By Alison Babka
By Nick Horn
By RFT Music
By Drew Ailes
By Bob McMahon
By Allison Babka
By Kelsey McClure
By Carolina de Busto
"Houston": Another favorite, based around acoustic guitar. Frowning organ and a stern low end curiously conjure a steamship whistle. The tempo also sways like that of a ship at sea; one can imagine brave captain Michael Stipe singing these lyrics while keeping lookout. At R.E.M.'s SXSW show, Stipe revealed that Hurricane Katrina inspired the song (more specifically, the protagonist of "Houston" finds his faith challenged in the aftermath of the hurricane). This explains lyrics brimming with nostalgia and wistfulness about cities in Texas, but also makes the final line that much more poignant: "Belief has not filled me, and so I am put to the test." The interpretation is ambiguous: Does this imply that being agnostic or an atheist in our country's political climate — and in particular, Texas — is emotionally trying, or does it refer to a lack of faith in the government?
"Accelerate": My second-favorite song on the album. Reminiscent of Monster's "King of Comedy," due to its urgent tempo and buzzsawing, minor-key guitar clouds (which often fade out in a trail of distortion). The sense of clawing panic in this song is palpable: "Where is the ripcord, the trap door, the key? Where is the cartoon escape hatch for me?" The atmosphere careens like a hectic pinball game, signaling that there's no time to hesitate or think things through; action based on raw instinct is imperative.
"Until the Day is Done": A quintessential thoughtful R.E.M. ballad, one earnestly wringing its hands over the state of the country. Beat-poet percussion meshes with fluttering acoustic guitar. The lack of vocal effects on this song means that Stipe's vocals bleed with (and for) humanity. Earnest and pleasant, although curiously by-the-numbers.
"Mr. Richards": Droning, lazy riffs spiral and dip in the background; think the Velvet Underground & Nico, or a kite soaring through the air. Stipe's vocals are drenched in effects, giving the song a vaguely robotic tone. The coolest part: A few drum parts push forward into a quasi-drum-'n'-bass motif that's an intriguing diversion from the relatively straightforward 4/4 beat.
"Sing for the Submarine": A distraught, macabre waltz possessing a sense of floating anxiety and unspecified dread. With its greyscale guitars and melancholy minor key, the song feels like an outtake of 2004's Around the Sun. A review by Pop Songs' Matthew Perpetua on Stereogum.com noted the lyrics seem deliberately self-referential: "electron blue," "gravity's pull" and "high-speed train" — R.E.M. song titles all — appear. The dank percussion breakdown/drum solo in the bridge is something I wish appeared more. Probably my least favorite song; it needs an editor, as there's too much repetition to keep its elements interesting.
"Horse to Water": A completely jarring juxtaposition after the previous three slower numbers, "Water" is a thrashing speedball reminiscent of Nirvana's punkiest moments (or Scottish superstars Idlewild). Guitars clash and shred, careening off the rails; Mills' chorus counter-melodies mesh perfectly with Stipe's banshee howl. Again, the theme of eschewing the mindless lemming mentality — implied is reference to political — emerges. Simple, but effective.
"I'm Gonna DJ": We haven't had a "silly" song on an R.E.M. album in awhile (see also: "Shiny Happy People," "Superman"). And this is it. First debuted on the 2004 world tour, in the studio the song is all glittered out, T. Rex-style. Like a metallic glam-robot, Stipe speak-sings lyrics such as, "Death is pretty final/I'm collecting vinyl/I'm gonna DJ at the end of the world!" Falsetto background vocals gleefully shriek "whoo!" behind clunky garage-punk riffs. But among this noise and clamor is a glorious truism: "Music will provide the light you cannot resist."