Today completes my little trilogy—a “perfect” “getaway” (“Cul de Sac”), then it’s time to “leave”—and what better song for that then this song?
R.E.M.’s New Adventures in Hi Fi, from September, 1996, made me believe in the band all over again. As time has marched inexorably on, this has become the prime candidate for “best” R.E.M. album, for me. Sure, there’s longer attachment to the first four—I go: Murmur, Fables, Reckoning, Pageant—and the argument could be made for Automatic, which is really the return to form that gave us hope for the band in the Nineties. But Hi Fi sealed the deal. Monster, the album in between, was fine, good hard-edged R.E.M., but this one has the edge, the road, the strum and, I think the main thing, a lot of it is essentially live. At this point they’re just a great band and they should be on the road. And this is the last one with Berry, so nothing after this point can be the R.E.M. album.
All of which is a way of saying that the more I go back to this album the more it delivers. And shouldn’t there be something from the Nineties I consider “best in show”? I’m on record as one who hated the Eighties, but it’s starting to look like the Nineties is the out-to-lunch decade. Let’s get this song on here to offset that view.
“Leave” is almost ponderous. It’s grand and epic in its sound and reach. It starts tentative, as though feeling its way toward the song, on acoustic, then suddenly shifts into sonic dissonance that sounds like a siren going off. Buck plays a very sinuous lead, and soon the song is soaring with a defeated majesty. I like to exercise to this song because it just keeps churning and feels like it’s climbing the whole time, even though Stipe’s vocal is as moody and tortured as he ever is (and when the background voices come in they add a lot of atmosphere).
It’s a song about wanting to cut the ties and get the fuck out. Maybe it’s a “goin’ down the road feeling bad” situation, but it’s more like the long brooding that determines “it’s time to go.” “Where is the road I follow, to leave, leave?”
The road is under your feet, “where do I go when the land touches sea?” “This is my trust in what I believe.” That’s key, I suppose, the trust that there’s somewhere to go to. But sometimes the main thing is to just go. “That’s what keeps me down” is the main line that keeps circulating. From my first familiarity with this song, it was apropos to any situation in which one feels under-appreciated, or neglected, or de trop, and must come to the realization that trying to salvage that situation, trying to make it “work,” is what “keeps me down.” As Bobby D. says, “Sometimes it gets so hard to care / It can’t be this way everywhere.” Leave. “Leave it all behind.”
Then there are some other revealing bits: “I temper madness with an even extreme” (which is knowing how to keep a good face even on something unworkable); “I say I’m a lightweight” (love the delivery on that line), “I say I’m a phantom airplane / That never left the ground.” Hard to leave when you’re grounded.
The song gets more tormented as he goes on—“I lost myself in sorrow / I lost myself in pain / I lost myself in gravity / Memory, leave, leave.” There we have the goad to just get out. The sorrow and pain, the gravity and memory pull you back, pull you down. Stipe and company are putting it out there. If this describes a relationship, it’s about as dysfunctional as it can get. But at this point, the burden is becoming more existential. It’s “my old friend time”—it’s being, it’s the nature of “the dream” and its disappointment. It’s easy if you’re just dissatisfied with another person or a job or a sitch. It’s worse when it’s YOU. Now we’re not thinking of trusting a belief to lift us up and over: “I’ll walk into the sea / Shoot myself in a different place / And leave it.” Enough’s enough.
I’ve longed for this to take me / I’ve longed for my release / I’ve waited for the calling / To leave, leave
At some point the song fades out then comes back, like a surge of the sea returning, like the status quo you can’t ever be done with and still be here. But that’s the point of the song: the urge to be here no longer, but not to be “there” either. To be gone.
And yet, for all that gloom, it’s not a morose song. It’s uplifting—but only up to a point. What the music conveys so well is the tension of this state. The chest-swelling pull to just go and be gone, and the restraint that keeps one on a leash, tethered to what is, to existence. The pull out, the tug back (no wonder I like to exercise to it, running in place).
I like it like that and I know it.