THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 34)

R.E.M.’s songs have provoked a lot of discussions over the years as to their meaning and inspirations. At My Most Beautiful has been interpreted in various ways, but for perhaps the only time in the band’s entire catalogue, there is nothing at all to interpret here – it’s just so blindingly obvious.

mp3: R.E.M. – At My Most Beautiful [radio remix]

At My Most Beautiful is a love song, pure and simple. Lyrically, for the first time, Stipe wrote from the point of view of being head over heels in love with someone who is also in love with him. It all started when the line “I’ve found a way to make you smile” popped into his head. “I just thought that’s the most beautiful thing in the world”. It took him a year to finish the lyrics while he tried to figure out what those ways to “make you smile” were. After a conversation with Patti Smith one morning, he eventually completed the lyrics in 45 minutes. He had grown tired of writing what he termed “ironic love songs” and set out to pen “the most romantic song I’d ever written”. And he did, the resulting lyric being playful and – dare I say it – “cute” (ugh! Pass the sick bucket), but devoid of the usual horrid clichés such songs usually resort to.

The word ‘smile’ wasn’t lost on Stipe either. All I knew was The Beach Boys had a record called Smile so I was like, ‘Well, this will be my gift to Peter, Mike and Bill’ [who were all Beach Boys fans].” Mike Mills wrote the basic piano track and immediately thought it sounded like something Brian Wilson might have written. When Peter Buck heard it, he thought the same. So they deliberately set about creating a Beach Boys homage. And that’s a point worth making: there are no pretensions here; if you think it sounds derivative, it’s really meant to be. And it’s not just the piano and vocals that are referenced. Buck plays drums on At My Most Beautiful, using legendary session drummer (and BB collaborator) Hal Blaine as direct inspiration.

For me, despite all those Beach Boys allusions (and maybe, in some ways, because of them), this is one of R.E.M.’s very best songs. It’s so straight-forward and honest, and beautifully arranged, it’s almost impossible to find fault with. Those vocal harmonies are absolutely divine. It would always make an R.E.M. mixtape/playlist where many other singles would not. I knew this from the first time I heard it and that’s not changed in 25 years.

For the single a remix of sorts was devised. However, you’d be hard-pressed to spot the differences. I think (to my ears, anyway) that as the intention was for the song to gain radio play, it was mixed so all the sounds were consolidated to be heard across both channels simultaneously. For instance, if you listen on a good pair of headphones, you may be able to notice that on the album version, the bass guitar is mainly on the left, while in the right ear you can hear bells. That distinction isn’t quite so clear on the so-called ‘radio remix’. But now I’m beginning to sound rather nerdy…

Released on 8th March 1999, At My Most Beautiful became the second top 10 hit off Up (the band’s 7th overall in the UK) when it landed squarely at #10 the following week. The usual three formats were on offer but the well was dry in terms of unreleased songs, so the live archives were plundered. Around the time of Up’s release, R.E.M. were the subject of a special episode of Later… With Jools Holland on the BBC in which they were the only band appearing. They played a set of 13 songs featuring 6 from Up, another half dozen from their back catalogue plus a cover version. For the b-sides of the final singles from Up, this show was sourced. So the cassette and standard CD included that cover, the second Iggy Pop song the band had issued in recent years:

mp3: R.E.M. – The Passenger [live on Later… With Jools Holland]

The CD also included a version of my all-time favourite R.E.M. song. I don’t actually care how often Country Feedback has been put out, you can never have too many versions of it!

mp3: R.E.M. – Country Feedback [live on Later… With Jools Holland]

The collector’s 3” CD eschewed the single version of the title track in favour of a version recorded just two days prior to the Jools show as part of a BBC radio session for none other than John Peel. It also included a classic oldie from the Jools Holland performance.

mp3: R.E.M. – At My Most Beautiful [live Peel Session, BBC Radio One]
mp3: R.E.M. – So. Central Rain [live on Later… With Jools Holland]

In spite of the commercial success of At My Most Beautiful, and the fact it was such a good song, sales of Up continued to falter, becoming the band’s least successful record since Document. The signs were that R.E.M. had not just reached their peak, but that they had begun their descent…

The Robster

9 thoughts on “THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 34)

  1. It’s Sunday morning, the sun’s shining… and another wonderful R.E.M. post to feast on. Who needs breakfast?! This is a significant post as this was the last ever R.E.M. single I purchased, although like the previous few, in the bargain bins some time after it had dropped out of the UK charts. Likewise, it’s remained one of my favourites and a staple of R.E.M. (or ‘pop’) playlists since. I get all of the Beach Boys references but the bells also make it a very Christmassy song, so it was quite a surprise to read that it was Lotus and not …Beautiful that was launched into the festive UK singles race at the time. GIven my subsequent affection for …Beautiful, the irony is that I’d not actually heard the song prior to purchasing and only bought the 5″ CD for the live version of Country Feedback, which is truly wonderful. R.E.M. really could not mess this song up, could they?

  2. FWIW this is one of the most played REM singles in our house. It’s soppy but so am I. it gets quite the regular slot on a “We’ve got company make a polite music playlist” or at least it used to, when we had company.

  3. Now we’re into territory I’ve never been before. Having loved REM when they were new I never stopped liking their sound, but I did stop listening to them and following what they were doing. So, all the latter year albums like UP are totally new to me. I like ‘At my most beautiful’ a lot. The rise and fall of the intro chords is so excellent I had to look them up (G-Bm-E- E7). I check in every week because this series is so well-written, but this is the first time in a while that I’ve really been knocked out by a song. Lovely.

  4. This is why REM are one of my favourite bands. This isn’t a sound or direction that I would want them to travel in often it’s great to hear something new from them. I couldn’t claim it would be an all-time favourite – I still haven’t grown out of a love for loud guitars – but it is a track I am always glad to hear. I’ve never really got much from The Beach Boys – I can appreciate the quality and see the appeal without ever being grabbed by it (and I have given Pet Sounds plenty of chances), but love this in the context of Up’s range of ideas/ dressing-up box approach.
    Looking forward to this series every week – wondering if the high standards of posts can be maintained as the quality of the singles…, erm…, well…, y’know…

  5. Thanks DAM.

    I’ve never ‘got’ the Beach Boys in any shape or form, and like yourself have tried to give Pet Sounds lots of chances but it remains a total mystery to me.

    It’s possibly why I’m in the minority about ‘At My Most Beautiful’ in that I don’t particularly like it, but I was blown away by the words offered up today by The Robster – it’s one of the best contributions across the whole series. We will do our best to maintain the quality over the coming weeks and months – let’s just say, we aren’t bored writing them yet.

  6. Cheers JC. I think because I like the song so much, I found this one of the most difficult pieces of all to write. Reading back, it sounds like it should have been easy as I don’t really say much that isn’t quite obvious, but it was actually quite difficult to pull together.

    For altogether different reasons, I’m finding the piece I’m currently working on rather tricky too…

  7. Another cracking post in this series. A lovely single so beautifully
    written about and commented on. Khayem’s chat about the bells
    got me thinking: could this have been a Christmas #1 had it been
    released in December?

    Looking forward to future posts – and thanks as ever to The Robster
    and JC.

  8. Distracted by the inclusion of another terrific version of ‘Country Feedback’, by far my favorite 90’s REM song. This version is terrific.
    I don’t need another reminder that I am old, but Out of Time was released 30 years ago next week.

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