I feel like “Pretty Persuasion” might be the Platonic ideal of an R.E.M. song.
Apparently this is not a new observation, as the Wikipedia page for the song informs me:
According to R.E.M. biographer Tony Fletcher, it is often regarded as “the ‘archetypal’ R.E.M. anthem”.
It’s got the jangly guitars, Peter Buck’s trademark arpeggio style. It’s got Mike Mills’ clean droning backup vocals. It’s got Michael Stipe at his most oblique. And Bill Berry does what he does, which is to serve the song and squeeze in the tightest of drum fills.
It’s also got mystery, in spades. You can find lyrics online and you can read the aforementioned Wikipedia page to get a hot take on what the song means. At this stage of their career, R.E.M.’s songs didn’t mean anything specific–they meant whatever the listener heard. I think that was intentional, and while late-era R.E.M. cleaned up Stipe’s vocals and even gave us printed lyric sheets, there was still the mystery of meaning itself. Stipe’s a poet; what did his words conjure in your brain? Where did they take you? What did they mean?
“Pretty Persuasion” is a deep bright hole of meaning; you bring only what you carry and you find only what you seek. That’s what I love about R.E.M., especially their earliest work. We shouldn’t even bother discussing what any of their songs are “about” because they’re not about any one thing. They’re about anything. You decide.