stipe, Mike Mills & Peter Buck, were prepared for what was going to happen next.


“Electrolite” Official Music Video

“Electrolite” live at the Bridge Show, 1998

“Electrolite” live in Germany, 2003

“Electrolite” live in Austin, 2008

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