R.E.M.: “New Test Leper”/”Nightswimming”
Well, I was going through a few songs, trying to decide what I should write about today, when the news broke, as I found out in an e-mail sent to me by my wife Elisabeth, from work: as of today, R.E.M. are officially breaking up. (Insert sad face here.) As Michael Stipe writes on their official Web site, REMHQ.com: “A wise man once said — ‘the skill in attending a party is knowing when it’s time to leave.'” Well put, Michael. And I respect that decision, particularly after they were able to come back with a pair of strong albums following a period of about a decade when they meandered around somewhat aimlessly, until the 2008 release of Accelerate. Better for them to leave on those high notes than to risk falling back into a weaker stretch again and end up leaving on a low note.
In 1996, just before they sunk into the doldrums at the turn of the new millenium, R.E.M. released New Adventures in Hi Fi, which I consider to be the best of their later-period albums (that is, everything from 1994’s Monster and beyond). It was full of strong melodies, interesting lyrics, and sounds that were different than what they had become known for but which still were fascinating and distinctly their own. It also contained some of their most unusually titled songs: “Binky the Doormat,” E-bow the Letter,” and “New Test Leper.” And title notwithstanding, “New Test Leper” also happens to be one of my favorites from that album, and up there among the best songs of their career. (Apparently, according to an article on Wikipedia, Stipe felt so as well, describing it in a 1998 appearance on VH1’s Storytellers program as his “crowning achievement.”) A beautiful song of feeling out of touch with modern-day religion and TV culture, with Stipe portraying himself as an out-of-place guest on a mean-spirited talk show (a fictional story, but nonetheless honest in its sentiments), it’s a straightforward, folk-rockish song, with lovely singing from Stipe.
Somehow I felt that a great, somewhat later song like this would be a good way to pay tribute to the band that I loved so obsessively during the 1980s. Featuring a song like this is a reminder that they continued to put out some great music after their most well-known period, and there is much from their later years that deserves a closer listen. I’m sure I’ll be giving those albums I haven’t thought so highly of another listen in the days to come…
But as I was writing this post, listening to a number of their other songs, I listened to “Nightswimming,” from their landmark 1992 album, Automatic For The People. And I played it again. And again. And I realized I had to include it here as well. It’s one of their most beautiful and touching songs, and as heartbreakingly melancholic as the song is, it suits the mood of the occasion, a suitable farewell song to a great band.