Song 65: R.E.M., “Find The River” (1992)Posted: March 6, 2013
R.E.M. is my favorite band. Which, given the amount of music that I’m crazy about, is kind of an amazing thing. I like them more than the Stones? Bob Dylan? The goddamn Beatles? Yes, yes, yes.
Why? Well, that’s where things get complicated. I’m not sure why. I know what I like about R.E.M.—those beautiful choruses that snake around and reach up, up, up; Peter Buck’s warm but aggressive guitar; Mike Mills’s cry-in-the-wilderness harmonies—but generally speaking, I can’t really explain why I like them more than everybody else. I don’t even think they’re better than the Beatles, they just connect with me more.
I didn’t know about R.E.M. in their college-rock heyday; I became aware of them just as the rest of the world made them superstars. “Stand” and “Shiny Happy People”, which are rightly derided as two of R.E.M.’s weakest songs (an assessment that the band generally shared), are what made me notice them when I was 11 years old. From that moment, I followed them everywhere, from the peak of Automatic For The People to the valley of Around The Sun, through the awkward post-Bill Berry period and their various “comeback” records. In a way–to use a cliché that I know I’ll only use once here–I feel like we grew up together.
Automatic For The People is arguably the album that cemented R.E.M.’s place in the canon, the one that confirmed that the band’s 1988 contract with Warner Brothers was probably a good investment for both parties (the contract was renewed in 1996 for a reported $80 million, which…does not happen anymore). It’s also my favorite R.E.M. record, and, depending on the day, my favorite record in general. It’s got a combination of darkness and hope that I can relate to, with gorgeous songs that seem to have emerge fully formed.
R.E.M. has never been great at track order (Up was especially botched in this regard), but “Find The River” follows “Man on the Moon” and “Nightswimming” to perfectly close out Automatic. It’s a song about finding one’s path in the face of adversity, which, after 11 songs with equal parts death and hope, is something of a summing up. Water is one of Michael Stipe’s favorite lyrical images, from the rainstorms and harborcoats of Reckoning (whose spine featured the cheeky recommendation “File under water”) to the band’s final single, “We All Go Back To Where We Belong,” a song that, like “Find The River,” uses tides and currents as metaphors for birth, death, and everything in between. It’s not the most original image in the book, but it’s an effective one.
That this song is even the most beautiful track on Automatic For The People–a record that features “Try Not To Breathe,” “Sweetness Follows” and the incredible “Nightswimming”–is an accomplishment, but I think it’s the best work that R.E.M. ever did. Melodically, harmonically, lyrically, arrangement-wise, production-wise, the chorus sums up R.E.M. for me. I know others are more attached to the band’s more “rock-oriented” sound, and don’t get me wrong, Murmur, Reckoning, Monster and New Adventures In Hi-Fi are all great. But this is the R.E.M. that I know best.
Commercially and critically, Automatic For The People was the beginning of the end, even though the band didn’t break up for another 19 years. Excluding their two live albums and two greatest-hits compilations (and including their debut EP), the record marks the exact midpoint in R.E.M.’s career, with eight albums on either side. A lot of great music followed, but it never got better than this.