So. Central Rain
In the bonus materials of The Criterion Edition of Douglas Sirk’s “All That Heaven Allows,” the director speaks to the etymology of melodrama: melody plus drama. These elements, what Leanord Cohen calls “the minor fall and major lift,” are fundamental to all great songs.
Take my all-time favorite, REM’s “So. Central Rain.”
First, the hook: five simple notes — clarion bells through a clear blue night — on two guitars. Nothing else.
Already, I’m in.
Then the drums: two beats, simple and urgent.
And Michael chimes in, low and steady.
“Did you never call?”
The question, the uncertainty, the doubt.
“I waited for your call.”
The thesis, the fall, the loss.
“These rivers of suggestion, they’re driving me away.”
A piano, distant and musty, breaks through the background like a ghost in an old church.
“The trees will bend the cities wash away the city on the river is a girl without a dream.”
Finally, the refrain. First the hook, again. But this time the guitars and the ghost, the midnight bells and piano. And he says it, no, he cries out, “I’m sorry!”
So simple, so stupid, so beautiful — Why didn’t I say that? Why didn’t I sing that? Why didn’t I think of that?
The storm rises, then breaks in the middle eight. The protagonist breaths. The players pause. There is space, but no light to sneak through. The rain falls, the lovers lost, and us with them.
Likewise Mike Mills. His buoyant bass line fools no one, least of all himself. He chimes in with wordless, elegant regret in the form of cascading “Aaaaahs.” Four lines of verse — a last gasp — and a piano banging in metered dischord.
It is almost done. We are almost home.
I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
Michael too is speechless. “Ooooooh!” he cried over and over, with the full pop fury of the band behind him.
I believe it hurts. I believe he hurts. Because I do.
Five simple notes, and a call never made.
A letter never sent, and some rain.
Melody. And drama.
And all that heaven allows.