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What is “Try Not to Breathe” about?
November 3, 2009 9:19 AM   Subscribe

What is “Try Not to Breathe” about? The Studio 360 podcast interviews a listener who, remembering how her father died of a sudden illness, has a touching eureka moment about the message of the song on R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People: “I think it’s about somebody who has reached the end of their life. They have a level of acceptance that maybe the people around them don’t have. I felt like that was my dad talking to me.... It’s about facing the truth and accepting that life is ugly sometimes.” (Contains download link and embedded player of radio segment.)
posted by joeclark (44 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
I was nerdy 15 and turning into enthusiastic R.E.M. fan, when my father died. There was much repeat-1 with headphones on Everybody hurts and Find the River. I think I eternally owe to that band.
posted by Free word order! at 9:57 AM on November 3, 2009 [3 favorites]



Automatic for the People is one of those albums that not only can you listen to it over and over again, it is my opinion that you have to listen to it over and over again. Each song on that album (except for "Monty Got a Raw Deal", I've never had much use personally for that track, yet) touches you for different reasons at different times in your life. I've had the album since I was a junior in high school ('98), and every time I pop it in, there's a different track I have to listen to over and over again because at that moment in my life, I need it.

I thought this was an insightful peice, I just disagree with this part: "It’s about facing the truth and accepting that life is ugly sometimes..."

I didn't get that impression at all. The lyrics towards the end "Baby, don't shiver now
Why do you shiver? (I will see things you will never see)"
are more an affirmation that as ugly as the prospect of death is, it ultimately will be a beautiful and very personal experience for the protagonist. He refers to himself as "memory me" which, I believe, means all of his personal experiences good and bad will come back to him in an eternal instant, and the fact it is something only he will ever experience makes it beautiful and beyond description.

This was a song I had playing in my head when I was in a hospital, just after being told the tonsilitis infection (coupled with a staph infection just to make things interesting) had spread very close to an artery and, if it was as bad as they feared, they would "do their best to make me comfortable."

Like I said, different songs for different times in your life.
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 10:00 AM on November 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


Perhaps it's just that the words in many songs can be interpreted in many ways, and a particular emotional state causes one to identify with a particular emphasis. The mind tends to contextualize and create narratives where there really isn't one.
posted by Burhanistan at 10:09 AM on November 3, 2009


Perhaps it's just that the words in many songs can be interpreted in many ways, and a particular emotional state causes one to identify with a particular emphasis. The mind tends to contextualize and create narratives where there really isn't one.

You'll note my wording ("It didn't get that impression...", "I believe...", & "I disagree...") indicates I understand this.
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 10:16 AM on November 3, 2009


I always found this album to be incredibly dark, heavy and dense. There is a weight to it. Yet, to me, it is somehow comforting sonically and lyrically. I recall it being somewhat underappreciated when it was released after the "smash hit" Out of Time.
posted by punkfloyd at 10:17 AM on November 3, 2009


I can't listen to podcasts at work, but thanks for posting this. I love R.E.M. with the passion of a thousand suns and every time I get a bit deeper into their work, I just end up loving them more.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 10:18 AM on November 3, 2009


REM Automatic for the People was the second time I purchased music for myself. It was a tape, and I remember it being cool because it was a yellow-green see-through color instead of the usual color. The first and third tapes were the single Regulators (warren g and nate dogg) and Offspring's Smash, respectively.
posted by lazaruslong at 10:26 AM on November 3, 2009


My favorite band most decidedly does not suck.
posted by spilon at 10:30 AM on November 3, 2009 [3 favorites]


Initially, I didn't get that "Try Not To Breathe" had anything to do with death -- largely because I mis-heard "I need something to fly over my grave again" as "I need something to fly over my cradle now". Nevertheless, it still felt powerful.

I actually heard this piece on broadcast, and it prompted me to drag out my copy for a full relisten -- and it made me wonder exactly why the song "Ignoreland" got so little play, especially since the lyrics sounded eerily prescient of some of the crap that went down in this past decade ("TV tells a million lies, The paper's terrified to report anything that isn't handed on a presidential spoon, I'm just profoundly frustrated by all this, so fuck you, man". Full lyrics here).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:33 AM on November 3, 2009


My mom and I used to listen to R.E.M. in the car together a lot when I was growing up, particularly after we moved to the States and were both really depressed, and whenever this song came on, she would remind me that I was supposed to play it at her funeral.

I would say "Mom, that's moooooooooorbiddddd," like an upset fourteen-year-old, and she would say "You're going to be happy to have things like this settled when it happens. You don't want to be frantically searching for emotional salve then. You want to know where it is."

Hopefully that day is a long way away, but I know when it happens I'm going to play this song, and I hope to hell it's going to be soothing then.
posted by besonders at 10:44 AM on November 3, 2009 [6 favorites]


Man, I loved this album. I never followed REM fanatically, but I always thought Automatic For the People was their big album of that era? I could be conflating it because it came out at around the same time as Achtung Baby which formed my U2 addiction. (And don't forget Automatic Baby.)

I should go dig that album out and listen to it again. I've always wanted to catch REM live but just never got around to it. Hopefully I still can someday.
posted by kmz at 10:51 AM on November 3, 2009


My mom and I used to listen to R.E.M. in the car together a lot when I was growing up, particularly after we moved to the States and were both really depressed, and whenever this song came on, she would remind me that I was supposed to play it at her funeral.

I would say "Mom, that's moooooooooorbiddddd,"


I'm only 28, and I have a list of songs that are to be played at my funeral. This isn't among them, but it's a damn good one.

(My mom has also made suggestions, but they were mostly in jest. She'd better watch it though or I really will put "She always said her feet were killing her" on her tombstone.)
posted by grapefruitmoon at 10:54 AM on November 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


I always thought Automatic For the People was their big album of that era?

It was, along with Out of Time. You could make an argument for either album. Out of Time really launched them, but Automatic For the People got much more radio play.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 10:55 AM on November 3, 2009


Automatic is slightly behind Out of Time in copies sold in the US (3.5M to 4M), but it had more singles hit the modern rock chart (4 to 2), with each having one hit #1 on the chart ("Losing My Religion" and "Drive"). So it's a bit of a wash as to which was the "big" one.
posted by aaronetc at 10:57 AM on November 3, 2009



I actually heard this piece on broadcast, and it prompted me to drag out my copy for a full relisten -- and it made me wonder exactly why the song "Ignoreland" got so little play, especially since the lyrics sounded eerily prescient of some of the crap that went down in this past decade ("TV tells a million lies, The paper's terrified to report anything that isn't handed on a presidential spoon, I'm just profoundly frustrated by all this, so fuck you, man". Full lyrics here).


Years ago I heard that "Ignoreland" was Michael Stipe's least favorite R.E.M. song.
posted by jessssse at 10:57 AM on November 3, 2009


Years ago I heard that "Ignoreland" was Michael Stipe's least favorite R.E.M. song.

yeah, I heard the band generally regarded it as one of those "this didn't turn out quite as great as we thought it would" tracks, but the lyrics knocked me sideways.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:01 AM on November 3, 2009


" Out of Time really launched them"

boy... that is gonna draw some fire.
posted by punkfloyd at 11:17 AM on November 3, 2009


The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight was the one that never grabbed me. But I mean, it's not like anything on that album is filler. It's just that most of the songs are so simultaneously personal and universal that the few that step back from that a little sort of fall into the shadows.
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:35 AM on November 3, 2009


Years ago I heard that "Ignoreland" was Michael Stipe's least favorite R.E.M. song.

They still play it live, so I'm not sure if that is 100% true. "Shiny Happy People" on the other hand....
posted by spilon at 11:38 AM on November 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


I always kinda thought of 'Shiny Happy People' as R.E.M.'s 'Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.'
posted by box at 11:42 AM on November 3, 2009


Oh man. Nightswimming and Drive mean so much once you've turned 40, and that's all I'll say.

Stipe intoning that elegiac "tick....tock" still kills me.
posted by jokeefe at 11:45 AM on November 3, 2009


I have a list of songs that are to be played at my funeral

Yeah, me too, and I keep changing them all the time. Also, occasionally I relent when I imagine whether or not I really want to make my friends and family listen to that acoustic version of No Surprises from 2003.
posted by jokeefe at 11:47 AM on November 3, 2009


Maybe Automatic for the People is their Exile on Main Street.
posted by punkfloyd at 11:55 AM on November 3, 2009


I've been lucky enough to catch R.E.M. four times at various stages of their career: semi-early (Fables, 2-3,000), getting big (Document, ~12,000), huge (Green, 40,000), still sorta popular but old (Accelerate, 8,000).

They've been playing the same damn music for decades now, but I still love 'em. And I'm a sucker for the saccharine ballads. Be Mine, Nightswimming, Perfect Circle, E-Bow, Fall on Me ...

Out of Time really launched them

boy... that is gonna draw some fire.

Radio Free Europe launched them for me, and I think it's pretty well accepted that "The One I Love" was their first "big mainstream hit" - but "Losing My Religion" took it up quite another notch altogether.

Mills said years later. "If you want to talk about life changing, I think 'Losing My Religion' is the closest it gets".

Mike Mills should get to sing more.

What is "Try Not to Breathe" about?

"This decision is mine. I have lived a full life, and these are the eyes that I want you to remember."

I think it's very straightforward.

I just disagree with this part: "It’s about facing the truth and accepting that life is ugly sometimes..."

I don't get "ugly" from the song either. I stopped listening when she started talking about Nightswimming.

It has a couple good songs, but Automatic ain't that great. The first 3 songs are average at best, and Man on the Moon is a bad song. Automatic doesn't come even close to any of the first 4 albums. I think New Adventures in Hi-Fi is their best modern (post-1986) album.
posted by mrgrimm at 12:08 PM on November 3, 2009


I always thought Automatic For the People was their big album of that era?

It was, along with Out of Time.


See, what I recall (yay, object lesson in the subjectivity of memory!) was that Out of Time met with the first big mainstream appreciation (sweeping the VMAs and all), Automatic for the People was the one that was instantly declared to be an enduring classic (and oddly...it is), and Monster catapulted them to arena-rock stardom (and is probably the album from that era that holds up least well).

Automatic really is a great album, to be sure, but if we're picking our least favorite tracks, the plinky "New Orleans Instrumental" and draggy "Star Me Kitten" are totally expendable--and they're the two shortest tracks. Huh.
posted by kittyprecious at 12:10 PM on November 3, 2009


Weird tangent about "Star Me Kitten":

I own an X-FILES tie-in album (stop laughing) which inexplicably features a version of "Star Me Kitten" -- as performed by William S. Burroughs. I can't even BEGIN to speculate how such a thing came to exist.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:16 PM on November 3, 2009



Years ago I heard that "Ignoreland" was Michael Stipe's least favorite R.E.M. song.

They still play it live


They only just began to play it live in 2008. It had never been played before that.
posted by anazgnos at 12:27 PM on November 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


Automatic for the People is one of those albums that not only can you listen to it over and over again, it is my opinion that you have to listen to it over and over again.

Agreed. One of my friend's favorite questions to ask people as a get-to-know-you hypothetical is this: Imagine you can only listen to one band for the rest of your life. Because you have chosen only to listen to that band, you get to make out with the band members whenever you want. You don't have to listen to them, but any time you do listen to music it has to be from that band.

So you learn something about whether the music or the making out matters more to a person.

Anyways, my answer for a long time was either REM (great for music and making out) or the Boston Symphony (mostly great making out with lots of people).
posted by cubby at 12:27 PM on November 3, 2009


I own an X-FILES tie-in album (stop laughing) which inexplicably features a version of "Star Me Kitten" -- as performed by William S. Burroughs. I can't even BEGIN to speculate how such a thing came to exist.
posted by EmpressCallipygos


I remember when my college radio station got that disc... I thought that track was the raddest thing ever.
posted by COBRA! at 12:29 PM on November 3, 2009


Here I sit, tearing up at the merest mention of "Nightswimming."
posted by Skot at 12:37 PM on November 3, 2009 [3 favorites]


Wow, no snark about AFTP? Consider me shocked.

I bought it at midnight the day it came out (for those of you who remember when midnight sales still meant something) and just about loved it to death. I pulled it out earlier this year when I decided to re-listen to all my REM (and I had a ton, given I bought the US and European singles in the early 90s) and in general it still holds up really well.

"Ignoreland" sounds really, really dated, though. I can see where the supposed embarrassment comes from. And yeah, while "New Orleans Instrumental No. 1" is a bit of a song, it does fit as a nice buffer before the three "serious" songs that follow. (And honestly, it's better than "New Orleans Instrumental No. 2," which sounds like they wrote it for a tribute album to elevators.

"Sidewinder" still holds up just fine, though, and it's one of the rare times they actually try to not be so sincere and it actually works. (Compare with "Can't Get There From Here.")

The strongest songs, honestly, are so strong that any two could catapult any album into a top 100 of all time list. Monster was destined to be a letdown, and it fulfilled those expectations.

All that said, I knew what "Try Not To Breathe" was about the first time I heard it 17 years ago.
posted by dw at 1:08 PM on November 3, 2009


(My mom has also made suggestions, but they were mostly in jest. She'd better watch it though or I really will put "She always said her feet were killing her" on her tombstone.)

For years my mom has insisted we are to have a solemn reading at her funeral of the lyrics to "Wooly Bully". Sometimes she will even demonstrate how it should be read -- it ends up not unlike the Christopher Walken "Poker Face". Whether we do it or not, I expect that when the time comes I will be at her funeral giggling inappropriately, picturing her face as she recites "Matty told Hatty....".

When my uncle died unexpectedly in 1993, my dad borrowed my copy of Automatic for the People to use at his memorial service. It was the first real introduction many of his siblings had to REM, but it was perfect for the situation (even though none of them were mopey adolescents like I was).
posted by katemonster at 1:12 PM on November 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight was the one that never grabbed me.

In the way that instant soup never really grabbed you?

That's funny because it's the one that grabbed me the most and was inexplicably in my head when I saw this post even though I haven't listened to the album in well over a year.
posted by ekroh at 1:19 PM on November 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


(Is there some deep meaning in it that I've been missing all these years? Or do you just mean you like the tune? I mean, either's fine, I don't even think it's a bad song, I just never got it and maybe you can fill me in on what I'm missing.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 2:01 PM on November 3, 2009


Katemonster, your mom sounds awesome.
posted by bluishorange at 2:06 PM on November 3, 2009


Am I ever glad this posting went over well. It has something to do with a sick dog, though he’s fine now.
posted by joeclark at 2:08 PM on November 3, 2009


I can't go to concerts because they have flashing lights - and so, the fact that I will never be able to see R.E.M. live is perhaps the greatest drawback of having epilepsy.

I am so not exaggerating.

Out of Time really launched them

boy... that is gonna draw some fire.

Radio Free Europe launched them for me, and I think it's pretty well accepted that "The One I Love" was their first "big mainstream hit" - but "Losing My Religion" took it up quite another notch altogether


Yes, this is what I meant. That "Losing My Religion" put them on THE MAP as opposed to just "on the radar of awesome people who like awesome music that may or may not be obscure." I was just a wee kid when Out of Time came out, but it's the first record that my parents bought that I then stole from them.

And I think I'm probably alone in this in that the track from AFTP that never grabbed me is "Man On the Moon." I can totally take or leave it.

Incidentally, my favorite full album of theirs as one cohesive work is the same as Michael Stipe's (allegedly) - the vastly underappreciated New Adventures in Hi-Fi.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 2:09 PM on November 3, 2009


It has something to do with a sick dog, though he’s fine now.

Regardless, continued good vibes to your pup and you.
posted by mintcake! at 3:07 PM on November 3, 2009


Thinking of "Nightswimming" also makes me tear up. And thinking of grapefruitmoon's comment two up from this one make me sad and even *more* fervently hope that someday we'll come up with (better) epilepsy treatments. :( Seriously.
posted by NikitaNikita at 4:31 PM on November 3, 2009


My sister was a huge REM fan. I remember her writing Michael Stipe, telling him about how much his music was helping her get through the chemo and radiation and everything else. Shortly thereafter, she received a giant card made from posterboard in the mail, hand written and hand drawn all over by the entire band.

For that alone, they will probably always be my favorite band, though I can't get through Automatic without weeping like a child.
posted by gordie at 5:56 PM on November 3, 2009 [15 favorites]


Wow, no snark about AFTP?

OK, here's some -- I love REM and own everything they've recorded except Reveal. And I just don't like this record very much. It's dirgey and monotonous and has dull ballads galore, none of which is a tenth as good as "You Are the Everything." And "Ignoreland" is a dumb complaint.

That said, the really doomy/moody stuff on here is good ("Star Me Kitten" and "Monty Got a Raw Deal") and I've got nothing bad to say about "Try Not To Breathe," the best song on this drab record.
posted by escabeche at 8:25 PM on November 3, 2009


I am another ginormous REM dork, and I've seen them eight times since the Bridge School Benefit in '98. Last year, at one of the Berkeley shows, I sat next to another huge fan who'd seen them dozens of times since their beginning at tiny clubs. When they played "Nightswimming," she was thrilled, as she'd never seen them play the song live, while I basically burst into tears while trying not to puke from sheer overwhelming bliss.

They only just began to play ["Ignoreland"] live in 2008. It had never been played before that.

FWIW, REM's catalogue is huge enough that they just randomly do this sometimes. I saw a 2003 show in Amsterdam where they played "These Days," "Exhuming McCarthy" and "I Believe" for the first time since 1989. However, they did play "Ignoreland" at each of the three concerts I saw last year, always with a comment from Michael along the lines of how the song was from their 73rd album and was written in the 1800s.

I can't go to concerts because they have flashing lights - and so, the fact that I will never be able to see R.E.M. live is perhaps the greatest drawback of having epilepsy.

grapefruitmoon, this is a really sad thing to hear. Are videos of concert performance safe? Because if so, you can at least console yourself by stocking up on their live concert films including my favorite, Tourfilm to This Is Not a Show, which just came out a couple of weeks ago. Although it's not quite the same, at least you don't have to worry about sold-out shows or really tall Dutch boys standing in front of you!

Mike Mills should get to sing more.

QFT.

Oh, and I think I've mentioned this before, but for the other two X-Files/REM fans (yes, I have that album too, and yes, the William Burroughs "Star Me Kitten" is amazing and the version I always hear in my mind) or for those who may be interested in a slightly less obvious REM lyrics interpretation, I'd like to present my theory that "Hope", from the wildly underappreciated Up is written in the voices of Mulder and Scully... yeah, like I said, ginormous REM dork...
posted by KatlaDragon at 9:07 PM on November 3, 2009


I heard this essay a few weeks ago on the radio and it really bugged me for some reason. Of course it's a good song on what I feel is R.E.M.'s last good album, but, I found the readers observations rather trite and boring. Sucks about her dad though.
posted by trbrts at 4:20 PM on November 4, 2009


grapefruitmoon: ”Incidentally, my favorite full album of theirs as one cohesive work is the same as Michael Stipe's (allegedly) - the vastly underappreciated New Adventures in Hi-Fi.“

Aye, that's a very good disc [although personally nothing can compare in my mind to Murmur and Reckoning.] Sort of their lost album, from before they finally really went south but after people stopped following them religiously. Much more interest texturally than anything they'd made in many years before or since. And also "Leave" rocks harder than anything on Monster.

As far as REM songs being about stuff, I always feel disappointed when I listen to the albums from when they started writing songs like that, as though when 1990 started they decided to make playing music a job and started writing songs intended as emotional resonators. It's a lot more fun [for me, anyway] to try to figure out what "Harborcoat" is about. That song makes me so happy, and it's because it's not a song about a family member or a love affair or an inspiring concept or a comedian or anything at all. It's a song, no other justification than that, more molding life than molded by it.

But this radio interview was really great to listen to; very interesting, joeclark. Thanks.
posted by koeselitz at 9:55 PM on November 4, 2009


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