7. I Believe – REM When: always
They might be the last truly great American group.
REM never apologised for being artists, for trying to marry head and heart, for refusing to follow pop culture’s relentless march to the intellectual bottom. They were a properly kick ass rock ‘n roll band. They maybe had the best front man in rock in the 80s/90s. Who was also a poet. They believed in things and spoke about them. They campaigned for Amnesty. They appeared on Sesame Street. Michael Stipe. Peter Buck. Mike Mills. Bill Berry. They took it very seriously but laughed at themselves along the way.
There will be a small handful of bands, singers, and artists on this list where I could pick from any of a dozen songs. REM are one of them. The breathless smile-in-the-face-of-the-apocalypse-stream-of-consciousness “It’s The End Of The World (And I Feel Fine)” is worth a place purely for the “time I spent some time alone” harmonies at its close. In stark contrast I could also easily argue the case for “Everybody Hurts”, possibly the purest, most redemptive expression of the universality of human pain committed to record. The straight ahead beauty of “Nightswimming”, the Byrdsian jangle of “Driver 8”, the sheer fun of “Stand”, the chilling darkness of “Country Feedback”… That’s without even mentioning “Losing My Religion”, “Turn You Inside Out”, “World Leader Pretend”, “Talk About The Passion”, “Fall On Me”, “These Days”… A ridiculous embarrassment of riches from which I decided to pick one.
“I Believe” sits eight songs in to 1986’s “Lifes Rich Pageant”, the missing apostrophe apparently deliberate, and for me, shoddy grammar aside, it’s their finest album. For today at least. Ask me tomorrow and it’ll be “Automatic For The People”. Or “Murmur”. And I’ll always carry a torch for “Green” which was my start point with the band. You get the idea.
The song is almost a manifesto, a concise treatise on how to live; it calls to mind Stipe imparting advice to a younger version of himself (tellingly an earlier attempt at the song was entitled “When I Was Young” but failed to make it on to “Fables Of The Reconstruction”, the preceding album).
Lyrically, like many of his songs, it veers from the oblique – the shamanistic imagery, all coyotes, rattlesnakes and fever – to the more explicit and direct. All of it wrapped up in twisting, riddling lines that challenge the listener – both the listener in the song and us, the listeners to the song – to reflect on what’s important in life:
Explain the change, the difference between what you want and what you need, there’s the key
Your adventure for today, what do you do between the horns of the day ?
There’s frequent allusions to marking a period of shaking off younger, foolish ways and embracing change – the man that was “spirited, a rattlesnake” giving way to someone for whom “change is what I believe in”. There’s arguably a read of the song that’s about a rejection of religion – first line’s “young and full of grace” – but it’s not imagery that’s revisited and I think it’s less about casting off something specific, rather a general process of sifting all of the truths inherited in your youth and figuring out which ones you’re going to choose to make a part of yourself. Stipe’s gently playful in his role as the advice giving narrator – co-opting and teasing with exactly the kinds of platitude (“give and take”, “practice makes perfect”, “think of others”) that are frequently passed down as wisdom from adults to children. My favourite section sums this up in a wonderful articulation of life as an evolving process, never fixed, never done (until, ultimately, of course it’s done):
Trust in your calling, make sure your calling’s true
Think of others, the others think of you
Silly rule, golden words make practice, practice makes perfect
Perfect is a fault, and fault lines change
Musically the song’s playful too. The studio version kicks off with a down-home, rootsy banjo that gives way to Buck’s chiming Rickenbacker – a conscious nod to the lyrical themes, taking the threads of the old and weaving them in to something new. Then it just throttles forwards, a bundle of momentum and energy, running helter skelter through the first verse, building to the kick into the chorus. It is impossible to not feel lifted up by this song. On a good day it will make you believe you can do anything. On a bad day it will make you leap around the house grinning like a loon. Either outcome is pretty good I reckon.
The version on the video above is from Tourfilm, the 1990 document of the “Green” world tour. It doesn’t open with the banjo but I particularly love it for showing off the many facets of Stipe – the poet, the incredible singer, the performer. He’s just utterly mesmerising, holding the crowd through a straight poetry recital, an acapella verse, before tearing off his jacket and ripping into the song. He veers from exposed and vulnerable to defiant and bold, always true to himself, fierce in his declamation. Incredible. The band aren’t too shabby either.
Given that my read of the song is fundamentally about embracing change, working through what’s important, and being comfortable in asserting your own identity it’s not difficult to understand why I picked it. Stipe was 26 when he wrote this and I guess that’s a natural point to work through what’s left over from childhood and adolescence and piece your self together. I’m not 26 anymore but there seems no harm in continuing the process.
As the song says: “fault lines change”.