By Ben Neal:
When R.E.M. announced that they would be calling it a day as a band last Wednesday, it produced a plethora of reactions from hard-core fans of the band, from casual, now-disaffected fans, and really anyone with a pulse who lived in the 80s or 90s. For many it was a visceral reaction to a band they have cared about forever was disbanding, but for many the reaction has been less about the band itself, but for what they represented to so many people: an undying institution that defined so much of the last three decades and brought music to a brave new world.
R.E.M. was an odd success story. Most legendary rock bands have a sex symbol lead singer, a generous amount of tabloid fodder, accessible power ballads, and embrace the height of their success; R.E.M. had very little of any of that. During their early 1990s vast popular successes of Out of Time and Automatic for the People, they weren’t interested in touring, their music was always obscure and abstract, and discounting the time Peter Buck mixed sleeping pills and wine aboard a trans-Atlantic flight, R.E.M. never really made headlines for the typical rock-band reasons.
Starting in the early 1980s, the band became a mainstay of college radio and hipsters around the world with singles like “Radio Free Europe” and “Gardening at Night” which ultimately culminated in the band’s first two albums Murmur and Reckoning. The albums initially garnered better reviews than commercial success, but the band quickly developed a cult following in college towns and on the East Coast. The music, already quite abstract, was made the moreso by lead singer Michael Stipe’s trademark mumbling (in the pre-internet era, fans of the band were fond of debating with one another what the lyrics to early songs actually were). A mere two years after Murmur, the band released the surreal, gothic Fables of the Reconstruction, which thematically was an exploration of the mythology of the American South and mostly featured songs on local eccentric figures of Athens, GA.
By this time, Stipe had thankfully been convinced to sing more clearly, but the band was by this point unable to break out of their college radio niche. With Life’s Rich Pageant the band really found its footing, with clearer lyrics, a decidedly and increasingly political agenda, and a sound like we hadn’t really heard before. A continuation of the post-punk movement that combines strong elements of the New York-based New Wave with a healthy dose of Americiana, they were The Byrds crossed with The Velvet Underground crossed with Springsteen.
A couple more indie records (and finally, some mainstream radio play with the often misinterpreted songs “Fall on Me” and “The One I Love”), and noticeably less mumbling from Stipe provided the band a launching point and after 1987’s Document, R.E.M. left their indie roots for a lucrative contract with Warner Bros.
By the time their WB debut, Green, was released in 1989; it marked their sixth album in a mere seven years and being an album that was heavily hyped, and initially was underwhelming to some listeners, but still packs quite the punch. “Orange Crush,” in particular, with Bill Berry’s recognizable drums at the on-set was an innovative song and still holds up well today. This record, also known for the impressive “World Leader Pretend” and R.E.M.’s first foray in touching GLBT issues with “The Wrong Child” in some ways represents, along with their final album Collapse Into Now, the best “sampling” of the variety of music R.E.M. produced. However, their next album really sent them into a stratosphere by themselves: Out of Time a fairly non-commercial folk-country album that produced two of their biggest hits, the disowned by the band “Shiny Happy People” and the surreal “Losing My Religion,” but the real heart of the record were songs like “Near Wild Heaven” and “Texarkana.” To date, this record represents their largest commercial success, and is, the two hits aside, one of their most non-commercial records.
Their next album Automatic for the People is generally considered their best album and continued their popular and critical successes. While some would have expected the band to follow up Out of Time with a faster, more upbeat album; R.E.M. went the other direction with a slow, somber album that largely dealt with issues of death, mortality, and tackled the AIDS crisis head-on. The album produced “Everyone Hurts,” an anthem for the chronically depressed, and glorified long forgotten and tragic entertainers like Andy Kaufman (“Man on the Moon”) and Montgomery Clift (“Monty Got a Raw Deal”). To date, no album makes me feel more at home on a rainy day.
In 1994, they released their follow-up, Monster and the critical and commercial success that had come so easy to them their entire career was suddenly hard to come by. Maybe it’s because they had reached such high peaks that they were doomed to be “repeating themselves” or being “not as good as they once were” in many people’s eyes. Monster was a significant success, but left many people disappointed and cold, and in some ways that was the band’s fault. The album was a glammed up mock-rock record (many people didn’t get the joke) with singles like “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” and “Crush with Eyeliner” that lampooned celebrity, sex, and love. During the Monster tour, drummer Bill Berry suffered an aneurysm on-stage in Europe and later left the band in 1996 for a simple life on a farm near Athens. For many casual fans, it gave them permission to move on from the band; for critics it gave them an easy narrative to dismiss the band and say they should have followed Berry’s lead. Indeed, had they called it a day in 1996, their legacy would be something of mythological proportions (like The Clash), but they did the right thing and kept on making high quality music.
Berry’s final album is the woefully under-rated New Adventures in Hi-Fi, an album composed of songs recorded on the ill-fated Monster tour. The album also proved to be quite controversial and alienated some of their middle America following with songs like “New Test Leper” where Michael Stipe declared that he couldn’t say that “I love Jesus” and begged those who judged his lifestyle to “call me a leper.” Still, it’s a fascinating album that produced a great number of back catalog tracks like the aforementioned “Leper,” “The Wake-Up Bomb,” and “Bittersweet Me.”
After Berry left, the band, innovators always, increasingly gravitated towards technology. With 1998’s Up, the band relied on a synthesizer that made the album sound more like Radiohead than R.E.M., but still produced extraordinary songs such as “At My Most Beautiful” and “Hope.” The somber Up, gave way to the sunny Beach Boys-esque Reveal, which features “Imitation of Life” (stealing the title from the long-forgotten Douglas Sirk 1950s film), perhaps the band’s best single and the optimistic tracks “I’ll Take the Rain” and “I’ve Been High.” Their contemporary [U2’s] Bono declared the album to be some of their best work and to this date I’ve yet to find a better album to listen to on a sunny July day by the pool.
Next came their much maligned 2004 effort Around the Sun—an album that certainly has its flaws, but from the haunting lead single “Leaving New York” to the Carvaggio-inspired “Boy in the Well,” I’ve always found the album to be a perceptive, yet somber assessment of the immediate post 9/11 period. Where Around the Sun tried to find hope in dark times, their 2008 effort Accelerate was an angry indictment of the Bush administration with biting songs like Mr. Richards and Houston, but also beautiful tracks like “Hollow Man” and “Supernatural Superserious”, which 15 years earlier would have surely ruled the top of the charts. Accelerate was a true return to form for the band, with an aggressive sound not heard from the band for nearly 20 years and generated solid reviews.
This spring their final album, Collapse Into Now was a mix of the slow, somber songs that populated Around the Sun and the hard-rockers of Accelerate and generated the band’s best reviews since Berry left the band in ’96. Highlights included the beautiful New Orleans-ode “Oh My Heart” and “Discoverer.” As I re-listened to Collapse a few days ago, it’s truly a very poignant and very R.E.M. record. The closing track “Blue”, a stream-of-consciousness track with a cameo by Patti Smith, makes a perfect end to a great career. Stipe sings (or speaks) “This is my time and I am thrilled to be alive….20th Century collapse into now.”
R.E.M. had contemporaries to be sure—U2 chief among them – but few other bands were as successful for as long, nor did many bands have the impact that four—and later, just three guys who call Athens, GA home – did on our musical world. But R.E.M. was just different from any other rock band. The guys were, well, weird; Stipe increasingly embraced his role as a prominent “queer artist,” and they did things on their own terms. Unlike other rock bands of similar stature, R.E.M. never really strived to be the biggest band in the world; they became so successful oftentimes in spite of themselves. They wanted to be successful, sure, but where U2 or the Stones might take pride in playing the biggest venues—R.E.M. didn’t. Similarly, many bands (oftentimes sincerely) think of themselves as bands with a global conscience, but so many of these bands’ (many of which I love) songs with a global consciousness are songs like “Peace on Earth” or other vague songs with obvious themes. R.E.M. always went a step farther. There were no songs with a generalized “war is bad” message, but rather a litany of songs about Latin American politics, acid rain, pollution, AIDS, corporate downsizing, and so on; and they did so in non-obvious and abstract ways that treated their audience like adults who could read between the lines. Whereas many bands’ bread-and-butter songs were about love and relationships, not many R.E.M. songs were—rather they made songs about a town on the Arkansas-Texas border, on forgotten tragic entertainers, and eccentric senior citizens.
More than anything, what made R.E.M. tick and what made their fans love them is doing things on their own terms. They, inexplicably, refused to tour the two biggest albums—not because of contract disputes, but because they simply didn’t feel like touring. Immediately after signing the biggest contract in music history, they went out and made an inaccessible album like Up. R.E.M. were trailblazers, and showed the music world, and aspiring musicians throughout the world, that an indie sensation and making music for a major label were not incompatible. Before R.E.M., bands had to choose between the two, but R.E.M.’s breakthrough cleared the way for acts like Nirvana, The Decemberists, and Arcade Fire to reach mainstream success while still making the music they wanted to make—all while inventing the genre of alternative rock as we know it.
Their break-up announcement (the decision was made earlier in the summer, yet their label was not informed until just hours before the announcement) was likewise classic R.E.M. A quiet statement on their webpage that stated it rather matter-of-factly: there would be no farewell tour, or a tearful talk show interview; they were just done as a band. For fans, it came as both a shock and resigned expectation. Their lyrics recently had made it clear they were afraid that they would “overstay my welcome” (“All the Best”) and of always being “on repeat…and incomplete” (“Hollow Man”). Ultimately, the band members lived thousands of miles apart and the band had become a side project for the members who all had their own pet projects. This coupled with label politics (the end of their WB contract and new management at the label they had called home for over 20 years), made it seem like a natural end for the band.
R.E.M. was a truly one of a kind band. Every album was singular: from the 80s jangly rock of Life’s Rich Pageant to the folk-alt-country of Out of Time to the glam mock-rock of Monster to the Radiohead-esque Up; each R.E.M. album was an event and a singular work of art. As a recent tribute said no band was as good for as long as R.E.M., and few made the impact they did, both musically and commercially. Few bands come along that have had their impact and done so many things on their own terms. Yes, their production slowed down (10 albums in their first 13 years, compared to 5 in their last 15) and admittedly the product suffered some in later years, but they remained innovators and perpetually fascinating musicians till the end. As Stipe sings in the beautiful “Oh My Heart” off their final album: “It’s sweet and it’s sad, and it’s true.” That’s R.E.M. in a nutshell.