R.E.M. were one of modern music’s most successful and influential bands, and Michael Stipe was one the most charismatic frontmen in rock history. Yet his lyrics have always been enigmatic and often indecipherable. Stipe has admitted that during the band’s early years, he himself didn’t always know what he was singing. No wonder the gang from Athens, Ga., named their first album ‘Murmur.' Nevertheless, Stipe’s capabilities as a wordsmith, and the range of emotions his words convey, are indisputable. Poignant or goofy, wistful or incendiary, literary or just plain surreal, here are the 10 Best R.E.M. lyrics.
'Carnival Of Sorts (Box Cars)'
“Chronic town, poster torn, reaping wheel / Stranger, stranger to these parts / Gentlemen don't get caught, cages under cage / Gentlemen don't get caught / Box cars are pulling out of town.”
From their first EP, 1982’s ‘Chronic Town,’ the lyrics to this song are quintessential R.E.M.: odd phrases and non-sequiturs that, at face value, don’t appear to mean much. But Stipe sings them with such urgency and feeling that they assume meaning, inviting the listener into their mystical, magical mysterious world. They might come off as an experiment in free association, but, as with most R.E.M. lyrics, their truth lies between the lines, deep beneath the surface.
“When you greet a stranger, look at his shoes / Keep your money in your shoes.”
The title’s grammatically incorrect and it’s hard to make out all the words to the song, but it remains one of R.E.M.’s best. Much of that is down to this arresting opening line, ambiguous advice(s) dished out in Stipe’s non-committal Southern drawl. Modified for the second verse, “his” becomes “hers” and “money” becomes “memories,” elevating this into some kind of metaphysical self-help guide to be individually interpreted (and then heeded or ignored) by the listener.
'(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville'
“It's not as though I really need you / If you were here I'd only bleed you / But everybody else in town only wants / To bring you down and that's not how it ought to be.”
The words to this jangly, countrified tune -- a song brimming with youthful passion and naivety -- were actually penned by bassist Mike Mills about his then-girlfriend in an attempt to get her to stay in Athens. Unsurprisingly, given the crushing blow dealt by the anti-romance of the above line -- an unusually honest depiction of love for a pop song -- it was unsuccessful, but it helped create one of R.E.M.’s greatest songs.
“Let's play Twister, let's play Risk / Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah / I'll see you heaven if you make the list / Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.”
Michael Stipe wrote these lyrics to out-“yeah” Nirvana’s ‘Lithium.' He does so with 56 instances of the word, beating that song by two. Beyond that, though, this string of disparate imagery is also a tribute to cult comedian/actor Andy Kaufman, and it's just as bizarre, surreal and post-modern as the late entertainer himself. Case in point: during the chorus, Stipe mimics Kaufman mimicking Elvis for what’s surely one of pop/rock music’s most meta moments.
“I read bad poetry into your machine / I save your messages just to hear your voice / You always listen carefully to awkward rhymes / You always say your name like I wouldn't know it's you /
At your most beautiful.”
Taken from 1998’s ‘Up,’ the first album recorded after the departure of drummer Bill Berry, ‘At My Most Beautiful’ is a straightforward love song set to a glorious, Beach Boys-esque tune. Stipe’s missives are both tender and slightly silly, sincere and sweet (but far from saccharine), their power contained in wonderful little details like the above. It’s quite un-Stipe-esque, but that makes it stand out all the more.
“Nightswimming, remembering that night / September's coming soon / I'm pining for the moon / And what if there were two / Side by side in orbit around the fairest sun? / The bright tide forever drawn / Could not describe nightswimming”
‘Nightswimming’ is, without doubt, one of R.E.M.’s most beautiful songs. Its understated but incisive lyrics perfectly capture not just those fleeting days of summer, but also the transient, ephemeral nature of youth. Here, in just a few simple lines, Stipe pits the experience of that (once-)perfect moment against the distorted distance of its memory, acknowledging that, no matter how vivid the recollection, it will never truly reflect or accurately replicate exactly what happened.
“The walls are built up, stone by stone / The fields divided one by one / And the train conductor says / ‘Take a break Driver 8, Driver 8 take a break / We've been on this shift too long’.”
Somehow, in just over four minutes and through a series of lyrical abstractions, Stipe channels the entire history of the United States through the eyes of a train driver. Whether it’s a literal or metaphorical journey, or a combination of the two, is -- as with most R.E.M. lyrics -- for the reader to infer, but it’s clear that, whatever and wherever the destination, it's one that's perpetually unreachable.
“We've been through fake-a-breakdown / Self-hurt, plastics, collections / Self-help, self-pain / EST, psychics, fuck all / I was central, I had control / I lost my head /I need this, I need this.”
While 1991’s super-smash seventh album ‘Out Of Time’ is best known for glossy hits ‘Losing My Religion’ and ‘Shiny Happy People,’ this track -- third on our list of the 10 Best R.E.M. Lyrics -- is a different beast altogether. Why? Because what you’re hearing is actually a raw demo. Stipe made up the lyrics on the spot while the band recorded the song for the first and only time. Few songs by any artist contain as much candid pain, sadness and desperation.
“I had a mind to try to stop you / Let me in. Let me in / Well, I got tar on my feet and I can't see / All the birds look down and laugh at me / Clumsy, crawling out of my skin.”
Taken from 1994’s underrated ‘Monster’ LP, this was a eulogy to Kurt Cobain, who’d committed suicide just months before the album’s release. Written specifically for and addressed directly to Stipe’s late friend, the song’s three direct and plaintive verses are each followed by Stipe’s anguished and forever-unanswered pleas of “Let me in.” Despite the wash of loud, abrasive feedback that carries the song, as the above verse testifies, it’s Stipe at his most vulnerable, helpless and hopeless.
'It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)'
“That's great, it starts with an earthquake, birds and snakes, an aeroplane and Lenny Bruce is not afraid / Eye of a hurricane, listen to yourself churn – world serves its own needs, don’t misserve your own needs / Feed it off an aux speak, grunt, no, strength / Ladder start to clatter with fear fight down height. Wire in a fire, representing seven games, a government for hire and a combat site. Left of west and coming in a hurry with the Furies breathing down your neck.”
This cataclysmic, apocalyptic tornado of images is a truly unrivaled lyrical tour de force. Of course, the above words may not be entirely accurately. They come from an official lyric sheet corrected by Stipe himself, but that doesn’t mean they’re correct. In the band’s 1992 ‘MTV Unplugged’ performance, he reads them from a sheet “obtained from a computer" but admits he doesn’t know if they’re right. Either way, the sense of devastation and destruction these lines contain is indisputable. Yet after the catastrophic cacophony of the verses comes the upbeat defiance of the chorus. Deconstruct and analyze every single line, and it’d still be impossible to decipher an ultimate meaning for this song. There isn’t one. There’s just the triumph of human spirit, rising high above the devastation trying -- and failing -- to bring it down.