The Infinite Jukebox: R.E.M.’s ‘Be Mine’

Love songs from R.E.M. are rarer than hen’s teeth, Michael Stipe regarding them as cheap. A lot of people were fooled by ‘The One I Love’, long years ago, a track from Document No 5, a Top Twenty UK hit on reissue, but it doesn’t take much of a listen to the lyrics, which are amongst the most clearly sung by Stipe, to recognise that exactly the opposite impression is intended, that the title is at best sarcastic. A simple prop to occupy my time does not betoken dedication and high emotion.
But in the case of ‘Be Mine’, from the band’s last album as a four-piece, New Adventures in Hi-Fi it’s the real deal, though you might be forgiven for not easily recognising it as such in the miasma of sound that the track is created out of.
New Adventures in Hi-Fi is an odd album in the circumstances of its recording. The band wrote and demoed songs in the studio, but then recorded these at soundchecks and, in one case, in their dressing room, to produce an altogether fresher and more immediate sound. Of fourteen songs on the album, only four are studio recordings and ‘Be Mine’ is one of these.
And it’s not even conventional R.E.M. in its recording, because the thick miasma of guitar sound, growling and choppy and as blurred as on ‘Let Me In’ on Monster is by bass guitarist Mike Mills, whilst the bass guitar is played by Peter Buck. Never knowingly predictable.
Like its predecessor, ‘Be Mine’ pays minimal attention to the conventions of melody. It’s a choppier sound, still blurred, but the music is more distinct. The mix is thick, the bass submerged. This one is for Mills and Stipe.
The structure is simple. Mills plays chords in a rhythmic pattern, at a measured pace, incorporating little variations on the basic melody that are sensed rather than heard. Stipe sings in three eight-line verses, interspersed with a chorus that consists simply of the simple words ‘You and Me’, three times. The word love does not appear once but in his manner, Stipe is speaking of love. He is making promises, promises that speak of devotion, a sometimes almost-awed attention to the other one, promises to create a life that cushions, that eases, that serves, to bring the best of everything to them.
He begins with almost an apology, saying that he never thought of this as funny, and that it speaks another world to him. Immediately, the devotion makes itself manifest, with Stipe telling his unseen and unheard auctor that he wants to be his Easter Bunny, and then his Christmas tree, that he will strip all the godforsaken greed out of the world, ply the tar out of his feathers, pluck the thorns from his feet. And then that simple, self-enclosing statement, You and Me, repeated with a contented breath.
Stipe continues with a second verse that grows ever more abstruse, and indeed mystical, seeking a sanctuary, drinking from sacred fountains, eating the lotus, the peyote. This is a communion beyond the mere physical. He references Maya Angelou, wanting to hear the caged birds sing, he seeks the secrets of the Temple, and the finger with the ring, perhaps a nod to marriage. And perhaps not.
The music, scratchy and deliberately limited, surrounds Stipe as he sings, underlines him and holds the listener in place. There’s a brief, abruptly terminated beginning to a guitar solo, that sounds very much like Buck before Stipe breaks across with his final verse.
And here the imagery grows dark and wild. The symbolism turns to the shadow of death. Stipe suggests that his auctor makes him his religion, in return for which he will be given all the room he needs. And Stipe will be the drawing of his breath, the cup for if he bleeds, the sky above the Ganges, the vast and stormy sea. And he will be the visions that you see, a final commitment that is so important that he sings it again, before the drums crash in, Stipe sings his You and Me in ecstasy, over and over, and that guitar solo is allowed its time to play through a long coda.
Did I call this a love song? Is it really about love? If it is, there is an underlying obsessive edge that might be thought a tad claustrophobic in that final verse.
But I stand by what I said, except that the object of this affection, this devotion, might not be an earthly love. It’s terms are mystical in the middle verse, but religious imagery is scattered throughout the song, as well as the flat-out plea to be the auctor’s religion. And there are references in the band’s early work, certain lines to songs on Murmur, that hint towards a Christian leaning. And the finger in the ring may not be signalling a token of engagement and/or marriage but rather the finger that wears the Papal ring. Christ bled on the Cross and the cup that was used to catch his bleeding is the Holy Grail. It would be altogether Stipean to signal faith in this oblique manner, subsumed within a song of apparent love for a fellow human being.
I, having divested myself of all religious elements, can love the darkness of the music, its slowburn intensity and Michael Stipe’s divestment of himself in a form of abnegation to another that I recognise from a still-not-too-distant past. But I can also accept one man’s private devotion to his beliefs that do not involve forcing others to believe them too. But it is still in its other form that I would accept someone’s plea to Be Mine, or rather Hers.

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