Bill Berry: My favourite song is probably How the West was Won and Where it Got Us.
Mike Mills: Do I have a favourite song? […] It’s probably How the West was Won and Where it Got Us.
Scott Litt: There’s one called How the West was Won… they’ve probably talked about this.
Peter Buck: At this point in my life, How the West was Won and Where it Got Us is probably my favourite song, because we just wrote it a week ago.
These quotes are from a documentary made at the time of New Adventures in Hi-Fi. Michael Stipe was unavailable for comment, presumably. I assume the question was “What’s your favourite song on the New Adventures in Hi-Fi?”, rather than a more general one about the band’s whole back catalogue, but it’s pretty clear that band and producer knew what they had with How the West was Won and Where it Got Us as soon as they’d finished it.
Mike Mills had always been crucial to the arrangements on R.E.M.’s records, particularly in their first few years (between, say, 1982-85), as he was probably the group’s most accomplished musician early on. His bass lines – whether driving (eg Carnival of Sorts) or melodic (eg Radio Free Europe) – frequently carried whole songs. He also decorated the songs with piano (Shaking Through) and was almost as recognisable a vocal presence on the songs as Stipe himself.
But it’s easier to gauge his importance in those terms than by saying which songs he wrote, as R.E.M. have never revealed too much about that. Their credits were always split equally between band members (one of the reasons they lasted 30 years as a group). Specifics of composition seldom got talked about in public. Of course, we know that Losing my Religion began with a Peter Buck mandolin riff. It was often said, and has been confirmed by Mills, that Berry was responsible for the bulk of Perfect Circle and Everybody Hurts. But who would have assumed the guitar-heavy What’s the Frequency Kenneth was written by Mills rather than Buck? Yet it was so.
But to return to How the West was Won and Where it Got Us, it’s a pretty great example of the importance of Mike Mills to the band’s sound, since he wrote and performed the main piano riff and the discordant piano solo, as well as playing bass guitar and synth on the track.
It’s a muted opener for a big record, and New Adventures was a big record. The group had just signed an $80m record contract. There’s a certain sod-you quality to leading off with something off-kilter and brooding with a piano solo inspired by Thelonius Monk, something that doesn’t sound like the average fan’s idea of what an R.E.M. record should be. This can only be applauded.
The song’s bass line is determinedly minimal, with a verse part built on just five notes, phrased to basically follow the piano and leave wide open spaces for Berry’s drum groove. Very astute. The chorus is recognisably more Millsian – it’s more legato, with more notes, almost straight eights, in fact (possibly the verse is Buck on bass; he’s miming the bass in the video).
There are other things that make it one of the finest R.E.M. tracks. The “ennio whistle” played by Berry. The intricate drum pattern (again, Berry – one of his finest moments, too). Michael Stipe’s ear-grabbing interjections at the end of each chorus – a more singerly singer might have ruined these, afraid to be so naked. Stipe just puts them out there: part shout, part cry, part whimper, and not a little bit out of tune. Yet they are crucial to the song’s success, releasing all the tension built up by the coiled music. Not so much a case of Give some to the bass player, then, as Give some to everyone.