R.E.M., ‘Man-Sized Wreath’

R.E.M.

We need a dose of healthy scepticism to tackle the thorny old “return to form”: was it up to much in the first place? Did the artist really lose it or just fall out of fashion? If they lost their mojo, have they genuinely rediscovered it? And were they better when they had hair?

It’s particularly hard with R.E.M. –  who seem to tempt these fanfares with every other release – because no one can agree when they peaked. Last year’s Accelerate was critically regarded as a near-match for Murmur, an aficionado’s high-point, but R.E.M.’s universal love-in centred around Out of Time and Automatic For The People. No one’s expecting them to reap those commercial riches again, so perhaps it’s safest just to wish for the solid basics again. Do things well, avoid the spectacular, mittens to megasales. On this playing field Accelerate’s a success, but it’s not enough to matter.

Junior’s first reaction was an oddly leading question: “What’s his hair like?” Makes you wonder; can you hear if a singer’s bald? And can we get a government grant to find out? She was pleased to hear about Michael Stipe’s chrome dome anyway, because Harry Hill’s pate has been fascinating enough.

And what about ‘Man-Sized Wreath’? We both enjoyed the steely guitars, the urgent riffing. It’s angry and engaged, with some quotable lines – “Turn on the TV and what do I see? A pageantry of empty gestures all lined up me”, “Nature abhors a vacuum, but what’s between your ears?” – and rousing “wow!”s. On the album it’s tethered by some ordinary pegs, but set against the old-time form this is one track that isn’t shamed.

[6] 10,000 Maniacs, ‘What’s The Matter Here?’

A song about child abuse, and the powerlessness and denial of living next door. Not one for Junior to boogie around to, then, so I left her sitting quietly while I became reacquainted with the record. She was much more interested in the email mum was sending to her boss, anyway.

Natalie Merchant had a voice that only Michael Stipe could love, allegedly, although its ticks and quirks interested me today. In this song, she uses the beat to punctuate her words and it makes an uncomfortable whip-crack effect. She’s telling a story at the start, then in the middle eight she adopts the voice of the abuser and alternates between quiet menace and swooping anger. In the last verse, she gives vent to the bafflement we’d all feel as neighbours and the result is rousing. Packs a punch, this.

When I bought this (a 3-inch CD single, nostalgia buffs), it was the tune I loved while I allowed myself a suitably serious nod towards the content. It gets more unsettling as you get older, even if the cynical adult is inclined to notice triteness in the lyrics. For all the brow-beating, hectoring and polemic across their albums, at least they give it a melody here.