In 2004, when Mel Gibson released The Passion of the Christ, a certain R.E.M. single, from their first album Murmur, found itself relevant after 20 years by becoming the backing music to the ad nauseum montages concerning the films controversy on various news shows. The song was “Talk About the Passion,” which due to Gibson’s film, most of the country was doing. Although R.E.M. has never been directly connected to Christianity, or even spiritual matters in general, the “passion” referred to in these works is the same. When lead vocalist Michael Stipe talked about the passion, he said “not everyone can carry the weight of the world.”
R.E.M.’s Murmur and U2’s War were both released in 1983, and both the bands seemed to rise to the height of the powers coinciding. U2 has never been too far removed from spiritual issues, and it is interesting to note that Murmur’s central track shares much the same chorus as War’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “40”: the desperate lament “how much longer?” While Bono asks, respectively, “how long must we sing this song,” and “how long to sing this song,” Stipe puts his in the French “combien te temps” or “how much time?”
But other religious references were never nearly as prominent than that on 2004’s Around the Sun, which was released a month shy of the 2004 presidential election. On it Stipe explored the religiosity of Bush’s America in terms of whether it was congruent with the words of Christ, which Bush was wont to rally behind. His answer was a resounding “no,” evidenced uncharacteristically straightforwardly on “The Final Straw.” When Stipe asks “who died and lifted you up to perfection?” he knows his opponent’s answer is Christ, but rebukes him with his words–a way of censuring the ruler who wears his Christianity on his sleeve by singing “now love cannot be called into question, forgiveness is the only hope I hold, and love will be my strongest weapon.”
One of the most interesting aspects of Stipe’s lyrics on Around the Sun is his mysterious conflation of the then current state in American politics with the feeling of being betrayed by a lover, most clearly in “Make It All Okay.” While the song is presented as a confrontation of a departed lover, under that surface it is another rebuke of Bush’s idea that revenge would somehow make what happened on 9/11 “all okay.” Stipe uses the idea of forgiveness offered, as if by a savior, in return for the promise of starting over again, as if with a lover. While Stipe sings “well Jesus loves me fine, but his words fall flat this time,” it is because these words are being twisted against their very purpose.
But Bush doesn’t receive all of Stipe’s rebukes. The “milk and honeyed congregation” in “I Wanted To Be Wrong” is a commentary on the American Christian as someone who has already reached the promised land and need no look no further. Stipe is arguing that this kind of Christian loses the point of Christ’s words because such affluence causes a lack of interest in helping those less fortunate. Though not quite as publicly as U2, since the mid-80s the two bands have been involved in most of the same campaigns to do just that.
R.E.M.’s next album, Accelerate, will be released on April 1st, and, sure enough, will coincide with yet another presidential election year. It will be interesting to see whether this trend of religious exploration continues, maybe even flourishes, or if Stipe and Co. will lose it all over again.