Monday, September 29, 2008

Week 18: "Let Me In" by R.E.M.

In June of 1995 I went to my first rock concert. I still have the mustard yellow concert tee shirt that I purchased at the merch booth at an amphitheater outside of Boston where I saw R.E.M. perform on their four continent world tour. The back of the shirt had lines crossing out 43 shows in Europe and the United States representing the dates they had to cancel in the middle of the tour when drummer Bill Berry suffered a brain aneurysm.

Throughout my entire high school experience I idolized R.E.M. They released their mainstream breakthrough album Out of Time in the fall of ‘91, during my freshman year. They followed this up a year later with Automatic for the People. Then, in the fall of ’94 they released Monster, the album that includes the song “Let Me In.”

I became a fan of R.E.M. a bit late. By the time I purchased Out of Time and their prior recording, 1988’s Green, they had already started to drift from the sound that had made them college radio mainstays through the early and mid 1980s. Of course, during high school I went back and explored their earlier sound. I listened to their debut album, Murmur, and to their subsequent albums leading up to Green: Reckoning, Fables of the Reconstruction, Life’s Rich Pageant, and Document as well as a pair of compilations, Dead Letter Office and Eponymous, and their stand-alone EP Chronic Town.

The point I want to make is that R.E.M.’s Green represented the band’s first sign of comfort with gimmicky and banal music. The more musically precocious sixth graders in my junior high went to hear R.E.M. in concert and you know they were going to hear the song “Stand” off the Green album, not the other brilliant tracks that album contains. Perhaps R.E.M. fans would argue with me; after all, “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” is certainly gimmicky. But, the two songs are ontologically different. “It’s the End,” despite its verses consisting of absurdist litanies delivered at rapid-fire speed, has an element of timelessness to it. Contrast this with “Stand” which succeeds as a catchy tune but lacks lasting significance.

R.E.M. then went on to release Out of Time, an album that became one of their most commercially successful records but was also overshadowed by albums by Nirvana and Pearl Jam that were released around the same time. Out of Time is a fascinating record. Its top hit, "Losing My Religion," is an excellent song that also features exposed mandolin solos that seem overly image conscious. This album has beautiful songs like “Country Feedback,” “Texarkana,” but it also has its embarrassing moments. The opening song, “Radio Song,” is a train wreck of an identity crisis featuring rapper KRS-1. I can’t believe that any self-respecting R.E.M. fan would feel anything but contempt for “Shiny Happy People.”

The follow up to Out of Time was Automatic for the People, which is one of R.E.M.’s strongest albums. Its first track (and first single) “Drive” consciously marks a change in voice. Michael Stipe sings, “Hey kids, rock and roll,” a line that distances himself from his listeners. While Automatic lacks an epic mistake like “Radio Song” or “Shiny Happy People,” songs like “Man on the Moon” and, especially, “Everybody Hurts” aspire to popular acclaim and commercial success.

This brings us to Monster. I believe that one cannot really understand Monster without knowing the trajectory established by the band’s three previous albums. What’s more, Monster was released at the height of the 1994 alternative music boom. As groups like The Smashing Pumpkins, Weezer, and Radiohead found tremendous commercial success, more veteran acts tried to adopt a more youthful sound. One example of this is David Bowie who tried to attract a younger audience by touring with Nine Inch Nails(!)

The release of Monster grabbed people’s attention. The debut single, “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” was more electric-guitar driven than any previous R.E.M. song and the video featured a bald-headed Stipe vamping in front of a microphone. Monster showcased several fast paced rock songs including “Star 69” and “Crush with Eyeliner” but also slower songs as well. “Strange Currencies” is, in my opinion, R.E.M.’s most underrated song. “Tongue” features Stipe singing in falsetto.

Before I focus in on “Let Me In,” I want to say a bit about R.E.M.’s life after Monster. Two years later, they released a follow-up, New Adventures in Hi-Fi, which failed to capture me. I paid no attention to any of the four albums (Up, Reveal, Around the Sun, and Accelerate) that they’ve released since.

“Let Me In” is a striking song that I think is best understood in the context of the history of the band I’ve presented above. “Let Me In” stands out for its unorthodox style. It features the drone of loud, distorted electric guitars and organ. The only rhythm is provided by the quiet tap of a tambourine that fades in and out. Above this sound, Michael Stipe sings faint, poetic verses and a plaintive, exposed chorus. The song is dedicated to the memory of Kurt Cobain and an almost sacred quality surrounds the song. “Let Me In” combines R.E.M.’s embrace of louder guitars, their interest in experimentation, and a slow, spiritual sound that they developed in earlier recordings.

You can listen to the album version of the song here, and a live acoustic version of it here. Or, if you want to pick up a copy of Monster for yourself, you can find it for about $2.99 at any used CD shop.