Up is an album unlike anything R.E.M. ever made before or would ever make again. It was certainly their most experimental with all kinds of things going on. You won’t find a more diverse mix of styles on any of their records like you get in the first six songs on Up. Some of those styles were never revisited (in the case of Hope, that’s such a shame) while others became the R.E.M. sound of the early noughties.
It’s certainly an odd one, and whereas the album’s first single gave us something we might have expected from R.E.M. a few years earlier, the next track was a one-off. Lotus appears as track two on Up, immediately following the ethereal, ambient electronica of Airportman, surely one of the most un-R.E.M. songs they ever made. But then, Lotus is also rather off-kilter. Built around a funky groove led by Mike Mills’ organ, Lotus is somewhat restrained in its arrangement while at the same time flaunting its glitzy, glammy sexiness for all to see. It screams: “I’m a hit single! Release me, release me!”
That is until you get to grips with Michael Stipe’s lyrics. The song’s protagonist is a troubled soul, struggling with depression, longing for a more peaceful state of mind. The second verse illustrates this best of all:
Storefront window, I reflect
Just last week I was merely heck
Tip the scale, I was hell
It picked me up, then I fell
Who’s this stranger?
Dot, dot, dot, and I feel fine
Let it rain, rain, rain
Bring my happy back again
The Lotus of the title may therefore be a reference to the lotus flower, believed to produce calming, psychoactive properties when ingested. In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus inadvertently lands on an island where the primary food is the fruit and flower of the lotus plant. It caused the inhabitants to sleep peacefully and forget everything. Stipe’s lotus eater may be trying to reach that state in order to relieve his torment. The lotus here, therefore, may be anti-depressant medication, or illegal narcotics like heroin or meth. I’m not hopeful for the poor wretch, either way.
There’s all sorts of things going on in Lotus that you don’t necessarily pick up on straightaway. Buck’s guitars are laced with swirling psychedelic effects, Stipe’s vocals are delivered rhythmically as opposed to melodically, and there are lots of little bleeps and buzzes on the backing tracks that perhaps fill the sound out more than you think they would. Grab your headphones and turn the volume up for this one. And of course, you’ll have noticed the reference to an old classic in those lyrics too…
mp3: R.E.M. – Lotus
Lotus opened more or less every show on the subsequent Up tour. It was released as a single on 7th December 1998 and reached a disappointing #26 in the UK charts. As much as it screamed and screamed, it clearly wasn’t as big or important as it thought it was. There were three formats; the cassette and standard CD included a throwaway instrumental like those they always insisted on including on such releases.
The CD also gave us a remix of the title track. I’m not quite sure what anyone hoped to achieve here, but this remix doesn’t really offer a great deal more than the original does. Sure, it sounds quite different in places, but it’s ultimately the same song with some bits turned up, some bits turned down, a couple of extra effects thrown in here and there… Am I being unkind here, or could Lotus have yielded something so much better from a remix?
The collectible 3” CD contained the title track and a live, in the studio take, of another song from Up, Suspicion, the track which follows Lotus on the album. As you’ll find out in a couple of weeks, this is not my favourite R.E.M. moment.
From a purely personal point of view, I’ve always liked Lotus. In fact, the first time I heard it I grinned from ear to ear. While it’s not the novelty some previous singles have shown themselves to be, I can’t say it has aged terribly well – it’s very late-90s. It also wasn’t the best track from Up. In fact, the next single would prove to be one of the finest of R.E.M.’s entire career…