Sunday, April 22, 2012

Fall On Me

So. I read this a while back:
One shortcoming R.E.M. had faced previously was that in spite of being able to create exemplary overarching works in LP and EP forms, the band had yet to write an individual song that undisputedly ranked among rock’s all-time greatest compositions—that is, until “Fall on Me”.
It’s an interesting, if mistaken, point in an otherwise fine piece—any band which had already recorded “Radio Free Europe” and “So. Central Rain” had already made their bones in the classic department.
But that’s not to say that “Fall on Me” isn't a great song and if someone wanted to argue it was their finest to that point in time, or even still to this very day, I wouldn’t argue. (Much.)

It’s got a lovely and arresting opening, with Peter Buck's contrasting Rickenbacker arpeggios joined, seemingly slightly out of time, by a ringing acoustic. The guitars sync up ever so briefly before a ritard brings them to a temporary halt. Then, even more out of time, Bill Berry’s drums bash the song into instant high gear, spurring Michael Stipe to begin singing the first verse less than a second later.

The verses are typical for early-to-mid period R.E.M., or rather, an outstanding example of Stipe's writing from that time, with unusual words and evocative phrases which don’t seem to make much literal sense but which combine to create a mood both emotionally powerful and characteristically unique to R.E.M., a lesson not wasted on Kurt Cobain, one of their most attentive and successful disciples.

The band themselves have said the song was originally about acid rain, but as it developed, moved away and into what was, for R.E.M., a love song. How this qualifies as a love song is anyone’s guess, but that’s just part of what made R.E.M. so magical at that point in time.

The chorus consists of Stipe crooning a plaintive but simple plea, asking the sky not to fall on him. Just as prominent in the mix, however, is Mike Mills’ backing vocals, singing a totally different and contrasting line. Mills takes over the bridge, which seems to harken back to the song’s acid rain origins, one of the bassist’s earliest starring roles in the band, and something which led to him even more widely being regarded as R.E.M.’s secret weapon.

(In reality, although great and absolutely indispensable, Mills wasn't their secret weapon, and that's without even getting into the question of whether or not a secret weapon can be a secret weapon if everyone knows about the fact that it's a secret weapon.)

The key ever so subtle ingredient which kicks the song from Great to All Time Classic? Drummer Bill Berry’s backing vocals.

Mike Mills are far more prominent, and perfect and integral, as well as considerably more copious and complex. It's always a bit of rigged game to try to figure out lyrics to early R.E.M. songs, and while Mills' vocals were generally much easier to understand, here they're sometimes buried in the mix enough to make them Stipeian. But according to a normally extremely reliable internet source, Chris Bray's fantastic R.E.M. Chord Archive, during the second verse, Mills sings:
when the rain
when the children reign
keep your conscience in the dark
melt the statues in the park
Which would not only fit in with the song's origins as an anti-acid rain screed, but as perfectly R.E.M.

During the choruses, of course, Mills clearly sings the song's original melody, now recast as a countermelody:
What is it up in the air for
If it's there for long
It's over it's over me
The combination of Stipe's keening lead vocal and Mills' competing backing vocal—really, it's almost a co-lead vocal, so intrinsic is it—is mesmerizing and irresistible.

But it’s Berry’s mumbled asides, first heard in the second chorus, which add an almost hidden yet vital contrast to the already rich tapestry. Berry, who Stipe himself claimed was the band’s most conventionally "good" vocalist, is also the one adding a low and mysterious harmony behind Mills during the bridge.

And it’s that third vocal line of Berry's during the choruses which add so much to the song. Buried during the first chorus, they’re noticeable only upon repeated listening the second time through. But it’s not until the final chorus that you can finally make out that he’s singing “it’s gonna fall.” It’s these three interlocking vocal lines which raise the song from great to masterwork.

It’s much clearer during their gorgeous acoustic rendition on MTV’s Unplugged (although Mills doesn't sing during the second verse).

For all their fame and popularity, R.E.M. is the most overlooked of any great vocal group—there are few bands ever who regularly created such intricate and lovely lines and harmonies, and none who garnered less acclaim for it. (Not that R.E.M. has ever lacked for critical esteem, or at least, not in their first 15 years, but rarely if ever are they mentioned with the likes of the Beatles and Beach Boys and, yes, even the Eagles, although they should be.) The key is that unlike virtually any of their peers, ever, they didn't just have wonderful harmonies (although they certainly had those) but multiple, disparate vocal lines which not only interweave and interlock but add additional layers to the song, sonically, melodically and lyrically—one of the many benefits of having three exceptionally strong and selfless vocalists who also happened to be unusually strong and selfless writers.

On several occasions, Mike Mills and Bill Berry recorded their backing vocals to a song without knowing what the other was going to sing. I’ve never heard it said that they took that approach with “Fall on Me.” But listening to this, I still like to think that's how this slab of pure pop perfection came about.


  1. Well done, pard'ner. And you picked my favorite R.E.M. song of all time. The band wrote and recorded songs this could many many times, but they never recorded a better one.

    It's exactly those ascending and descending vocal lines that do it for me. The music is lovely, but the vocals make it something extra special. Stipe's vocals soar way, way up into the rarified air, while Mills' answer brings them softly back down to earth. All the while - and you are right, THIS is the song's secret weapn - Berry's cryptic and tunefully perfect line serves as a backdrop for a safe landing.

  2. This is good analysis of one of the ingredients in the early R.E.M. recipe book. Mike Mills's vocals are a well-known thing, but Bill Berry's contributions as a backing vocalist went underappreciated, at least in my point of view. I believe you can hear Bill pretty well in Pilgrimage and Harborcoat, among others. I would credit the band in sparking my own interest in the voice, and the "vocal polyphony" of choral music.

    When the public started to rediscover Pet Sounds circa 1990, R.E.M. was right there voicing their appreciation. Their Eighties vocal work indicates that they weren't just "Bandwagon"ing. Plenty of similarity between say God Only Knows and the work they had already done.