Listen here my sister and my brother
What would you care if you lost the other
I always wonder why did we bother
Distanced from one, blind to the other
It’s often said that less is more.
True across many facets of life, it’s perhaps nowhere more impactful than in R.E.M.’s minimalistic, tortured tale of lost time and, ultimately, lost loved ones.
Originally intended to be recorded as a departure from almost every other ‘alternative’ song of the 1990s, featuring simple acoustic guitar and vocals, the decision to add cello and mix it almost over the acoustic guitar, shapes the towering, prophetic “Sweetness Follows” from the first note.
As stated later in the song, it’s these little things, they can pull you under. And pull you under it does. Straight down into that place where realizing the err of one’s ways (only too late) roams the land, mingling only with the type of regret that follows one around, bound ankle-to-ankle.
While seemingly straightforward, lyrically-speaking, vocalist and lyricist Michael Stipe is a master of misdirection. Of varying layers of veils. Maybe that’s why Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain have cited him as a primary, maestro-like influence.
The song explores, interpretatively and in lay terms, the theme of recognizing the importance of familial adhesion. Often, too often, these realizations occur during specific events – funerals. People get caught up in the daily grind, people prioritize work and mundane, effortless downtime over maintaining relationships with those they love but perhaps take for granted. Nowhere is this more directly addressed than the moment Stipe claims:
Yeah, yeah we were altogether lost in our little lives
Likely a finger-wag at the ‘live to work’ epidemic that has swept the Western world since the Puritans decided to equate hard, laborious work with the likelihood of being accepted into heaven, this easily-to-miss statement alone makes the song a pocket map on avoiding the deepest crevices of regret. Sure, everybody has lives and everybody has choices and schedules, but few recognize the hierarchy of what is truly important in the fleeting moments that combine to summarize a lifetime.
“Sweetness Follows” would stand, sturdy as an old stone church, as an a capella track. It is, without dissection, a lyrical bulldozer. Add, however, some swinging door atonal guitar non-solos, and the result resembles an outdoor funeral on a rain soaked Sunday. It’s indifferent yet emotive, it feels like something. It dares the listener to take note and stock of their surroundings. To hear, listen, see, and feel.
Most of our lives are spent on autopilot. Most of our sense of comfort is derived from staying within one’s lane, enjoying the luxury of seeing well into the future, with no alarms and no surprises. Perhaps this fact makes the inclusion of “Sweetness Follows” on an album titled Automatic for the People more stirring.