Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Final Songs: You

Album: Monster by R.E.M.
Let the sun beat through the clouds,
Let me kiss you on the mouth.
All my childhood toys with chew marks in your smile.
Let me hold your syrup close to mine.
Let me watch you, Hollywood and Vine.
And I want you like the movies, touch me now.
I love you crazy, just keep on.
I love you madly, just keep watch.
You wipe my lips,
You turn me on.
My attentions are turned to you.

Did I dream you were a tourist
in the Arizona sun?
I can see you there with luna moths
and watermelon gum.
I woke up in the sleeping bag,
With nowhere else to run.
You're standing in the bathroom
telling me its all in fun.
I love you crazy, just keep on.
I love you madly, just keep watch.
You wipe my lips,
You turn me on.
My attentions are turned to you.

I can whisper in your ear.
I can write a calendar year
I can wing around your Saturn smile, shout at the moon
I walked the tension wire line.
And I learned to disrespect the signs.
And I want you like a Pisces rising, even though
I love you crazy, just keep on.
I love you madly, just keep watch.
You wipe my lips,
You turn me on.
My attentions are turned to you.
To do this feature properly I feel requires me to make the actual recording available to the reader. The most straightforward way to do that is to embed video. In that, I'm limited to what's available on the major video sharing services. (Generally YouTube in this function, although if you're a regular reader you know I have nothing against Vimeo or Dailymotion.)

My general rule is that I prefer videos in name only, the music only accompanied by the album cover or another still image. At maximum, I'll take a video of the artist playing onstage or in the studio. Reason being I'm trying to get at the song's meaning here, both the lyrics within the song and the song itself within the context of the album and the artist's output. Elaborate visuals, from either an official or fan-made video, feel like an attempt to overrule me.

In this case I was faced with a Hobson's choice: use the video seen above or scrap the entry. Most of the other tracks on Monster have minimal videos posted online, but "You" is only represented by a fan video syncing the music to scenes from An American Tragedy, one of the Monty Clift films to get a shout-out from the Clash in "Right Profile." I almost did give up in disgust - at the complications to my own task, not the YouTuber's fine efforts - but on second thought figured I'd take a look to see what "paivalr" was thinking. The movie stars Clift and Elizabeth Taylor, one of the first Hollywood child stars to graduate to adult sex symbol, but not the last. And while I haven't seen the film, the scenes provided do match the loopy/obsessive romanticism/lust on display in the song, particularly its first verse.

Monster is often referred to as R.E.M.'s grunge album, sometimes called so with contempt, as if the boys were trend-hopping in a desperate attempt to stay relevant. But that's not quite accurate. It's a harder than usual album for them, showing a heavier than usual punk influence without necessarily sounding like punk rock. In essence it's the kind of album they might have made in the early eighties had they not been busy becoming R.E.M. It also falls in a tradition of rock albums that proudly bear the marks of the studio: muttered asides between musicians, erratic amp feedback. As with David Bowie's Scary Monsters and The Pixies' Surfer Rosa, you can practically see the dingy corridor where the engineer goes for a smoke break.

Much of the album does fit in with the alternative rock of the nineties, which is fair enough because the "alternative" genre, dodgy as it may be, was pretty much invented by R.E.M. Or rather they fell so obviously outside the lines of the classic rock/new wave dichotomy it was pretty much inevitable that if they caught on a new box would be made to put them in. Monster also calls back to eighties FM rock at several points.

"You" goes back a little further, though. It's more their adoption of early seventies hard rock songs, specifically Blue Oyster Cult. BOC are to some extent a simpatico source for R.E.M. Among pioneering hard rock/metal bands they were notable for being New York hipsters, a number of their songs co-written by Patti Smith. But the gusto with which R.E.M. grab onto the style here is surprising. The song evokes lava lamps to such an extent for me that I'm always shocked to find they're not mentioned in the lyrics. (I don't think there's an actual sitar here, but Peter Buck makes a game attempt at calling one up.)

The verses vary and broaden the lyrical focus. The first zeros in on physical passion ("Let me kiss you on the mouth") and the glamorous images associated with it. ("And I want you like the movies," okay, that's another point in favor of pulling Clift and Taylor into the frame.)

The second verse nods to dreams and then looks outward to physical surroundings. Some of the objects turned up seem incongruous in a love song, e.g. watermelon gum. Of course dreams are filled with incongruities as well.

In the third verse there's another glance at the lover before floating off into the ether. We hear of a trip around the planets, but when Stipe gets to Pisces he trails off and jumps into the final chorus. His suggestion that signs are there to be ignored is not the first time in the band's output that Michael Stipe has shown signs of being a gnostic.

After Monster, the original lineup of R.E.M. would get together for one more album, the rather more Arcadian New Adventures in Hi-Fi. It's an equally gripping work, but in a different mode. Between the two there was, perhaps, a little time to rest. "You" in particular sounds like they're running around, tuckering themselves out for the nap ahead.


susan said...

I understand your point about presenting the final song on an album in as straightforward a way as possible without the embellishments sure to be added by a video. I used DropBox a few years ago to put up a song as one you could click on and listen to. I'm not actually sure DB is in business any longer but you might want to check. However, the video associated with 'You' did turn out to be acceptable.

As with a number of their albums after Document I only recall songs of theirs here and there, although their sound did remain instantly recognizable no matter the piece.

So while I'm not really familiar with the album as a whole the description you've written is quite fascinating enough all by itself. I had no idea, for instance, that REM had BOC as an inspiration, or that Patti Smith had composed some of their songs - but it's cool to know. You've convinced me to listen to the album again at least once.

Ben said...

DropBox does seem to be in business still. Whether they could help with what I wanted to do is another question, but I'm sure it's worth investigating.

Interestingly enough it's after Document that they really got big. The fairly relentless rate of recording and touring they did finally paid off. But they were an intelligent band from very early on.

The connections between this song and BOC are kind of an educated guess on my part. It sounds like something of an homage to me. But there is somewhat lo-res audio of them covering "Don't Fear the Reaper" and I've read some praise in interviews. The BOC/Patti Smith connection is kind of fun to read about.