#24 REM – At My Most Beautiful (1998)
We’re all to some degree guilty of consuming music according to a matrix our own individual agendas. Unspoken rules, reflexive constraints that play up to our subjectivity, likes and dislikes prompted by an involuntary prejudice. For me, that prejudice is stadium acts; I don’t like ’em. The concept of a broad canvas shared experience – lighters and mobile phones held aloft like the pennants of a victorious army – it leaves me cold, regardless of which specific collection of indistinct silhouettes it is prowling across the far-off stage. My brain patterns carry too many kinks to appreciate sound as aligned to mass market sentiment. When a band roll into town who effortlessly sell thousands and thousands of tickets everywhere from Portland to Pyongyang, you’ll usually find me in some dank, dark cellar watching spotty oiks savagely mutilate 13th Floor Elevators covers to an audience of three.
From which you can tell that I’m not a fan of the recently deceased REM. I’ve always found their aesthetic far too earnest for my taste, songs that feel over-crafted, the sincerity either lacking or overplayed. There’s something to Michael Stipe’s annunciation that suggests (to my ears at least) that the lyrics haven’t arrived easily, words inelegantly forced into the structure of each song, whilst the production (again to these lugs of mine) can drift towards the flat, failing to backlight the nuances of the back cat.
I don’t find REM particularly offensive – it’s not as if they’re Coldplay or Muse – and I’m happy to concede that they’ve a couple of engaging tracks; Up from 1998 has some interesting moments. 1988’s Green hints at an intriguing interplay with pop and darkness. Ultimately, however, I’ve always liked my music to grab me viciously and unremittingly, and that’s never been an element of the REM vocab.
So what am I doing elevating a REM track into the Festive Fifty? And not just any old track but a cynically-constructed Pet Sounds pastiche that flaunts its fake sentiment like a catwalk model high on Columbia’s finest? Because all of the negative comments about sincerity and production and forcing the lyric don’t apply here. Because beauty is still beauty, however contrived. Because whenever I listen to this song I can’t but help to feel lifted by the free-flowing warmth, by the harmonies, by the bitter-sweet romantic inflexions that float across each stanza. ‘At My Most Beautiful’ is something that never fails to make the naturally cynical me embrace those uncynical thoughts that occasionally flitter across my countenance – it never matters that Stipe deliberately set out to construct a Beach Boys homage – and what is music, if not to trigger a reaction, if not something to be calibrated against our own individual prejudices.
REM / At My Most Beautiful