You know what I’m sick of? No? I do! I’m sick of people saying “I’m sorry to hear that” or “I’m sorry for your loss.” Sick, sick, sick of it, especially as someone with heavy things to impart to people every so often.
Here’s why: fuck you, that’s why! Let’s say I just told you about my cat dying, which is a serious issue for me and, if I’m telling you, probably something I’m still raw about. And something I have a legitimate reason to be upset about. But now you say “I’m sorry to hear that” and all of a sudden we’re talking about you! You, who didn’t just have your cat die! Look at this potential exchange:
Me: I’m having an awful day.
You: I’m sorry to hear that.
Me: Yeah…my grandfather died this morning.
You: I’m sorry for your loss.
YOU’RE sorry? No, you aren’t even a hundredth of the amount of sorry I am, I assure you. The conversation shouldn’t be sympathetic towards the guy who has to suffer (horror!) through hearing about someone’s grandfather dying, it should be about the guy who’s grandfather is dead. Oh, I know, it’s just a figure of speech! It’s convention! Well, we should cut it out. It chaps my ass that we have conventions to protect unaffected people from temporarily feeling slightly perturbed at the cost of shutting up the bereaved or depressed. If I tell you that I’m in pain and your response is to tell me how difficult that is for you to hear then it sounds like you don’t care about me at all and that even my serious problem is an excuse for you to start talking about yourself again.
You might be wondering what this has to do with R.E.M., and that’s understandable, but it was a setup to say that talking about the album would be a real “Departure,” one of the principle songs on the album, so I trust it all makes sense now.
NAIHF marks the real decline of R.E.M. into a non-commercial entity, and yet it’s a solid album, and maybe one of the most diverse they’ve ever recorded. But now that they’re past their big “old man rock out” party of Monster they’re lost between making feedback noises and trying to be artsy. For a good decade they were college rockers, then they were artistic pop-song writers, then they were aging glam rockers for an album. After this they’d descend into playing really slow artsy songs with walls of sound, but here they’re just kinda…hanging around. Recording songs at soundchecks and random studios. Having a couple laughs, but also being kind of serious. Naming two songs after the unusual instrument that features in them.
This is maybe the least musically consistent R.E.M. album ever, like it’s a best-of compilation from a no-hit wonder. There are rocksy Monster leftovers like “Departure” and “The Wake-Up Bomb,” keyboardy oddballs “How The West Had A Long Song Title” and “Electrolite,” and poppy alt-rock like “Bittersweet Me” and “So Fast, So Numb.”
The big problem is that the dudes are extremely talented at both being artsy and being catchy (look at how wonderful the chorusless love song “Be Mine” and half-spoken word wtf thing “E-Bow the Letter” turn out!), but somewhat clueless at rocking out, so “Binky the Doormat” gets included for no apparent reason and “Leave” has a song-ruining siren blaring at you for six minutes and it’s worse than a chihuahua eating the universe. But the first two are far more important attributes!
Yes, there are a few forgettable songs, and yes, the only potential single here is “Bittersweet Me,” (and it wasn’t even released first), but there’s nothing bad here. It’s R.E.M., and all the career transitioning and sexuality questioning and recorded on touryness can’t change that they’re following the ideal trajectory of an indie-rock band. It’s also Michael Stipe’s last big turn as warrior-poet, and the band’s last time cutting loose, (unless they totally start doing it at the end of their career or something), but don’t take that to mean that there’s a sense of finality here. It may be the flakiest they’ve been since the overwrought Crisco of Green but without the part where that album was a waste of time. Solid.