Song of the Week – Cuyahoga, I Believe, Swan Swan H, R.E.M.


I’ve wanted to post a SotW featuring R.E.M. for a long time but haven’t gotten around to it. The weird thing is that I been paralyzed by the choice because I love so many of their cuts. So I’m finally ready to take a stand by choosing three songs, all from the band’s 4th album, Lifes Rich Pageant.

This is my favorite R.E.M. album. It was the first one I really sunk my teeth into but it also was the album that bridged their early indie (I.R.S. Records), college radio years with the broad commercial success of their releases on Warner Brothers records.

LRP had two songs that were popular, “Fall On Me” and a cover of The Clique’s “Superman”, so I’ll skip over them. That’s easy because every other song on the album is so good.

Let’s start with “Cuyahoga.”

It is a protest song that addresses both environmental concerns (the Ohio river famously caught fire in 1969 due to pollution) and protecting the heritage and natural resources of the native Americans.

Let’s put our heads together and start a new country up
Up underneath the river bed we’ll burn the river down

This is where they walked, swam
Hunted, danced and sang
Take a picture here
Take a souvenir

Next is “I Believe.”

The banjo intro acts as a sort of overture to create an Americana feel for this country rocker. (It has a similar feel to “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville” but I like this number better.) As is often the case with R.E.M. the lyrics are indecipherable but interesting nonetheless.

I believe in coyotes and time as an abstract
Explain the change, the difference between
What you want and what you need, there’s the key
Your adventure for today, what do you do
Between the horns of the day

I believe my shirt is wearing thin and change is what I believe in

Lastly is “Swan Swan H.”

Asked about his inspiration for “Swan Swan H”, lead singer/lyricist Michael Stipe said “(It’s a) Civil War song. That’s all I know of writing it. I remember the inspiration but it just flowed. “What noisy cats are we” I lifted from an actual Civil War written piece.” The music features a haunting, folky twelve string guitar, a military drum beat, and a subtle vocal delivery that perfectly supports the songs emotional narrative.

A pistol hot, cup of rhyme
The whiskey is water, the water is wine
Marching feet, Johnny Reb
What’s the price of heroes?

Six and one, half dozen the other
Tell that to the captain’s mother
Hey, captain, don’t you want to buy
Some bone chains and toothpicks?

LRP was released in in 1986 which makes it almost 30 years old! That doesn’t seem possible. But the album still holds up so I hope you’ll check out the rest of it.

Enjoy… until next week.