Monday, March 15, 2010

Song of the Day: R.E.M. - Hairshirt

In 1988, I was in middle school, and the R.E.M. song "Stand" was all over the radio.  I got the cassette of Green, probably from BMG or Columbia House record clubs, and listened to it endlessly.  It was a monumental album for me, and I would venture to say a turning point in my metamorphosis to a teenager (another, more nerdy way of dating this album and putting it in context would be to say that I was playing a lot of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link at the time).

While I still loved "Stand," it was the slower, sadder songs that had a more powerful effect on me - songs like "The Wrong Child," "World Leader Pretend" and today's song of the day, "Hairshirt."  As a kid almost exclusively listening to top 40 at the time, this was music of a quality I had not yet encountered.

I later discovered that my dad already had Eponymous, the greatest hits album, and once I got the cassette of Out of Time, that was it - R.E.M. became my favorite band of all time.  I went back and got all of the I.R.S. albums (on CD!), and I will argue to the death that R.E.M. is the greatest.  Sure, I'll concede that the post-Bill Berry era has not been nearly as strong, but their first eight (!) albums (and even their first EP) can stand up to any string of eight Beatles, Rolling Stones and Dylan albums (sure, it's a close call).  For what is likely sentimental reasons, Green is probably still my favorite album (isn't the first album you hear from a band always your favorite?), though I can make a case on any given day for Automatic or Murmur (or Life's Rich Pageant...or Fables...)

But I digress.  It's also extremely difficult to pick a favorite song from Green, but "Hairshirt" is definitely among the best.  I have no idea what a hairshirt is, or what it's a metaphor for, but Stipe's singing in this is incredible, and the lyric "Run a carbon-black test on my jaw/ And you will find it's all been said before" is among his best.  Like Van Morrison in Astral Weeks, it's difficult to believe that this voice belongs to a guy in his 20s.  Oh, and don't want to give short shrift to Peter Buck here - the mandolin would later show up to greater effect in Automatic, but it sounds fantastic in this song.


  1. Huh...didn't realize you had a blog.....

    So true about the first album you hear is your favorite.. in fact, one could extend that to the first music at all that you hear. There is a photo of me as a baby (and I mean baby), where my dad wired me with a pair of big, sealed headphones playing Handel's Messiah, and to this day I think it's the most beautiful piece of music ever made.

    I do love Green, although I had heard Out of Time more extensively first. I got Green on CD first, and "Hairshirt" skipped, after the CD spent time in a sun-baked car CD holder, eating ink from other CDs' labels.

    Looking at the list, "Stand" and "Get Up" stand out to me as works of genius. And it's a real shame there are only 10 songs, 9 of which have names. The album could have easily withstood 3 songs of filler. It's very solid. "Hairshirt", while lacking development, or, really, any musical thrust, is compelling, and is a superb album cut. But it's not going on my R.E.M. best-of.

  2. I've been posting a link to the blog every day for the last month in Facebook, so I haven't exactly been keeping it a secret.

    "Hairshirt" isn't the best song on Green - there are 3-4 better ones. But I definitely am trying to avoid posting songs that everyone knows, though if there were a particularly compelling story behind it, I'd reconsider. For what it's worth, "Get Up" is probably my favorite and not one everyone knows, but I just felt like posting an even lesser known one. Hell I could probably post an REM song every day and not run out of things to say.