The Story Behind The Song: 30 years of R.E.M.’s defining anthem ‘Losing My Religion’
I read somewhere recently that the universe’s expansion travels on a wall of sound. When listening back to R.E.M.’s thirty-year-old classic, it almost seems like the intended journey of expansive matter’s sonorous hum was to arrive in a studio in the late summer of 1990, to be harnessed and honed into the adrenalized sonic reverence of ‘Losing My Religion’. All these years later, the song remains a fresh piece of pop perfection that laid down the band’s very singular manifesto: to meddle with the far reaches of sound and instrumentation and present the findings in the most palatable pieces of soaring exultation. The song itself is a classic, known and loved the world over. From the very first mandolin tingling seconds, it grabs your attention and bends your ear with its unique sound; the story behind it is no less interesting.
Recorded between September and October of 1990 and released on this day in 1991, ‘Losing My Religion’ was the first single from Out Of Time, and it launched the LP to instant success. The song was pivotal to the group’s evolution. Charting in the U.S. at number four, the song attracted a slew of newcomers to the band’s ever-growing fanbase, one that had been steadily increasing since their 1983 debut Murmur.
In the Southern region of the States, the term ‘lost my religion’ means to have a crisis of faith in someone or something once cherished. It is this internal battle of yearning and dejection simultaneously pitting themselves against each other that Michael Stipe aimed to explore in the lyrics. “I loved the idea of writing about unrequited love,” he told Dutch radio station NPO. Later adding, “[It is] about holding back, reaching forward, and then pulling back again. The thing for me that is most thrilling is you don’t know if the person I’m reaching out for is aware of me. If they even know, I exist. It’s this really tearful, heartfelt thing that found its way into one of the best pieces of music the band ever gave me.” The lyrics lend a very reverential feel to the music and elevate the catchy tune to something more spiritually resonant.
The catchy tune in question came as the result of guitarist Peter Buck’s efforts to try and learn to play the mandolin. As a practice aid, Buck would record himself playing the instrument and listen back for flaws in his performance. From the cacophonous jingling medley of overlaid practice attempts came the eureka moment when the final polished mandolin riff was identified.
Buck told Guitar School Magazine in 1991: “I started it on mandolin and came up with the riff and chorus. The verses are the kinds of things R.E.M. uses a lot, going from one minor to another, kind of like those ‘Drive 8’ chords. You can’t really say anything bad about E minor, A minor, D, and G – I mean, they’re just good chords.” This coupling of depth and adherence to classical pop song structure pushes the song into the peculiar psychic ground between the familiar and the entirely fresh.
This same contrast is also explored in the musical instrumentation. The songs low mollifying rhythm section provides an ambient platform for the words and mandolin to dance upon gleefully. “There’s absolutely no midrange on it, just low end and high end because Mike (Mills) usually stayed pretty low on the bass,” Buck explains, “This was when we decided we’d get Peter (Holsapple) to record with us, and he played live acoustic guitar on this one. It was really cool: Peter and I would be in our little booth, sweating away, and Bill and Mike would be out there in the other room going at it. It just had a really magical feel.” Mills would later admit that the bass that subtly drives the song was his way of imitating the similar effect achieved by Fleetwood Mac’s near-inimitable John McVie.
The twisted fate of circumstance also aided the strained final piece of music. The frustrated yearning in the lyrics is echoed very closely by Stipe’s desire to get the vocal take over and done with. “I was very upset,” Stipe declared regarding his anger at not being able to encapsulate the heartfelt outpouring of his poetry in the stuffy environment of the studio. The fact that the studio engineer “seemed out of it” and it was a sweltering day at Bearstudio A in Woodstock, New York, didn’t help matters. Stipe explained, “I also got really hot because I was all worked up, so I took my clothes off and recorded the song almost naked.” Whilst this is not necessarily the sort of image you want while listening back, it certainly illuminates the hoarse cascade of soaring poetry with an interesting explanation.
In the end, the band pushed through and both the vocals and mandolin were all recorded in one take. This live feel imbues the song with a certain numinous humanity. “I’m proud to say every bit of mandolin on the record was recorded live,” Buck declared, “I did no overdubbing. If you listen closely, on one of the verses there’s a place where I muffled it, and I thought, well, I can’t go back and punch it up, because it’s supposed to be a live track. That was the whole idea.” Far from a detraction, these blemishes in sound gravitates a listen to the piece, giving the song a sort of unpolished symphonic honesty that the subject matter deserves.
‘Losing My Religion’ represented the zenith of the band’s career, taking them from respected cult act to household name without diluting any of the revolutionary identity that first scored them fans.
Ultimately, it is one of the most singular songs in commercial history. And perhaps my nebulous intro was not so overblown after all, not just because of the songs self-evident glory but also because of its seemingly mystical inception, as Buck stated on the In Time compilation: “The music was written in five minutes. The first time the band played it, it fell into place perfectly. Michael had the lyrics within the hour, and while playing the song for the third or fourth time, I found my self incredibly moved to hear the vocals in conjunction with the music. To me, ‘Losing My Religion’ feels like some kind of archetype that was floating around in space that we managed to lasso. If only all songwriting was this easy.”
The track might be about a crisis of faith. Still, it certainly seems to tap into some very monolithic vitality transfigured in soulful song, which you can relive by watching the outright iconic video below.