R.E.M.'s Dark And Brooding 'Sweetness'

Jan 13, 2012
Originally published on February 14, 2012 2:23 pm

All this winter, All Things Considered has been asking for winter songs — and the stories they evoke.

One tough winter in Rhode Island, NPR listener and novelist Thomas Mullen experienced financial ruin with his family. The song that got him through it was R.E.M.'s "Sweetness Follows."

"It's a kind of dark and brooding song," Mullen says in an interview with All Things Considered host Melissa Block. "It has this low, fronting cello and spectral organ. I'm from the Northeast, and there, winter is very cold, and it's also very dark. Very often, the sun has set by 4 o'clock, so that song particularly reminds me of a Christmas vacation of 1994.

"I was home from break, it was my junior year, and my family had gone through a major financial reversal that fall," Mullen says. "My dad's business had gone under, we'd gone bankrupt, and we'd lost our house. We weren't sure if it was going to get worse. So when I came back, my family, we spent some time in the old house — you know, boxing up our things — and trying to decide, you know, what are we going to put in storage or in some extended relative's basement, or what might we take to an antique store or sell in a yard sale.

"So we had some friends who were actually away on a Caribbean cruise for the holidays, and they asked if I could house-sit for them. It was this big, empty house on the river, with the wind howling and darkness surrounding me.

"It's always hard to tell exactly what Michael Stipe is singing about. He's notoriously hard to pin down, but it sounds like he's singing about burying your father and your mother and, you know, a falling out with siblings. And whether he's talking about literally being at a funeral or whether he's talking about the dissolution of a family or a family fight, the emotions seem the same. And he's talking about how we're all lost in our little lives, and you can be distanced from one and blind to the other.

"You know, the song is called 'Sweetness Follows,' and so whether he's singing about heaven or whether he's singing about forgiveness or just the inevitable rise of the song after a dark night... You know, I think back to that time, and it was tough, and it was dark, and it was hard for everyone — but we got through it. My parents are fine, they've moved on, they've got a great house and got great jobs. My sister's raising a family, I'm raising a family. We got by. And even though it's a dark and brooding song, and he speaks pretty bluntly about tough things, there's always that feeling that somehow you'll get through it. I know a lot of people now are dealing with similar issues, but you work through it and hold on to what you have. In the song, he talks about still striving to find a way to live your life filled with joy and wonder and staying all together, and that's what we did. No matter how dark the times are, there's always a sunrise ahead. You just have to stick together."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From deep snow in Alaska, now to a cold winter memory and a song. All this winter, we've been asking for Winter Songs and the stories they evoke. Well, today, we hear from a listener about one tough winter in Rhode Island, and the song that got him through it.

THOMAS MULLEN: My name's Thomas Mullen. I'm a novelist. And my Winter Song would be R.E.M.'s "Sweetness Follows."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEETNESS FOLLOWS")

MULLEN: It's a kind of dark and brooding song. It has this low, fronting cello and spectral organ. And I'm from the Northeast and there, winter is very cold, and it's also very dark. Very often, you know, the sun has set by 4 o'clock. So that song, particularly, reminds me of a Christmas vacation of 1994.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEETNESS FOLLOWS")

R.E.M.: (Singing) Readying to bury your father and your mother, what did you think when you lost another?

BLOCK: And what was going on in that vacation? What was happening?

MULLEN: Well, I was home for break. It was my junior year, and my family had gone through a big financial reversal that fall. My dad's business had gone under. We'd gone bankrupt, and we'd lost our house. And, you know, we weren't sure if it was going to get worse. So when I came back, you know, my family - we spent some time in the old house, you know, boxing up our things and trying to decide, you know, what are we going to put in storage, in some extended relative's basement; or what might we take to, you know, an antique store or sell in a yard sale.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEETNESS FOLLOWS")

R.E.M.: (Singing) Listen here, my sister and my brother, what would you care if you lost the other?

BLOCK: Where would you have been listening to this song back in '94, Thomas?

MULLEN: So we had some friends who were actually away on a Caribbean cruise for the holidays, and they'd asked if I could house-sit for them. It was this big, empty house on the river, with the wind howling and darkness surrounding me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEETNESS FOLLOWS")

R.E.M.: (Singing) Ooh, oh, oh, sweetness follows.

BLOCK: How did this song from R.E.M. - this song, "Sweetness Follows" - filter into that tough financial time for your family?

MULLEN: It was - it's always hard to tell what, exactly, Michael Stipe is singing about. He's notoriously hard to pin down. But it sounds like he's singing about, you know, burying your father and your mother and, you know, a falling out with two siblings.

And whether he's talking about literally being at a funeral, or whether he's talking about the dissolution of a family or a family fight, the emotions seem the same. And he's talking about how we're all lost in our little lives, and we can be distanced from one, and blind to the other.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEETNESS FOLLOWS")

R.E.M.: (Singing) It's these little things, they can pull you under. Live your life filled with joy and wonder. I always knew this altogether thunder was lost in our little lives.

MULLEN: You know, the song is called "Sweetness Follows," and so whether he's singing about, you know, heaven, or whether he's singing about forgiveness or just, you know, the inevitable rise of the sun after a dark night, you know, I think back to that time. And it was tough, and it was dark, and it was hard for everyone but, you know, we got through it. My parents are fine. You know, they've moved on; they've got a great house, and they've got great jobs. My sister is raising a family. I'm raising a family. You know, we got by.

And, you know, even though it's a dark and brooding song and he speaks pretty bluntly about tough things, there's always that feeling that, you know, somehow we get through it.

BLOCK: That redemption, sweetness following.

MULLEN: Yeah. And I know a lot of people now are dealing with similar issues. But, you know, you work through it, and you hold on to what you have. In the song, he talks about still striving to find a way to live your life filled with joy and wonder and staying all together, and that's what we did. And, you know, no matter how dark the times are, there's always a sunrise ahead, and we just have to stick together.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEETNESS FOLLOWS")

R.E.M.: (Singing) Yeah, yeah, we were altogether lost in our little lives.

BLOCK: That was listener Thomas Mullen with his Winter Song, R.E.M.'s "Sweetness Follows." And you can still send in your Winter Song stories at npr.org. Please use the subject line Winter Song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEETNESS FOLLOWS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.