Saturday, March 13, 2010

March 13: R.E.M., "Half A World Away"

Artist: R.E.M.
Song: "Half A World Away"
Album: Out Of Time
Year: 1991

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Throughout music history, when an album contains a hit that not only defines the band, but in some cases, an entire generation, often times, the rest of the songs on the album in question sadly become lost relics.  In a number of cases, it is these “lost songs” that are among the bands’ finest work, and without the spotlight, they are able to retain much of their impact and beauty over time. In 1991, this exact situation occurred, when R.E.M. found themselves as the most in demand band on the planet, thanks to their surprise hit, “Losing My Religion.”  Though it was not their first hit, it is one of a handful of songs that is truly inseparable from a moment in history, and yet, it is within other tracks on their Grammy sweeping Out Of Time record where the true genius of the band shines brightest.  From the rhymes of KRS-ONE on “Radio Song” to what is one of the most irresistibly catchy tunes in “Shiny Happy People,” the record shows every side of R.E.M.’s limitless creativity.  Along with amazingly original musical approaches, the band always has had the advantage of what may be their greatest strength: the unparalleled lyrics of Michael Stipe.  Clearly in top form throughout Out Of Time, Stipe gives one of his most beautiful and most soul-bearing performances ever in the form of the lonesome love song, “Half A World Away.”

As is the case with many of the songs on Out Of Time, “Half A World Away” receives a full-on musical orchestration, with R.E.M.’s members even taking on non-traditional roles for the song.  With Mike Mills playing organ on the song, Bill Berry plays bass, and that is the reason why the song features no drums.  Mills' playing is absolutely stunning, and it is his performance that gives the song an almost renaissance feel, and the interplay between he and Peter Buck is what makes all of Out Of Time so different from the rest of the bands' catalog.  Another similarity to “Losing My Religion” is the gorgeous, almost subtle touch of Peter Buck’s mandolin.  Again, this helps to heighten the overall mood, and the combined sound is what makes the music of R.E.M. stay in a category all its own.  In many ways, one can even picture a man sitting all alone somewhere, mandolin in hand, singing to a far off love, and R.E.M.’s ability to create such vivid scenes is one aspect that forever sets them far above their peers.  The string section that is featured on nearly half of the albums’ songs are present for this track, and it is their almost crying sound that makes this one of the most heart-wrenching songs ever recorded.  The full string section helps to heighten the drama which Stipe builds through his words, and it reinforces just how wonderfully genuine a song the band has created. 

While the music on “Half A World Away” is without question one of the most blissful melodies ever composed, it is the lyrics and vocal work of Michael Stipe that truly make this song so special.  Seeming to know no boundaries to his vocal range, Stipe remains one of the most captivating vocalists in history, and it is on “Half A World Away” where one gains an early glimpse of his ability to deliver words of heartfelt beauty with as much impact as he did with his social and political commentary throughout their career to that point.  Completely exposing his inner-most emotions, when Stipe lets loose his voice, it never comes across as contrived, and this purity in performance is one of the reasons he remains so revered to this day.  Over his career, Stipe has proved again and again that there are few writers that can so perfectly capture human emotion as he, and his simple, yet painfully accurate words consistently demand to be studied.  While his words to “Pop Song 89” remain some of the most misunderstood, on “Half A World Away,” he lets fly some of the most truly beautiful word-craft that the word has ever heard.  The opening refrain of, “This could be the saddest dusk, I've ever seen turn to a miracle...” is easily one of his finest phrases, and the simultaneous pain and beauty is a trick which few so perfectly possess.  Switching between yearning for his lost love, and lamenting his own state of mind, Stipe has rarely sound as strangely pained as he does here, and it is one of the reasons why “Half A World Away” is such a special song.

Often referred to as “deep cuts,” there are countless albums which feature amazing songs that for the most part, never see the light of day.  In most cases, this is due to a certain song (or songs) casting a shadow over the rest of the record, and many of these “deep cuts” remain bands’ most beloved songs by their most fervent fans.  Easily fitting this description is the song that may very well be the most beautiful lyric ever penned by Michael Stipe, "Half A World Away."  Though it bears many similarities to the song that made the Out Of Time record famous, "Losing My Religion," the song has a tone and mood all its own, and  this ability to derive multiple sounds and moods from such a similar musical arrangement is much of the genius behind R.E.M.  As the band members shuffle instruments, it becomes clear that on many levels, this is one of their most courageous musical experiments, and at the same time, the band has rarely sounded better.  The combined instrumentation from the band, along with a beautiful string section helps to create one of the most captivating moods ever captured on record, and it provides the ideal backdrop for Stipe to give one of his greatest performances ever.  Over the years, R.E.M. has proven that they truly know no musical boundaries in any sense of the word, and it is one "Half A World Away" that they prove that they are capable of creating the most sincere and truly touching love songs ever written.

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