With their fourth studio LP, Lifes Rich Pageant, R.E.M. established themselves as a major artistic force capable of delivering somber, intelligent pieces like “Fall on Me” and “Swan Swan H” and full-on high energy alt-rock with “Just a Touch” and “I Believe.” The album is playful yet heady, a celebration of a wide array of Southern sounds that ranks among their finest career work.
And in the era when the band mostly kept its lighter stuff in the realm of b-sides, the decision to end the album with a cover of an obscure 60s pop tune from Texas rockers The Clique – a cover with lead vocals not by Michael Stipe but bassist Mike Mills – was something of a bold move, a reminder that the band could once again not be defined by any single style.
R.E.M. would later revel in their 60s pop influences as stardom hit (“At My Most Beautiful” is among the best songs the Beach Boys never recorded), and I’d like to think the success of “Superman” helped assure them it’s OK for a moody rock band from Georgia to embrace such sounds.
And what sounds! The guitar jangle here, floating along with the assist of that bouncy bass line, is pure joy, a feeling that’s amplified once the harmonies kick in. The vocals build and build, reaching ecstatic heights as the song drives toward its finale. Who can resist singing along?
This joyous delivery captures the optimism of the lyrics. Here’s a guy who’s trying to win over a someone who’s already taken, but he’s so self-assured (legitimately or totally faking it; it doesn’t really matter), he never begs, or even asks. He states, simply and surely: “You don’t really love that guy you make it with, now do you?” And later: “Trust me when I say I know the pathway to your heart.” Bold, sincere, adamant.
And is he just a nice guy? Eff no – he’s Superman. He knows what’s happening. He can do anything. Cocky? Maybe. But in a way that charms.
Of course, you could inject some sadness to the song by assuming his confidence is too false and will lead to rejection, but c’mon. The song’s so fun, so friendly, so light, I’d like to think he wins.
Side note: In my youth, I thought the sped-up noises at the beginning of the song was a guy telling a joke, followed by laughter. It took a couple decades for me to discover it’s actually a slice of audio from a Godzilla movie, with a newscaster warning the locals of impending rampage. Nifty, but I still kinda prefer my misinterpretation.