People lose their religion all the time. It happens in all sorts of ways. And R.E.M.’s 1991 song “Losing My Religion” has spoken to so many in the midst of these experiences that we might wonder if singer/songwriter Michael Stipe had a similar life change when he wrote those lyrics. Not so much, he says above in an interview with Dutch station Top 2000 a gogo. “What the song is about has nothing to with religion,” he says.
The lyric comes from an old Southern colloquialism meaning that something so upsetting has happened “that you might lose your religion.” Stipe used that old-time notion as a metaphor for unrequited love, a different kind of faith, one he describes in painfully tentative terms: “holding back, then reaching forward, then pulling back again, then reaching forward again.”
He explains another of the song’s ambiguities hidden within the elliptical lyrics: “You don’t ever really know if the person that I’m reaching out for is aware of me, if they even know that I exist.” It’s the heady turmoil of a romantic crush raised to the heights of saintly suffering. A brooding, alt-rock version of love songs like “Earth Angel.” Given the role of devotion in so much religious practice, there’s no reason the song can’t still be about losing one's religion for listeners, but now we know what Stipe himself had in mind.
Some other fun facts we learn about this huge hit: Stipe recorded the song almost naked and kind of pissed-off—he had pushed to deliver his vocals in one emotional take, but the studio engineer seemed half-asleep. And his awkward, angular dance in the oh-so-90s video directed by Tarsem Singh, above? He pulled his inspiration from Sinead O’Connor’s St. Vitus dance in 1990s’ “The Emperor’s New Clothes” video and—no surprise—from David Byrne’s “riveting” herky-jerky moves.
While the record company saw the song’s mass appeal, bassist Mike Mills expresses his initial surprise at their choice of “Losing My Religion” as Out of Time’s first single: “That’s a great idea. It makes no sense at all, it’s 5 minutes long, it has no chorus, and a mandolin is the lead instrument. It’s perfect for R.E.M. because it flouts all the rules.” This period saw the band further developing its moody downbeat folk side, yet the album that produced this song also gave us “Shiny Happy People,” the poppiest, most upbeat song R.E.M.—and maybe any band—had ever recorded, a true testament to their emotional range.
The following year, Automatic for the People came out, drawing on material written during the Out of Time sessions and again featuring two singles that vastly contrasted in tone, maudlin tearjerker “Everybody Hurts” and the celebratory Andy Kaufman tribute “Man on the Moon.” Another song from that album that didn’t get as much attention, “Try Not to Breath,” hearkens back to a much earlier R.E.M. folk song, the Civil War-themed “Swan Swan H” from Life’s Rich Pageant.
As we hear the band explain above in an episode of Song Exploder, the song began its life on a Civil War-era instrument, the dulcimer. Then its sonic influences expanded to include two of Peter Buck's favorite musical genres, surf rock and spaghetti western. The episode contains many more fascinating insider insights from R.E.M. about “Try Not to Breathe,” which may be one of the saddest songs they’ve ever written, a song about choosing to die rather than suffer.
Hear the song's original demo and references to Blade Runner, get a glimpse into Stipe's visual songwriting process, and learn the very personal inspiration from his family history for lyrics like "baby don't shiver now, why do you shiver now?" Unlike "Losing My Religion," this song does, in some ways, pull musically and emotionally from Stipe's religious background.
via Laughing Squid