REM – Losing My Religion

I hope everyone is having a happy Monday…at least as happy as it can be.

I heard early REM albums from friends. They really made an impact with college kids and built a following. Then they released The One I Love and the dam burst. This song took it a step higher.

Peter Buck has commented that after this song’s success that the bands popularity soared. He mentioned that R.E.M. went from a respected band with a cult following to one of the biggest bands in the world.

This song was released in 1991 and on their Out of Time album. The song did very well. It peaked at #4 in the Billboard 100, #6 in Canada, #19, and #16 in New Zealand in 1991.

The title is based on the Southern expression “lost my religion,” meaning something has challenged your faith to such a degree you might lose your religion or cool.

REM was surprised when their record label chose this song as the first single from Out Of Time. Running 4:28 with no chorus and a mandolin for a lead instrument, it didn’t seem like hit material, but it ended up being the biggest hit of their career.

Michael Stipe revealed the lyrics about obsessional love were heavily influenced by The Police’s “Every Breath You Take,” which he called “the most beautiful, kind of creepy song.”

This won the Grammy in 1991 for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal.

Peter Buck: “The music was written in five minutes. The first time the band played it, it fell into place perfectly. Michael had the lyrics within the hour, and while playing the song for the third or fourth time, I found my self incredibly moved to hear the vocals in conjunction with the music. To me, ‘Losing My Religion’ feels like some kind archetype that was floating around in space that we managed to lasso. If only all songwriting was this easy.”

From Songfacts

R.E.M. lead singer Michael Stipe wrote the lyrics, which he has said are about “obsession” and “unrequited love,” which is powerful and dangerous combination. Throughout the song, he is baring his soul, searching for hidden meaning and hopeful signs, but driving himself mad in the process.

“I love the idea of writing a song about unrequited love,” he told Top 2000 a gogo. “About holding back, reaching forward, and then pulling back again. The thing for me that is most thrilling is you don’t know if the person I’m reaching out for is aware of me. If they even know I exist. It’s this really tearful, heartfelt thing that found its way into one of the best pieces of music the band ever gave me.”

This song has its origins in guitarist Peter Buck’s efforts to try learn to play the mandolin. When he played back recordings of his first attempts, he heard the riff and thought it might make a good basis for a song. Explaining how the song came together musically, Buck told Guitar School in 1991: “I started it on mandolin and came up with the riff and chorus. The verses are the kinds of things R.E.M. uses a lot, going from one minor to another, kind of like those ‘Driver 8’ chords. You can’t really say anything bad about E minor, A minor, D, and G – I mean, they’re just good chords.

We then worked it up in the studio – it was written with electric bass, drums, and mandolin. So it had a hollow feel to it. There’s absolutely no midrange on it, just low end and high end, because Mike usually stayed pretty low on the bass. This was when we decided we’d get Peter (Holsapple) to record with us, and he played live acoustic guitar on this one. It was really cool: Peter and I would be in our little booth, sweating away, and Bill and Mike would be out there in the other room going at it. It just had a really magical feel.

And I’m proud to say every bit of mandolin on the record was recorded live – I did no overdubbing. If you listen closely, on one of the verses there’s a place where I muffled it, and I thought, well, I can’t go back and punch it up, because it’s supposed to be a live track. That was the whole idea.”

The video was directed by Tarsem Singh, who also did En Vogue’s “Hold On” and the Jennifer Lopez movie The Cell. It’s a very ambitious video filled with striking, vivid, biblical imagery.

The concept is based in part on Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings. The novel tells the story of an angel who falls down from heaven and is displayed for profit as a “freak show.” Michael Stipe is a big Marquez fan and the whole idea of obsession and unrequited love is the central theme of the author’s masterpiece, Love in the Time of Cholera. The first line of that novel is: “It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.” 

Michael Stipe’s dancing ties the video together as he moves like he is in the throes of revelation, a contrast to all the other characters who are barely moving. He wasn’t supposed to dance: The treatment had him singing lines from various poses, but when they shot it that way, it didn’t work at all. This put director Tarsem Singh’s grand production in jeopardy; he was so upset, he went to the bathroom and threw up. When he emerged, Stipe said, “Let me try to dance.”

There was no choreography – Stipe just let the spirit move him, and the results were sublime. He says his dancing is a mashup of Sinead O’Connor’s moves in her “The Emperor’s New Clothes” video and David Byrne’s gyrations in his “Once In A Lifetime” performances.

Stipe remembers being hot and bothered when recording his vocal. His heartfelt lyric needed a certain feel that was hard to achieve in the studio, so he recorded a lot of takes. He wasn’t happy with the engineer, who seemed out of it. “I was very upset,” he told Top 2000 a gogo. “I also got really hot because I was all worked up, so I took my clothes off and recorded the song almost naked.”

This was given the working title of “Sugar Cane” when the band demoed it in July 1990 at a studio in Athens.

A common misinterpretation of this song is that it was about John Lennon’s death, with the lyrics, “What if all these fantasies come flailing around” being a reference to Lennon’s last album Double Fantasy.

Michael Stipe took a laid-back approach with this song: “I remember that I sang this in one go with my shirt off. I don’t think any of us had any idea it would ever be … anything,” he noted in Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage 1982-2011. Peter Buck added that Warner Bros. didn’t even want the song as a single, and everyone was surprised when it took off. “It changed our world. We went from selling a few million worldwide with Green to over 10 million. It was in that area where we had never been before which isn’t bad,” he said.

Peter Buck recalled to Uncut: “I bought a mandolin on tour in ’87, I think. It became a good songwriting tool. It never occurred to me to play mandolin in a bluegrass style. For me it was a rock instrument.”

Producer Scott Litt recalled his contribution to Mojo: “I remember mixing ‘Losing My Religion’ at Paisley Park. I had Bill (Berry, drums) nudging up to me and saying, ‘You know, I think the drums could be louder’, and he was spot on. The strings and the vocals are maybe more memorable, but the drums are really important. He’s even doubling the mandolin figure at the beginning. The last mix on that song was ‘drums boosted’ and that became the track.”

When introducing the song during an appearance on MTV Unplugged, Stipe pointed to the audience and said, “This is about you.” Mojo asked him what he meant. He replied shrugging, “No idea. It’s something I said on a night in 1991. I have no idea why I said it. Of course we attach the narrative in a song to the person with the voice, which is me. And so I get that. But it was not autobiographic.”

Artists to cover this song include Tori Amos, Lacuna Coil, Trivium and Swandive. Two versions have charted in America: the Glee Cast took it to #60 in 2010, and Dia Frampton’s version went to #54 in 2011.

The video was the big winner at the MTV Video Music Awards, winning six moonmen, including Video of the Year and Breakthrough Video.

Losing My Religion

(One, two, three, four, one, two)

Oh, life is bigger
It’s bigger
Than you and you are not me
The lengths that I will go to
The distance in your eyes
Oh no, I’ve said too much
I set it up

That’s me in the corner
That’s me in the spotlight
Losing my religion
Trying to keep up with you
And I don’t know if I can do it
Oh no, I’ve said too much
I haven’t said enough

I thought that I heard you laughing
I thought that I heard you sing
I think I thought I saw you try

Every whisper
Of every waking hour
I’m choosing my confessions
Trying to keep an eye on you
Like a hurt lost and blinded fool, fool
Oh no, I’ve said too much
I set it up

Consider this
Consider this
The hint of the century
Consider this
The slip
That brought me to my knees
Failed
What if all these fantasies
Come flailing around
Now I’ve said too much

I thought that I heard you laughing
I thought that I heard you sing
I think I thought I saw you try

But that was just a dream
That was just a dream

That’s me in the corner
That’s me in the spotlight
Losing my religion
Trying to keep up with you
And I don’t know if I can do it
Oh no, I’ve said too much
I haven’t said enough

I thought that I heard you laughing
I thought that I heard you sing
I think I thought I saw you try

But that was just a dream
Try, cry
Fly, try
That was just a dream, just a dream, just a dream