After Fallon’s brief introduction Stipe sang David Bowie’s ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ a tribute to both the late Bowie and to Kurt Cobain who memorably covered the song with Nirvana.
There’s something about this song that benefits from being stripped down.
Stipe sang accompanied only by a piano – the arrangement and playing evoked both classical minimalism and the impressionistic touch of Claude Debussy.
Stipe’s singing was low-key and reverent without the vocal acrobatics he often used with R.E.M. (He does at one point go higher than we’re used to while singing the song’s title.)
Gone is the mumbling and the slurring: It’s funny to remember that something that both admirers and detractors of Stipe’s old band used to debate was the way you could not hear the words.
It had little in common with the enigmatic jangle of the classic R.E.M. song.
But the reed-like voice is still as rich and fine as ever.
At moments he could have been singing classical lieder.