Thursday, 27 January 2011

"Überlin" review


Last night, heading back from a Vivaldi concert, my mum and I were playing some Simon and Garfunkel in the car (when I sing, I'm always Garfunkel!). I was about to change the disc when Hazy Shade of Winter came on, a song I'm not a huge fan of... but mum enjoys it so we left it on.

Thank goodness we did.

As soon as I removed the disc, the car player switched to radio, as it does automatically. A song was just starting, one which nearly caused my heart to skip a beat in my excitement. Mum, however, was confused.

"Auctioneer," she asked*, "did you just put on an R.E.M. CD?"

For an instant, the words could not leave my mouth - I was just too surprised to speak. But, as soon as it had come, the sensation passed, and I was able to joyfully announce the song:

"Oh my God! Mum, it's Überlin!"

And that was how I ended up listening to Überlin on BBC2 Radio, just as I had wished for a few days earlier in my previous blog post. In retrospect, I'm glad we listened to just one more Simon and Garfunkel song - otherwise, I would have changed the disc too early and missed the whole event. Don't get me wrong, Mrs Robinson is a great track, but Überlin is just too good an experience to miss.

Thanks to a leak, I managed to listen to the song a few days before it made its radio début, and I was astounded at the quality of the track. As some regular readers of this blog will know, I'm not a big fan of R.E.M.'s more sad songs, but there's something about Überlin that I just can't pin down. Is it the delay effect used on Michael's voice? Is it the subtle synth section that gives the chorus a strange ambience? Or is it Peter's simple guitar part, no effects added?

The truth is, it's probably a combination of all of these. A lot of people have compared this song to Automatic for the People's Drive, but apart from the consistent use of the word "hey" I can't say I fully agree. Sure, it's in a minor key, but Drive has got nothing on this piece. I feel I must congratulate Mike Mills on his fantastic harmonies and bass playing, two elements which are crucial to this track... but one of the stars of this song is, of course, Michael Stipe. The vocals in Überlin feel raw with emotion, leaps and bounds above those in the most recently released track, Mine Smell Like Honey.

Another thing that makes this song stand out is - surprisingly - the lyrics. Collapse Into Now has had lyrics of varying quality so far (think Mine Smell Like Honey again), but Michael brings back that wordsmith quality of his once more. Hearing Stipe and Mills singing "I am flying on a star into a meteor" is beautiful beyond comparison.

But there is one last thing that elevates this song above all the others. I have spent three tireless days in a vain attempt to work out just what it is, but I can't. Whenever I hear Überlin, my mind produces this vivid imagery that throws me somewhere completely new. I suppose the best way to give you the faintest notion of what I'm trying (but failing) to say is to give you a description. Here goes:

"It's 12:30 in the morning. There's a small breeze tickling my side as I lie on my back, on the top of the hill I always go to. Above me, the sky is clear, and the stars dance and sparkle in front of me. As I watch, I slowly drift away, feeling as if I am being pulled through space itself into the furthest reaches of the cosmos. I am cold, but even though the sensation of emptiness and minuteness ensnares my body, I am content."

Cheesy? You bet. But that really is what I feel when I hear this song. Naturally, I've never been on the top of a hill at 12:30am, and although I'm an amateur stargazer, the sensation of feeling tiny only comes to me occasionally. This imagery, however, is what will lead me to give Überlin the praise it deserves.

Überlin◊ - I just don't have the words to express my admiration for this song. Beautiful.

So after all that, I imagine you're curious as to why I didn't give the track five stars. Truth be told, I'm a little scared of doing that. If I gave Überlin five stars, then another song same along that was even better, I would have to stick with my initial rating and give loads of song on Collapse Into Now five stars. That just wouldn't be fair. So, when I do a full album review I may re-rate this track, but until then, four stars it is.

Yours truly,

*No, she didn't really call me that - she used my real name. I actually have one of those, believe it or not.

P.S. R.E.M. HQ has confirmed - turns out I was right about the U-Bahn. At least I know I'm not totally stupid! :)

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