Last week, I caught myself in a YouTube maze, video-hopping like a hungry man at a Chinese buffet. I do this a lot: follow videos sidebar-to-sidebar-to-sidebar, until I realize an hour has vanished and I've just watched every R.E.M. unplugged performance they've ever given or conceived of giving.
And it was somewhere between my third and thirtieth viewing of "Nightswimming" that I realized something: no band (other than the Beatles) uses background vocals the way R.E.M. does.
This week's song: R.E.M. "Fall On Me"
Once upon a time, there was a band called the Beatles. The Beatles had three active singers and a fourth that they used for comic relief and novelty songs. They employed all three singers frequently, providing background vocals for each others' songs, and adding harmonies to choruses. Occasionally, however, they used background vocals to add a new dimension to the song; it's wasn't another singer, it was another voice.
For example, the vocal prompts before each line of "Help" enact the co-dependence the song's about. John literally and figuratively needs the help of his bandmates to get through each line, and they take each others' lead: "(When...) When I was younger, so much younger than today/(I never needed...) I never needed anybody's helping anyway." Perhaps the best example is "With a Little Help From My Friends," in which the background singers needle Ringo with questions after every line ("does it worry you to be alone," "are you sad because you're on your own," etc.). His "friends" are omnipresent, but they're planting doubt as much as they're providing help.
This, of course, was a brilliant device that gave each song an added dimension--rather than just use background vocals to add a catchy melody or a pretty harmony, the Beatles put their BGVs to work.
Though the Beatles' songwriting influence only grew after their breakup, this device largely disappered. Background vocals--duets, harmonies, doubled vocals on the choruses, etc.--are everywhere today; but the background singer as a second narrative voice has almost disappeared. Which brings me to REM, perhaps the only band to use this technique as frequently and skillfully as the Beatles did.
Like so many things, I first became aware of this effect from my brother. Many moons ago, whilst rocking out to "It's the End of the World As We Know It," he sang along with Mike Mills' background vocals rather than the lead melody. I'd never noticed Mills' part before, but can't miss it now. As Stipe gives his doomsday prophecy during each refrain, Mills replies with an upbeat, darkly comic twist: "time I had some time alone." Yep, that's one way to look at the apocalypse.
Once that song opened the door, I heard these nuggets throughout R.E.M.'s catalog. Call-and-response dual melodies fill their catalog. From "Orange Crush," to "Stand," their BGVs do more than strengthen one voice; they provide another perspective.
Which brings us to "Fall On Me." In so many REM songs, the "other voice" is that of the singer's guilty conscience, or nagging doubt, or comic relief. But Mills' lyrics only add to the frustration of the lead vocal. At one point, the background takes the voice of the rational inquisitor: "what's it doing in the air?" At another, it only adds cryptic imagery to the scene. At still another, it seems to talk about itself, "keep your conscience in the dark," forming a mantra of self-denial. There are no answers here--the second vocal only doubles the confusion. It's not surprising that during this unplugged performance, Stipe introduces the song as perhaps his favorite in the band's catalog--he's never shied away from ambiguity:
"Fall On Me" is a wonderful example of how a background singer can dramatically--and easily--deepen a song's meaning. Which makes me wonder why so few artists do this.
So, here's my question: can you name some more songs that use this type of background vocal? Some other artists that use it frequently? A few more from contemporaries, off the top of my head:
--The Raconteurs on occasion ("Together")
--Weezer's "Undone" is a decent example (the background singer breaks away from the lead at the last chorus, "unraveling" the song's structure)