Monday, August 11, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 223): "YOU ARE THE EVERYTHING" (1988) R.E.M.

Green was the first R.E.M. album not released by I.R.S. but rather was at the beginning of the band's contract with Warner Bros. With that they jumped into mega-tour status and released four singles, one of which, the inanely catchy “Stand,” hit the top ten. Today’s song was not a single, but it’s always been the track I liked best on the album, with its moody, quavery vocal and strident mandolin.

The lyrics seem like an exercise in the exploration of solipsism—the notion that everything that happens is personally relevant, or, even more to the point, that the world exists for the sake of one’s own personal consciousness. Rather than see this as the delusion it is, the song, as I hear it, recreates the wonder of that state when first perceived, most likely as a child. A memory of riding in the back seat of a car, “the windows wrap around / Time stands still in travel,” gives way to the sensation that “the stars are the greatest thing you’ve ever seen / And they’re there for you / For you alone, you are the everything.”  This memory is introduced by the line “Eviscerate your memory,” as though the effort to overcome remembering leads to the recollection. In other words, it comes not as a personal memory but as memory that happens to “the everything.”

The song opens with “Sometimes I feel like I can’t even sing (say, say the light) / I’m very scared for this world, I’m very scared for me,” so that the memory seems to come as a consolation, where being scared for the world and scared for oneself takes precedence over being scared of the world. The idea that something fatal happening to oneself “ends” the world is again solipsistic but it has a very real imaginative dimension. “If the world ends, I end”—this is logical because I am a subset of the world; “if I end, the world ends” is not logical because the world pre-exists the individual and exists subsequent to anyone. And yet, from the limited perspective of the individual, the end of the self is the end of all that can be known of the world.

The memories or lyrical equivalents of memory later in the song find a different figure for the perfection of everything: “I think about this world a lot and I cry / And I have seen the films and the eyes / But I’m in this kitchen / Everything is beautiful”—where the beauty of the memory takes form as a woman “so young and old / I look at her and I see the beauty of the light of music / Voices talking somewhere in the house, late spring / And you’re drifting off to sleep with your teeth in your mouth / You are here with me / You are here with me / You have been here and you are everything.”

The sense of childhood bliss simply in the presence of the mother comes across strongly in this scene, that feeling of well-being that one equates with the beauty of “light,” “music,” and the woman who is “everything” to the child. The “teeth in your mouth” detail is amusing, suggesting that age, from six months to two years, when one first begins to get teeth and is very aware of them. This is also the time, generally, of weaning and so the memory may be of an infant still feeling the contentment that dissolution of difference between himself and his mother occasions: “you have been here and you are everything.”

And feel such peace and absolute / The stillness still that doesn’t end / But slowly drifts into sleep—a wonderful evocation of that feeling, where “voices talking somewhere in the house, late spring” becomes a memory almost anyone might share with the speaker. The feeling of the house itself and its inhabitants as “everything” is the consoling oneness that the song expresses. Placing the memory in childhood gives more force to the “think about this world a lot and I cry” phrase since crying easily is a part of childhood and we may even imagine it’s referring to a separation anxiety with the mother. The child listens for her and hears her voice “somewhere in the house” but can’t see her. A little “fort-da” moment recreated in a pop song.

The looped vocal “say, say the light” works as a kind of mantra that moves in and out of the main vocal, as if insisting that the light at stake is the music itself. So that the entire song would be a way of counteracting the fear that would prevent one from singing. To “say the light” is to sing. Something I’m willing to grant to Michael Stipe whose voice manages to convey both the dread and the “peace and absolute” with almost a hymn’s power at the final repetitions of “for you alone / You are the everything.” At that point we may be said to be praising the everything that transcends the individual, but of which one is a part, so that “you” becomes God and all that is is “there for you, for you alone.” The self-contained monad of creation.


Andrew Shields said...

Under the influence of a friend's interpretation, I've long understood the "falling asleep with your teeth in your mouth" as referring to an old person with dentures. My friend thought of the person as Michael's grandmother. The other end of life after the first part about childhood.

Donald Brown said...

Well fine, but that goes along with the mother figure aged, or grandmother figure, if you like. Though I've always identified with drifting off to sleep with voices in the house, in childhood. I suppose at some point I'll identify with the aged figure too.