The answer to the question ‘What determines good music — lyrics or melody?’ is an unresolved one and is as debatable as the chicken-egg theory. Although many have logically stated that it’s a melody that separates music from poetry, making music much more democratic and far more moving, the contribution of good lyrics can’t be dismissed. If allowed to take a neutral stance in this debate, one may claim that the amalgamation of lyrics and melody in a proper ratio makes a song memorable. Of course, this stance can be faulted for excluding non-lyrical music, further triggering the debate. But since songs are the most popular form of music it is safe to assume that songwriters are responsible for tipping the scales in their favour.
One such gifted lyricist who made a mark in the history of English songwriting is Michael Stipe. The lead vocalist of R.E.M though primarily noted for his distinctive mumbling singing style also held a mighty pen that engraved songs in listeners’ minds forever. He has always effortlessly toed the line of pop mastery and poetic discourse with a deft touch.
Though Stipe refuses to take his skill seriously saying that “I’m tired of being this solemn poet of the masses, the enigma shrouded in a mystery…” it is definitely worth taking a look at his craft. His songs cover a myriad of themes be it mystical, social, political or more specific ones like mortality, love and disillusionment. Even his early pieces which he dismissed as nonsense speaks a volume about his creative genius.
It’s rather a tough job to choose only six lyrical pieces from an ocean of pearls. Nevertheless, here are our picks that put Stipe’s versatility on full display. In case we miss your favourites, don’t forget to let us know in the comment section.
Michael Stipe’s 6 best lyrics for R.E.M.:
“I saw a treehouse on the outskirts of the farm
The power lines have floaters so the airplanes won’t get snagged
The bells are ringing through the town again
The children look up, all they hear is sky-blue bells ringing”
R.E.M’s second single that also featured in their 1985 album Fables of Reconstruction, though lyrically abstract, loosely narrates the history of the United States through a train driver’s point of view. As always, the readers are left to decide if the journey is literal, metaphorical or both. The destination, though undecided, lures the audience to step off the platform and take the journey.
Stipe during a 2009 Rolling Stone interview said, “It’s like breathing – I don’t think about it when I sing it. I was listening to these live tapes and thought it was a beautiful song with incredible imagery.”
‘Let Me In’
“Yeah all those stars drip down like butter
And promises are sweet
We hold out our pans with our hands to catch them
We eat them up, drink them up, up, up, up”
The 1994 song was a eulogy to Kurt Cobain who committed suicide just before the release of the album. Cobain was a R.E.M fan which brought him close to Stipe. The death of Cobain and actor river Pheonix left Stipe distraught who said during an interview, “River’s death prevented me from being able to write for almost five months. When I did start writing, I came up with ‘Crush With Eyeliner,’ ‘What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?,’ ‘Circus Envy’ and then when Kurt died halfway through making the record, and I just threw my arms up, and I had to express the frustration that I had, trying to pull him out of the state of mind he was in and not succeeding you know, I wrote that song (‘Let Me In’) and we put it on the record.”
Within the song, Stipe is captured in his most vulnerable state, desperate to help his friends — to be let in. During recording, the band used Cobain’s left-handed Fender given to them by Courtney Love which added another personal touch to the song.
‘It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)’
“It’s the end of the world as we know it
It’s the end of the world as we know it
It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine”
The song first appeared in their 1987 album Document and then was released as a single, taking place at number 69 in Billboards Hot 100. Stipe’s lyrical abstraction is found at its best here. It’s narrated as a stream of consciousness, evoking unrelated images at every turn. The only thing that connects the scattered imagery is the sense of destruction, hopelessness and catastrophe.
There is repeated reference of people with the initials L.B such as Lenny Bruce, Lester Bangs and Leonard Bernstein. In his 1990 interview with Music magazine, Stipe stated that it was inspired by a dream where he found himself surrounded by people with the initials L.B.
“One, two, three, four
This flower is scorched
This film is on
On a maddening loop
These clothes don’t fit us right
I’m to blame
It’s all the same
It’s all the same“
This country-rock gem is from their 1991 album Out of time. What made the song special was Stipe’s impromptu modification of the lyrics. Recalling the incident, he said that he “just had a piece of paper with a few words. I sang it, and I walked out.” He anxiously made up the following lines directly in the recording session the next day. The song was recorded in one take much to Stipe’s surprise. His bandmate Peter Buck explained the reason behind it saying “It’s exactly what was on his mind that day. It was real.”
Stipe’s personal favourite, the song evokes a series of disturbing and keen observations that run through the narrator’s mind.
“High on the roof, thin the blood
Another one came on the waves tonight
Comin’ in, you’re home”
Stipe took the listeners by surprise when he discarded his cryptic style and took up a direct approach to refer to the political scenario that surrounded him in his life. Among the band’s protest songs, the 1988 album Green caused a stir for its advantageous direction. One of the best moments on the LP, ‘Orange Crush’ and its naive title can often trick one into believing that it’s an innocent song, but in reality, it hides gruesome truth deep under the surface.
It condemns the atrocities of the Vietnam War in which Stipe’s father served. The chemical weapon Agent Orange is referred to in the chorus and the band go one step further to create the dreadful soundscape of war by using whirring of helicopter and military chants in the interlude.
‘At My Most Beautiful’
“At my most beautiful
I count your eyelashes secretly
With every one, whisper, “I love you”
I let you sleep
I know your closed eye watching me
I thought I saw a smile”
It is probably the most un-Stipe-esque song ever. A piano-driven ballad, it is a sweet romantic song. Released in their 1998 album Up, the song was a pleasant surprise to the audience and quickly rose to number 10 on the Uk singles chart.
The melody of the song is said to be influenced by The Beach Boys’ album Pet Sounds. Stipe confirmed by saying “The idea for it happened driving up and down Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles when I was putting together the Patti Smith book [Two Times Intro: On the Road with Patti Smith] last year…I had CDs and tape of new songs in the car. I came up with this one line, ‘I found a way to make you smile.’ All I knew was The Beach Boys had a record or a song called Smile… so I was like, Well, this will be my gift to [bandmates and Beach Boys fans] Peter and Mike, and Bill at the time. It was hard to write.”