Monday, February 27, 2012

Song #137 of 9999 - Losing My Religion by R.E.M.

Song #137 of 9999

Title: Losing My Religion
Artist: R.E.M.
Year: 1991
Album: Out of Time

There are actually a number of really good songs from 1991 so I thought I would get one of the giants out of the way first. If you haven't heard this song for a while, try it out with some fresh ears.

It's always interesting when a musical artist brings some attention to the characteristics of their hometown or region. Whether it's Woody Guthrie singing about the dust storms of Oklahoma or Bruce Springsteen singing about the Jersey Shore, these artists offer a glimpse of a life most people will never experience. When it's done well, it can be very effective because it makes the subject of the song so much more tangible. Billy Joel's "Allentown," for example, paints a vivid picture of a town facing a recession while Frank Zappa's "Valley Girl" introduced an entirely new vocabulary to millions of teenagers living well outside of Southern California.

R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe took a simple colloquialism of the south and turned it into a song about longing and unrequited love. "Losing my religion" means to lose one's temper or to be at the end of one's rope. It's a really cool phrase that I certainly had never heard before this song was released, not having grown up in Georgia. The phrase anchors Stipe's otherwise (typically) cryptic lyrics and he cleverly taps the religion concept for the related phrase "choosing my confessions." Indeed, the whole song reads like a confession and I think these are some of Stipe's most engaging lyrics.

The arrangement also contributes a lot to the emotional resonance of the song. Peter Buck's I-just-learned-how-to-play-the-mandolin riff jangles amidst strings and acoustic guitars playing a simple minor chord progression. For me, the most ingenious moment of the song occurs in the break right before the final verse (around the 3:15 mark). The progression moves to the III chord (C Major) for the first (and only) time when Stipe sings "That was just a dream" and it's like the clouds suddenly part to let some sunlight through. It's a neat moment and a good example of how effective a single chord change can be.

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