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R.E.M.'s Dark And Brooding 'Sweetness'
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R.E.M.'s Dark And Brooding 'Sweetness'


From deep snow in Alaska, now to a cold winter memory and a song. All this winter, we've been asking for Winter Songs and the stories they evoke. Well, today, we hear from a listener about one tough winter in Rhode Island, and the song that got him through it.

THOMAS MULLEN: My name's Thomas Mullen. I'm a novelist. And my Winter Song would be R.E.M.'s "Sweetness Follows."


MULLEN: It's a kind of dark and brooding song. It has this low, fronting cello and spectral organ. And I'm from the Northeast and there, winter is very cold, and it's also very dark. Very often, you know, the sun has set by 4 o'clock. So that song, particularly, reminds me of a Christmas vacation of 1994.


R.E.M.: (Singing) Readying to bury your father and your mother, what did you think when you lost another?

BLOCK: And what was going on in that vacation? What was happening?

MULLEN: Well, I was home for break. It was my junior year, and my family had gone through a big financial reversal that fall. My dad's business had gone under. We'd gone bankrupt, and we'd lost our house. And, you know, we weren't sure if it was going to get worse. So when I came back, you know, my family - we spent some time in the old house, you know, boxing up our things and trying to decide, you know, what are we going to put in storage, in some extended relative's basement; or what might we take to, you know, an antique store or sell in a yard sale.


R.E.M.: (Singing) Listen here, my sister and my brother, what would you care if you lost the other?

BLOCK: Where would you have been listening to this song back in '94, Thomas?

MULLEN: So we had some friends who were actually away on a Caribbean cruise for the holidays, and they'd asked if I could house-sit for them. It was this big, empty house on the river, with the wind howling and darkness surrounding me.


R.E.M.: (Singing) Ooh, oh, oh, sweetness follows.

BLOCK: How did this song from R.E.M. - this song, "Sweetness Follows" - filter into that tough financial time for your family?

MULLEN: It was - it's always hard to tell what, exactly, Michael Stipe is singing about. He's notoriously hard to pin down. But it sounds like he's singing about, you know, burying your father and your mother and, you know, a falling out with two siblings.

And whether he's talking about literally being at a funeral, or whether he's talking about the dissolution of a family or a family fight, the emotions seem the same. And he's talking about how we're all lost in our little lives, and we can be distanced from one, and blind to the other.


R.E.M.: (Singing) It's these little things, they can pull you under. Live your life filled with joy and wonder. I always knew this altogether thunder was lost in our little lives.

MULLEN: You know, the song is called "Sweetness Follows," and so whether he's singing about, you know, heaven, or whether he's singing about forgiveness or just, you know, the inevitable rise of the sun after a dark night, you know, I think back to that time. And it was tough, and it was dark, and it was hard for everyone but, you know, we got through it. My parents are fine. You know, they've moved on; they've got a great house, and they've got great jobs. My sister is raising a family. I'm raising a family. You know, we got by.

And, you know, even though it's a dark and brooding song and he speaks pretty bluntly about tough things, there's always that feeling that, you know, somehow we get through it.

BLOCK: That redemption, sweetness following.

MULLEN: Yeah. And I know a lot of people now are dealing with similar issues. But, you know, you work through it, and you hold on to what you have. In the song, he talks about still striving to find a way to live your life filled with joy and wonder and staying all together, and that's what we did. And, you know, no matter how dark the times are, there's always a sunrise ahead, and we just have to stick together.


R.E.M.: (Singing) Yeah, yeah, we were altogether lost in our little lives.

BLOCK: That was listener Thomas Mullen with his Winter Song, R.E.M.'s "Sweetness Follows." And you can still send in your Winter Song stories at Please use the subject line Winter Song.


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