Is “Me In Honey” The Best R.E.M. Song?
I mean, of course it’s not. The best R.E.M. song is “Fall On Me,” probably, or “Gardening At Night” (this vocal mix) or “Welcome To The Occupation” or “Driver 8” or “Country Feedback” or—well, we could play this game all day. R.E.M. has a million best songs because R.E.M. is the best band. But when I listen to “Me In Honey” and hear Kate Pierson’s howling incantations mingle with Michael Stipe’s oxymoronically devastating monotone, something happens.
It’s not always a positive thing. I remember playing “Me In Honey” as I trekked three hours across New York State’s snowy I-90 to have a conversation I dreaded because I knew it would hurt someone. The song sounded so sad then, the way Peter Buck’s hammer-on guitar riff resigns itself to little forward momentum, only stopping long enough for Stipe and Pierson to sing a wrenching chorus (“Left me to love, what it’s doing to me”). And it still sounds sad now, but less so, probably because every subsequent listen is an echo of that seminal one in my dad’s Dodge Avenger charging across the state.
In 2007, R.E.M. song historian Matthew Perpetua wrote that “the song overflows with love and goodwill, and despite its confusion, ‘Me In Honey’ is among the most jubilant pieces of music R.E.M. have ever written.” I’ve never agreed with the second part of that, though I recognize what people could construe as joy here: a major-key melody, Pierson’s soaring background wails, satisfying chord resolutions, and a heartbeat-steady 65 BPM. And of course, there’s the lyrical subject matter. Stipe revealed in the 1997 book It Crawled From The South that “Me In Honey” is a companion piece to 10,000 Maniacs’ “Eat For Two”—a song with a few passing similarities to R.E.M.’s own “Losing My Religion,” the breakout hit from Out Of Time, where “Me In Honey” appears. “Eat For Two,” though, is more lyrically precise: It’s about pregnancy, specifically a mother who regrets the actions that led to “the kicking one inside of [her]” now. She’s stuck.
A father, however, isn’t. He can flee and throw off his responsibilities in a way a mother simply can’t—or he can stay and offer support. That’s where Stipe finds the characters in “Me In Honey,” and it culminates with the guy (the father) singularly singing “What about me?” before being joined by Pierson for a repeat: “What about me?” they both ask each other, and the song ends at an impasse. This is all still very sad to me, so I’ll never hear it as “jubilant,” but I came close recently when I dug into the freshly unearthed demos from Out Of Time’s 25th anniversary edition. Here we find an early version called “Me On Keyboard” where a three-note keyboard melody adds a childish whimsy, as do Stipe’s unfinished vocals. And that’s tricky! It’s a song about pregnancy, so any additional playful elements could pull it closer to being a featherweight instead of the emotional powerhouse is secretly is. That’s why the final version, devoid of keyboard, is perfect. It might even be the best R.E.M. song.
Of course, it’s not. But it certainly is a great one.
I’ve always known “Me In Honey” is downright great, even if it makes me sad. But revisiting it lately via the demo above and the absolutely brilliant live version from November 1992 at Athens, Georgia’s 40 Watt Club, where Mike Mills handles Pierson’s harmony parts perfectly, was enough to make me sloppily ask the question in this post’s title. (A better-mixed version is available on Spotify.) There is an easy answer to the question, just like there’s an easy answer to the question of what to do when you find out you’ve co-created a new life with someone you love (or maybe someone you don’t). You could lose yourself in the commitment, or you could pivot and shine the spotlight back on yourself. “What about me?” the song beckons before it wraps up with one final hammer-on, the correct note held instead of lingering suspended and drawn-out. That’s hopeful, even when the lyrics are less than. (Is “he” the fly caught in the honey? And did he set the honey-trap himself, getting himself stuck in a situation he himself caused?) The sufficient resolution is a sign that things in the song might’ve worked out better than the painful conversation that awaited me on the other end of that 190-mile drive.