Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Certain Songs #1749: R.E.M. – “Hope” | Medialoper

Album: Up
Year: 1998

. . .

File Under Questioning

It’s not easy being in a band. It’s awesome being in a band.

My longstanding joke was that being in a band combined all of the worst parts of being in a relationship and having a job, only you’re not getting laid and you’re not getting paid.

That’s incredibly facile, of course, because the flipside is that there is nothing in the world like playing music with a bunch of other people and watching and feeling everything falling into place, everybody anticipating and supporting what everybody else doing, tight and loose all at the same time, a thousand miracles happening at once because of an utterly inexplicable chemistry that is impossible to describe but everybody knows is there.

For 15 years — an incredibly long time — R.E.M. rode their inexplicable chemistry through their endlessly touring cult status days as well as their non-touring superstar days, and after 10 albums, they were still one of the greatest bands in the world.

And then Bill Berry decided he’d had enough and decided to stop making music.

You want to go out Friday
And you want to go forever
You know that it sounds childish
That you’ve dreamed of alligators
You hope that we are with you
And you hope you’re recognized
You want to go forever
You see it in my eyes
I’m lost in the confusion
And it doesn’t seem to matter
You really can’t believe it
And you hope it’s getting better

I know that the way I’m writing this makes it seem like I consider Berry a villain. Nothing could be further from the truth: you can check the any of the previous of the thousands of Certain Songs posts I’ve written about R.E.M. over the past ten years, and the meanest thing I said was that it seemed like he’d kinda stopped writing great drum parts in the early 1990s, but even then, just yesterday, I pointed out how much I loved his drumming on “Electrolite.” He remains one of my all-time favorite drummers, full stop.

And yet, Peter Buck kinda knew: prior to the 1997 sessions where Berry made his announcement to the rest of the band, they’d all already started experimenting with drum loops and analog synths that would take the band in a different direction from their previous music. Elton John by way of Suicide, according to Buck.

You want to trust the doctors
Their procedure is the best
But the last try was a failure
And the intern was a mess
And they did the same to Matthew
And he bled till Sunday night
They’re saying don’t be frightened
But you’re weakened by the sight of it
You lock into a pattern
And you know that it’s the last ditch
You’re trying to see through it
And it doesn’t make sense
But they’re saying don’t be frightened
And they’re killing alligators
And they’re hog-tied and accepting of
The struggle

And so, it’s my guess that Up would have sounded essentially the same with Berry. Maybe a few more acoustic drums, maybe some more harmonies, maybe a couple of great Berry songs. But otherwise the same.

As for me, I loved Up. I loved it as a break from what I expected, and I loved it as a delivery system for a slew of great R.E.M. songs that would work as great R.E.M. songs no matter the instrumentation. Like “Hope,” which is pretty much nothing but keyboards and drum machines, though if you listen through all of the beeps an boops and blurgs and blorts, you can hear a furiously strummed acoustic guitar and piano, too.

You want to trust religion
And you know it’s allegory
But the people who are followers
Have written their own story
So you look up to the heavens
And you hope that it’s a spaceship
And it’s something from your childhood
You’re thinking don’t be frightened

“Hope” doesn’t have a chorus, but rather a series of verses which Stipe sings over an ever-dense wall of sound to a melody line that is close enough to Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” that, to be on the safe side — especially since they’d previously covered “First We Take Manhattan” in 1991 so they were on record as fans — they gave him songwriting credit. I wonder if Cohen ever wished that they’d done it on an albums that sold zillions instead of the, er, moderately successful sales of Up.

You want to climb the ladder
You want to see forever
You want to go out Friday
And you want to go forever
And you want to cross your DNA
To cross your DNA with something reptile
And you’re questioning the sciences
And questioning religion
You’re looking like an idiot
And you no longer care
And you want bridge the schism
A built-in mechanism to protect you
And you’re looking for salvation
And you’re looking for deliverance
You’re looking like an idiot
And you no longer care
Because you want to climb the ladder
You want to go forever
And you want to go out Friday
You want to go forever

And while I’d like to think that I would have loved “Hope” had they done it on a previous album, I well and truly wonder if that would have been the case. As much as I’d like to give myself the benefit of the doubt — those keyboards are sooooooo Eno — I think it would have been a curiosity on any of their previous records, whereas on Up, it’s a key cut. Also a bit of an outlier.

At the end, after Stipe finally runs out of words, all of the synths start crashing into each other like that’s the only way to stop the momentum they’ve created.


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