Whose Document was the turning point for REM, then “The one I love” acted as the hinge. Released as the lead single from their fifth LP in August 1987, the song became REM’s first Top 10 hit by the end of that year.
Even in the context of the album, “The One I Love” marked something of a demarcation line. While the tracks on side one were united by political thoughts (or at least implications) related to the state of America in 1987, side two (started by this song) was a stranger, more eclectic musical experience. It was a counterbalance to the jackhammer cohesion of the second half, which was probably the closest REM ever came to making a concept record.
The first song on side two was an incredible shift from the last tune on side one – “It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I’m fine).” These would become the two singles, the two radio songs out of Document, but they couldn’t be more different, at least from a lyrical approach. In contrast to the litany of disasters and references he mixed in as a Las Vegas blackjack dealer on “It’s the End,” lead singer Michael Stipe went Spartan on “The One I Love”.
The song has three verses, all of which are identical except for a key word in the third round. It has a one-word chorus (if you don’t count bassist Mike Mills’ backing contribution). Stipe sings just 20 different words over the course of a three-minute song – compared to “It’s the End…”, where he passes the 20-word mark in the first 15 seconds.
“The One I Love” is plotted like this. At first, Stipe sounds like he’s giving a nod Shirelles (or the Mamas and Papas):”This one goes out to the one I love.” Then it is revealed that the subject is not a current lover, but a former lover: “This one goes out to the one I left behind.” And then there’s the ride:A simple prop to occupy my time.” The first line is repeated to the listener, not with the understanding that this is not a loving gesture, but something bitter, ironic or cynical. So where did this tightly wound explosion of dark poetry come from?
“I don’t know. That song just came out of nowhere and I recognized that it was really violent and horrible,” Stipe shared. Rolling stones in ’87. “But it wasn’t directed at one person. I would never, ever write a song like that. Even if there was one person in the world who thought, ‘This song is about me,’ I could never sing it or turn it off.”
The track’s lyrical directness was in some ways matched by its musical simplicity. An author called “The One I Love”‘s brief guitar solo is “borderline rudimentary.” In typical REM fashion, the instrumental part came before the lyrics. Guitarist Peter Buck brought the riff on his porch.
“I remember Peter showing me that riff and thinking it was pretty cool, and then the rest of the song flowed from there,” Mills shared. Uncut magazine. “We played the whole song as an instrumental until Michael added some vocals to it.”
Stipe provided the lyrics, including the howled bursts of “Fire!” in the chorus, with a dark edge. Brand tied to a recurring theme on Documentrepresenting passion, anger, or even unrepentant destruction (as in “Welcome to the occupation“). The song after “The One I Love” is titled “Fireplace”. And the members of “Oddfellows Local 151” meet behind the firehouse. No wonder Document was listed as “File Under Fire” on its album cover (as well as Bill had “File Under Water” printed on it).
When REM released their fiery single just before their latest (and final) album for the independent label IRS, “The One I Love” began to attract the attention of radio programmers like no REM single had before. Although the band had released singles before, only three had reached the Billboard Hot 100, none higher than a brief stint at No. 78. It was not a facet of the music industry that had greatly concerned the band.
“We don’t really worry about that. We just make the records and give them to the label and say ‘do what you can, sell this,'” Mills told Toronto’s Globe and Mail when “The One I Love” took off. “Being the second most added single is kind of nice. I mean, we’re not a band that writes hit singles, but I guess if we’re going to do this, we might as well have one.”
Although REM did not attempt to become more commercial, the group’s sound had become clearer and more direct on this album and the previous one, Lives Rich Contest. Stipe’s vocals had been pushed to the front, and Bill Berry’s drumming was recorded with an ear for crisp percussion. That ear belonged to co-producer Scott Litt, who worked on his first of six REM albums. If the band didn’t have their goal of a hit single, Litt admitted that was part of his plan.
“With REM, I thought it was important to show that the music belongs on the radio, that it was as worthy as Whitney Houston or whatever else was there,” Litt shared Chicago Tribune. “It was against my nature to do something dark – as opposed to raw – and basically I wanted to treat their vocals differently Document. They weren’t really a great singles band back then, but they became one, starting with ‘The One I Love’ on that album. It’s a very linear song: the vocals stop, then you hear the drums, then the guitar comes in and interests you.”
In the decade following “The One I Love,” the partnership between REM and Litt would result in 14 songs that did Billboard singles charts – three of them in the Top 10 – and several albums that either topped the US album charts or came close. But with increasing popularity sometimes comes confusion. It seemed like a flurry of listeners heard “The One I Love’s” signature riff and first lyrics and stopped paying attention. Callers would call DJs to dedicate the tune to their sweetheart.
“I didn’t like the song at first,” Stipe shared Moo in 2016. “I felt it was too brutal. I thought the feeling was too difficult to put out into the world. But people misunderstood it, so that was fine. Now it’s a love song, so that’s fine.”
For a song that its lead singer hated, at least initially, “The One I Love” remains one of REM’s signature tunes. It has featured on every “best-of” compilation that includes the band’s IRS years, and was REM’s most played set list entry in their live shows until the end of their career. It remains modern and classic rock radio to this day.
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