More Posts About Lyrics and Tunes #5: “Supernatural Superserious” and My R.E.M. Favorites Playlist
February 19, 2012 § 5 Comments
R.E.M. broke up last year, and I’ve been wanting to write something about them ever since, but I’m just now getting around to it. This may be ridiculous to say at our particular, continually overhyped and hyperventilating historical/cultural moment, but I do feel like the breakup was a bigger deal, in fact, than it was made out to be. R.E.M. was one of the world’s greatest bands. For certain people — mostly (but not all!) white, mostly (but not all!) well educated, mostly (but not all!) creatively inclined — they were paragons. They made art, not product. They cared about beauty and integrity. They cared about not selling out. They were from Athens, not New York, not L.A.
I’m old enough to have cared deeply about R.E.M. when they were at their peak, but not old enough to have caught onto them when they were still under the radar. But if you were listening to music when Out of Time, Green, and Automatic for the People came out, you went back and found the earlier stuff, too. I mean, I went to a small Lutheran boarding high school in Nebraska, and our dorm supervisor had a t-shirt from the Automatic for the People tour. Everyone loved this band. They are now retired as a band (although of course there’s always the possibility of a reunion). They would probably get my vote as the greatest American band, period.
Of course, there was that long trough between New Adventures and Accelerate — those three boring albums after Bill Berry quit the band. But I feel like their last two albums made up for that: these were really great records, overlooked mostly, I think, because R.E.M. had just been around for so long, and they were always going to sell a certain number of albums. R.E.M. embraced their status as elder statesmen on these albums; their songs weren’t preachy, but they often contained a message. The sound seemed to epitomize what people think of when they think of R.E.M.
My favorite song from these two albums is probably “Supernatural Superserious” off of Accelerate, though there are a number of great tracks on Collapse Into Now as well.
This is, to start, just a great song, with that R.E.M mix of chime and jangle with power and hook. I love basically any R.E.M. song that features Mike Mills chiming in on vocals, and this has some lovely harmony/background vocals by him. It also features an especially inspired performance by Michael Stipe: he sounds like he cares on this track. (My least favorite part of the song is probably the somewhat cutesy title. I learn that the Coldplay dude renamed it from its superior working title, “Disguised.” That would explain it.)
There’s a lot going on in these lyrics. It starts with a terrific, epigrammatic first line: “Everybody here comes from somewhere that they would just as soon forget and disguise.” And then we get this knockout verse:
At the summer camp where you volunteered
No one saw your face, no one saw your fear
If that apparition had just appeared,
Took you up and away from this base and sheer humiliation
Of your teenage station
No one remembers and nobody cares
So we have a song about adolescence. A summer camp; a hypothetical, perhaps hopeful “apparition”; teenage humiliation. And this astonishing bit of advice: Nobody cares. No one remembers, and nobody cares. This is like the flip side of “Everybody Hurts”: everyone is disguising something they feel humiliated about. Everyone is too wrapped up in their own dilemmas to care about yours. That summer-camp humiliation? Forgotten. Not worth all the angst. The chorus (“Yeah you cried and you cried/He’s alive, he’s alive/Yeah you cried and you cried and you cried and you cried”) doesn’t sound uplifting based on the lyrics — at all — but it is, especially with those sweet Mike Mills vocals. We have another implication of the supernatural in that repeated “he’s alive”: is “he” Christ? The teenager’s “apparition”?
This first verse and chorus remind me of a story by Reynolds Price entitled “Michael Egerton.” It was written when Price was still a teenager, but Mr. Price seems to have been born something of an elder statesman. It’s a summer-camp tale in which the title character is bullied for missing a championship baseball game, metaphorically “crucified” for his sensitivity. (It also references the folk song “Green Grow the Rushes,” which is of course also an R.E.M. song. Not that I think there was any influence by Price on R.E.M., just a funny coincidence.)
Stipe then builds in references to sexuality, theatricality, and S&M (safe words, chafing “ropes,” “fantasies” dressed up as “travesties”) to complicate these themes of disguise and “humiliation,” leading to a straightforward message: “Enjoy yourself with no regrets.” And that’s as good an encapsulation of R.E.M.’s message as you’re likely to find.
There follows another great verse:
Now there’s nothing dark and there’s nothing weird
Don’t be afraid I will hold you near
From the seance where you first betrayed
An open heart on a darkened stage
A celebration of your teenage station
A seance that’s also a celebration, which was formerly a humiliation: that’s memory, folks. That’s R.E.M.’s past, that’s the past for all of us. You will end up celebrating, reminiscing about, calling up from the dead those events that were once so embarrassing. Enjoy yourself, with no regrets.
In that spirit of celebration, here’s my R.E.M. favorites playlist (not in order of preference, but an order in which I enjoy listening to them — and apologies for whatever annoying ads you may encounter):
- Finest Worksong
- It Happened Today (this has a great video with extended version of the song, by the way)
- Swan Swan H
- You Are the Everything (sadly, no “official” version; this is a near-contemporary live version, and it’s beautiful, but I do miss Mike Mills’s background vocals from the album track)
- Don’t Go Back to Rockville
- Try Not to Breathe
- Man On the Moon
- Cuyahoga (fairly faithful live version, but no substitute for the original. There’s also a very nice cover by the Decemberists here)
- Near Wild Heaven
- Sweetness Follows
- Driver 8
- What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?
- Orange Crush
- Turn You Inside-Out
- Supernatural Superserious
- Undertow (live version, but very close to the album track. Note: I love the New Adventures in Hi-Fi album. It was tough not to include “E-Bow the Letter,” “Electrolite,” “How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us,” and others.)
- Let Me In (there’s also a truly amazing live version from the Monster tour)
- Fall On Me
- Half a World Away