ETA: Lindsey has posted her cover of "Sweetness Follows" here!
Lindsey asked me what I wanted for Christmas, so I asked her if she'd be up for recording an a cappella cover of a song for me. To my surprise, she said yes, so I sent her a list of three songs to choose from: "Greenman" by XTC; "I Do" by Abra Moore; and "Sweetness Follows" by REM.
She felt like "Greenman", while an excellent choice for a large collegiate group (sooo many different sounds to make!), would be too ambitious for a quick, one-woman recording. She thought "I Do" would be a lot of fun to sing at karaoke, but she wasn't sure what she could do with it, arrangement-wise. That left "Sweetness Follows" -- which, while it isn't her favorite song of the three, is a song she finds intriguing and enigmatic, with its elliptical lyrics and its major-key somberness.
While she puts together her arrangement, she's asked me why "Sweetness Follows" appeals to me, and why I chose it for an a cappella cover. I figured my answer might be of general interest, so I'm posting it here.
I wouldn't say "I want this song played at my funeral." But I might want my funeral to *feel* something like this song.
REM's music, at its best, is very evocative and equally unclear. In my head, I can always see the world that Automatic for the People takes place in -- it's always late autumn, and the landscape is always dominated by the charcoals and yellows of the album art. It has a few tracks that clearly mean one thing: "Everybody Hurts", say, or "Ignoreland". "Sweetness Follows" is not one of those songs.
For me, "Sweetness Follows" exists in that moment after a painful, tragic loss -- the time when you still feel numb and confused, and you're still reckoning with the scale of what's happened. It's that period of hazy weightlessness before the pain really sets in.
And while it's all in second person, its delivery makes me think that this is isn't a voice singing out to an arena of listeners. It isn't even a singer addressing a single listener. Instead, it's somebody talking to himself, and he's grabbing at disjointed thoughts, and reassuring himself that he can keep going, building up some sort of quiet resolve. The "ohs" in its short choruses feel like those sighs where you gather your strength before you keep going. And somehow that all builds up to something full of warmth and beauty.
And that brings me back to the funeral thing -- I feel like this song both acknowledges how a loss feels, and finds something to hold on to.
But honestly none of that is on my mind, in that level of detail, when I listen to the song. And my guesses about what the song is getting at may change with time. But that's fine. A song doesn't have to mean; it can just be. It feels reassuring. It feels thoughtful.
So that's why the song appeals to me, but that's not a complete answer to "why did I pick this song for an a cappella cover?"
It's partly because, when I was picking out songs for this, I didn't want to waste the opportunity -- I knew I wanted to pick songs that no a cappella group would ever dare to touch. In my limited experience, most a cappella covers tend to be:
(1) Recent releases.
A cappella is dominated by college groups, and those college students aren't the music nerds working at the radio station who are obsessively learning the entire history of pop music. Outside of a few overdone perennials ("For the Longest Time", "The Lion Sleeps Tonight"), and the occasional ironic "OMG we are doing an 80s song from the 80s!", they mostly do radio songs from the last five years.
(2) Pop hits.
Not many people go for the deep cuts. Even older songs tend to be #1 billboard hits or classic American songbook numbers. And original compositions are *very* rare. Basically, it looks like part of the motivation in performance is to get the audience to *recognize* the song, rather than going for "Wow, I haven't heard this one before -- it's pretty cool."
(3) Set in one of a few moods.
If you're picking from the most popular pop songs, that means you're going to have a limited emotional palette. More often than not, an a cappella cover will be bright, and cheerful, and wholesome-sounding. More recently, there's been a (no doubt emo-influenced) rebellion against that, with lots of angst. But outside of those two poles (and maybe a few angry Beyonce covers), the territory looks kind of sparse. Even melancholy songs often become kind of boppy in a cappella covers.
(4) It's all about you.
I see a lot of songs with clear messages, and that message is usually very personal. Many of the cheerful songs say "I am an awesome person". Many of the angry ones say "I am so awesome I don't need to take your crap". Many of the angsty ones say "I am awesome and dammit you just don't understand me". Mind you, this makes a lot of sense: it's easier, in public performance, to "sell" a song that's ostensibly you clearly declaiming to the audience who you are. There's not a lot of room for cryptic REM lyrics, because it's hard to fit that to "we are awesome", and it's rarely Michael Stipe talking directly about himself.
I think, on an unconscious level, I tried to pick songs that were the opposite of all of that, especially with "Greenman" and "Sweetness Follows". They're all older songs: "I Do" is from 2004, "Greenman" is from 1999, "Sweetness Follows" is from 1992. None of them charted. Orchestration-wise, none of them have anything to do with modern-day pop music (especially "Greenman", which seems to have been beamed in from the English countryside ca. 1235).
And "Sweetness Follows" in particular is the opposite of a modern, boppy, "let me tell you how awesome I am" tune. It's spare and mournful. It's indirect and cryptic. And it's not about you -- not the singer nor the listener -- but instead, it's about the life in general. Orchestration-wise, "Sweetness Follows" is mostly built out of drones and ostinati (on an album that loves its drones and ostinati), and foregrounds an organ and a cello, of all things. Strange bits of grinding dissonance creep into the song more and more as it goes on -- by the end, all that's left are the distortions, buzzing against each other as they fade out.
And it's a very inwardly-directed, contemplative song. If Katy Perry sang the line "Live your life filled with joy and thunder", it would mean something like "Yeah, this should be YOUR motto because YOU ARE AN AWESOME UNIQUE SEXY STAR". But here, it's more like, huh, I guess we all kind of *have* to live our lives this way, don't we? Otherwise the whole world would be just too damn cold and lonely. And what would be the point of that?
 Ironic that "Everybody Hurts" tries so directly to do the same thing, and instead mostly reminds listeners of how depressed they are.
Mood: contemplative · Music: none