Saturday, September 10, 2016

REM, "Fall On Me"

I listened to REM's 1986 Life's Rich Pageant for the first time in years recently, and I was struck by how well it held up and how much I liked it. For years I'd written it off as a transitional album between their early, mystery-wrapped sound and the bigger rock sound of the late 80s that would break them into the mainstream.

That certainly wasn't the case when I first heard it. REM was my favorite band in high school, and the first group that compelled me to raid its back catalog when that still involved locating and buying actual tapes and CDs. Life's Rich Pageant was the first album of theirs I bought that didn't have a hit on it. I'd bought Out Of Time on the strength of "Losing My Religion," then gobbled up Green and Document, which had songs like "The One I Love" and "Stand" that I had head on the radio and MTV. Life's Rich Pageant grabbed me right away, especially "Fall On Me." As the years went by my tastes got more rock snobby, and I decided that like so many other bands, "their early stuff was better." Also since I had the album only on cassette, I rarely revisited it until the age of streaming.

Yes, the production is more in your face 80s than Murmur, but "Fall On Me" starts with one of Peter Buck's most beautiful Byrd-dropping folky guitar figures. The wall of jangle throughout the song is just beautiful and a perfect foundation for the vocals. The boomier, more produced drums give the song a kind of stateliness and immediacy. The chorus is super catchy, and Mike Mills, the band's great secret weapon, adds some pretty  background vocals, his clear voice as always a great compliment to Michael Stipe's nasally tone. In an ideal world it would have been a hit, but 1986 was perhaps the height of Reagan's America, before the Iran Contra scandal and the 1987 stock market collapse made it safe for pop culture to be more critical.

The song, like many on the album, has a political bent. It is about environmental degradation, asking the sky not to fall after polluting the life out of it. While my understanding is that Stipe was thinking here of acid rain, on this unusually hot September day, I think about climate change. Like the best of REM, "Fall On Me" can be political without being preachy or obvious, and is well worth a listen.

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