. . .
File Under Sugarcane
It’s probably a bad sign that “Imitation of Life” almost didn’t make it on to Reveal: it wasn’t until the mixing stage that they realized they needed an uptempo song to offset all of the slower material on the record.
And while it was much-lauded because you could actually hear some Peter Buck trademark jangly guitar, especially on the chorus, “Imitation of Life” was still very much a post-Up song, and in fact the take that they ended up using didn’t even have real drums on it, but a drum machine.
Instead, Joey Waronker played the tambourine while Peter Buck, Mike Mills, Scott McCaughey and Ken Stringfellow all strummed acoustic guitars, giving “Imitation of Life” its lush lush background, over which producer Pat McCarthy overdubbed loads of ethereal strings, helping to make “Imitation of Life” probably their purest pop since “Shiny Happy People.”
That’s sugarcane that tasted good
That’s cinnamon, that’s Hollywood
Come on, come on, no one can see you try
It was an utterly killer chorus, an instant brain-worm. That said, there weren’t really the traditional R.E.M. harmonies on “Imitation of Life,” as it sounded more like Michael Stipe doubled than Stipe with Mike Mills.
Also, instead of a guitar solo, there was a weird impromptu synth solo, courtesy of Ken Stringfellow, who was just guessing as to whether or not it would work, which it kinda did, mostly because it felt beamed in from a totally different song. But that actually helped give “Imitation of Life” an extra bit of distinction, as well as place it in the post-Up universe.
In the end, there’s a bit of a breakdown with just Michael Stipe singing variations of the chorus over the jangly guitar — hey look, we can do this whenever we want, ok? — as “Imitation of Life” rides away with a few more repetitions of that chorus.
But of course, by 2001, nobody in the U.S. really cared about R.E.M. as a pop act — which always seemed kind of a weird, cool fluke in the first place — and not even a weird cool fluke of a video could help them. And so even thought it topped what was called the “Adult Alternative” airplay charts that summer, it stalled out at 83 on the Billboard Pop charts. Not so in the U.K., however, where it became their ninth top ten single — with a couple more to come.
“Imitation of Life” official music video
“Imitation of Life” live in Cologne, 2001
“Imitation of Life” recorded live in England, 2004
“Imitation of Life” live in Austin, 2008
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