An untimely river, ‘Near Wild Heaven’ and Synecdoche New York (2008)
For a number of years, I hadn’t listened to R.E.M. much if at all. I came across Stipe’s performance a few years ago on late night American TV in remembrance of David Bowie, a solo sung version (above) of ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ alongside piano. I felt at the time it carries a striking quality, heightened when Stipe sings the final refrain in his higher register and grasps the affective gear change of this moment in the song – the arrival of its dramatic denounement, piano riffing through those beautifully supported chords and the now classically inflected centrepiece refrain that underpins the song.
While also encountering among some more recent underground musicians that there has been a real reaction against R.E.M. (for example Laura Jane Grace’s dismissal in this episode of the Brett Easton Ellis podcast), caused me to think about them once more, which began the process of being interested in exploring again these songs that uncovered, still demonstrated something that could not be easily dismissed. I also had in mind John Frusciante’s response in this interview when asked to reflect on his feelings about R.E.M. saying that their music was friendly to him when most of his friends had disappeared during the depths of his drug abuse – something to which he responded with love. It is easy enough to label or re-label something as a way of unempowering it, but when you return to the material itself, the questions are almost always the same, what is happening here? What is being given expression? What is formed and transferred/transmitted?
This process also specifically caused me to question how it was that I had never really thought about their song ‘Near Wild Heaven’ from the ’91 album ‘Out of Time’.
In one sense I found my recollection of it was somewhat shaded by Shiny Happy People, which had been released three months earlier and retained a palpable presence of success with its shimmering, hyper-sunny melodies (kind of dwarfing Near Wild Heaven). Shiny Happy People partly though could be maligned for carrying too much of an overly-simplistic hippyism, and despite the drafting in of B52’s Kate Pierson, had much of its melodic sharpness neutered as a result, this also despite the apparent complexity of its lyric coming from a post-Tiannamen Square propaganda poster, something explored in this recent Independent piece. It was also the case that ‘Losing my Religion’ (the album’s first single) had blown open the mainstream to such astonishing effect (even now Youtube views for its two main iterations are at 770m – ten times the next most watched REM song ‘Everybody hurts’) that what came after while crystalising perception that this was a band at the height of rare powers, inevitably also involved a tailing off from that coruscating spotlight of breakthrough attraction.
I feel there are parallels between Near Wild Heaven and one of their brilliant earlier tracks from ‘Lifes Rich Pageant’ released in 1986, ‘Cuyahoga’ (above). A song about the Cuyahoga river in Ohio.
Cuyahoga is led by powerful bass refraining from Mike Mills that comes into its own in the surging, strident twist of the chorus, a calling out to the river ‘Cuyahoga, Cuyahoga…’.
The bass is suffused in the stereofied shimmering of Byrdsian guitars which Peter Buck made his own (and which on Near Wild Heaven reach a kind of apotheosis of mode). ‘Cuyahoga, Cuyahoga…’ is already a powerful evocation although Stipe admits he mispronounced it (from both its Mohawk and Seneca indian names), which meant ‘Crooked River’and ‘place of the jaw bone’; Cayagaga and Cuyohaga respectively. By the time it’s chorus hits (used optimally and held back, first coming in after two repetitions of the verse and the break) you realise the song has been a rocket waiting to take off and this stunning moment is what that take off sounds like… the moment of connection… ‘Cuyahoga‘ carried through with a sonic intent that is a real evocation underpinned by the ratcheting up of the chord structure and the bass riff, double timed in transition to add energy before also being helped by its escape to the perch of a higher chord just as it is about to repeat again.
The song lyrics recount wading through the river to evoke the resonances of the river as an entity through time, bringing the same encounters from tribes-people in the past, to those in the near past, sharing in ‘knee skinning’ it. It is a song of protest at its heart, almost caught too much with the sadness of its subject, the river that was so polluted by the US that it caught fire, the same culture that genocidally took a continent.
‘this is where they walked and swam, hunted, danced and sang…’
This is the most bare-faced kind of attack on the Westernised-state model history, revealing its tyrannical and savage undercurrent, but locating it in the expressings of the river and its trans-temporality actually lifts the song out of being crippled by its own attack. A spark that also evades anger, but coming as it does out of the song’s heart is the cry toward the river itself, repeated now with the context of its past (‘Cuyahoga… gone’). Establishing something across the strict spatio-temporality of any one time or another, is an expressing of the intensity of the river itself and in this sense as an expression moves past the human world of power fixations on territory and control to a river force of nature, an individual intensity.
Here too we hear Stipe’s tendency to go to roles utmost to state-craft in the personification of his lyrics (‘Let’s start a new country up‘) which will be reflected again on Green’s ‘World Leader Pretend‘ (1988) although on that occasion the image is doubled as metaphor for a psychologised being, behind the walls and weaponisation of subjectification ‘I know these walls, that I constructed‘ – albeit that they are also partly walls in the song which are ‘coming down‘.
It’s also interesting that another parallel here involves the role of Mike Mills in these songs, credited as writer of ‘Near Wild Heaven’ and it is his voice which helps carry the moment of the chorus in ‘Cuyahoga’. It is the first time it is evident on the track, flying hamoniously above, the only occasion when vocal harmony is used in the entire song.
While also documenting the river’s environmental abuse at the hands of the US, the song also carries with it that there is a subsequent bend to the story of the river, as to it becoming a crystalising moment for the environmental movement in the US, who rallied around the river, railing against the damage being done to it. As per Wikipedia; In 2019, the American Rivers conservation association named the Cuyahoga “River of the Year” in honor of “50 years of environmental resurgence.”
On the face of it, ‘Near Wild Heaven’ is a love song, composed to echo the glistening guitar pop of the 60’s and possessed of sublime hooks and a mesmerising vocal harmony arrangement around its chorus. It shimmers as a song, possessing a sun-lit quality of glint and energy from the meliflous, sustained backing harmonies.
Lyrically it begins:
‘Whenever we hold each other, we hold each other, there’s a feeling that’s gone, something has gone wrong…’
Something lost, missed, forgotten, the common human story of our times and conditions. In this sense, Near Wild Heaven might very nearly miss its chance to also transport us in the direction of an intensification. That is if it weren’t such a beautiful song and if it also wasn’t so insistent as to the nature of the position which it describes.
In this sense, the song is also a diagnosis which includes the fault and the line of flight, the suggestion of solution ‘Whatever it takes I’m giving, it’s just a gift I’m given… my heart thrown open wide, in this near wild heaven‘.
It includes lyrically an ongoing reference to the juxtaposition of interiority ‘trying to live inside… living inside, living inside (Near Wild Heaven)’ It is insistent and clear… ‘Living inside…’
The word ‘Heaven’ may have the weight of its religious orthodoxy, but it is also the ‘wild’ and given exteriority through the fact that it can only be ‘near’ from living inside. As such, it is re-energised as the wild outside, which we are generally cut off from, the source and result of which is this feeling that ‘something has gone wrong.’ As a song it has the feeling of realisation about it, a revelation (the chorus arrangement even at times seems to approach the counterpoint almost like a church bell chorale) but if anything this re-directed elegiac-sonic is freed back towards its evocation of the wild outside, rather than being trapped by any such resemblance.
In this respect it is something rare. For example, the Cream song ‘We’re Going Wrong’ (here beautifully covered live by John Frusciante) also doesn’t point to the energetic condition from which the deviation has occurred, nor does it ascribe the form of what is missing… While Near Wild Heaven is a love song (‘when we hold each other‘) and specifically a song of lost love, it becomes also the lost love of wild nature and its impact. ‘Try to live inside, tried to move inside… I always thought that it would make me smarter, but its only made me harder‘. The story of what this absence, this interiority means in becoming encrusted, calcified and ossified humans.
Here it seems worth considering the charcter and trajectory of Caden Cotard in Charlie Kaufman’s nightmarishly brilliant film from 2008 ‘Synecdoche New York‘. At the end of the film he is described as having ‘turned to stone’ before that he has had, alongside a plethora of neurosis and ill health, an openness to life as a creative, performative act, even a fugitively assembled becoming-woman. Yet it has been consistently expressed as the act of an interiorisation, the vast warehouse/stage set he takes on and fills with sets and people acting out scenes and lives, which he directs as a force of unshirking will and the vehemence of their feeling and motivation, he connects them. .
Yet in the film we never get to natural (let alone wild) spaces, perhaps with the exception of his meeting with a woman in a park near the very end of his life. In this way, the reference and sense of interiorisation is shared with Near Wild Heaven. Relevant also here is that Kaufman’s story is simultaneously dressed as the story of a part of a city rendered in the conceptual ‘Synecdoche’ (a riff on Schenectady, New York), locating the film from the outset as partly in the conceptual/virtual-real – but in this sense is the very apotheosis of the city as interiority and its denizens of their subjectivity.
To this background, Mike Mills is drawing a line out, in the calling out of lost love, to nature and not a passified, managed or marginalised nature, but to a space of both the real terrain and its ontology as a relation to human containment. In being simultaneously a story of lost love, it is also expressed as a feeling. ‘My heart thrown open wide… in this near wild heaven’. And perhaps this is what remains most remarkable in finding this place, that we are ‘near wild heaven’ we find that it is the place of nature in our hearts as well as in the land, so it becomes the destination of the space – under nature’s wing, but also the compass of the heart as a direction of living, to be in love, to be infused, to be simultaneously across in being and memory and presence, the wild terrains of the planet, including our own dreams and intensities.