Listening to the last three (some would say five) R.E.M. albums was a lot like watching Michael Jordan play for the Washington Wizards. You knew it was the real thing but it didn’t feel real anymore, and it definitely wasn’t right. The music was like an R.E.M. tribute band trying to imagine songs that the real R.E.M. would’ve written after Bill Berry left the band. It was a ghost, a phantom band with none of the energy or purpose.
But – shudder to think – it was the real R.E.M. plugging through mediocre albums like The Rolling Stones or U2, seeming to be totally unaware of the fact that they’d lost all relevance in the process. It was embarrassing to hear Peter Buck proclaim that Collapse Into Now, their newest album, was also their best. This is the group that released Murmur, Reckoning, Document, Out of Time, and Automatic for the People. Collapse Into Now might be better than the latest Katy Perry album, but there’s no way in hell that it is even remotely close to being R.E.M.’s best. Had Buck started taking hallucinogens? Did he really believe himself? That proclamation was the surest sign that we couldn’t take R.E.M. seriously anymore. Above all, it was sad. You hate to see a great band wither away before your very eyes.
When R.E.M. unexpectedly announced that there were going to call it quits last week, it came as both a great surprise and a great relief. But there are lingering questions: Why now? Why so abrupt? Though their best fans knew that they were only a shell of their former selves, R.E.M. had some success with Accelerate and Collapse Into Now; some even thought that they were in the midst of a resurgence. No one would have begrudged them another five or ten albums. After all, hadn’t they earned the right to do what they wanted? We groan at the prospect of another Woody Allen movie, but who can honestly hold it against the man who directed Annie Hall, Manhattan, and The Purple Rose of Cairo? Mike Mills hinted that in compiling a greatest hits retrospective, the band was forced to reflect on their past work and confront it, realizing perhaps that they had taken themselves in every direction that they could possibly go. There would be no new ground to break…essentially no new songs to sing and play. Did they realize that they would just be repeating themselves over and over if they kept going? Maybe distractions had something to do with the decision. During their first fifteen years, R.E.M. blitzed through 10 albums and 1 EP, with seven of those ten albums (and the EP) being unmitigated masterpieces (my opinion). When drummer Bill Berry suffered a brain aneurysm during their 1994 tour for Monster and left the band shortly thereafter, most of us expected that we had seen the end of R.E.M.; instead, Stipe, Mills, and Buck continued without Berry at a snail’s pace, releasing only five studio albums over the second half of their career. For filler they did a couple of greatest hits albums (one for the IRS years and another for the Warner Bros. years) and a couple of live albums. They would never be the touring workhorse that they were in their early years, and each member would become sidetracked with different projects. Michael Stipe got into producing movies for a little while (his best credit is Being John Malkovich); Buck had work with The Minus 5, guest appearances, and producing work occupying his time; and Mike Mills…well, it’s hard to say exactly what Mike Mills has been up to. Judging from their pacing alone, it’s easy to suspect that the three remaining members of R.E.M. pressed on out of some sort of twisted loyalty to the giant that they had created; unwilling or afraid to let the dream die. Maybe they didn’t want to let their fans down. Or perhaps they were scared of the prospect of a life without R.E.M. – What exactly would they do? What would their identity be? Would they start new groups? And how awkward would it be if they did? When Berry left, he did so with an ultimatum: I will not leave the band if it causes R.E.M. to break up completely. The remaining three members were then stuck. With Bill Berry, they always seemed to move in the right direction. They toured like college rock machines for the 80s; took a break from touring in the early 90s to work in the studio; they slowed down when they hit their thirties and released the two best adult contemporary albums known to mankind; then they went back to being a rock band when it suited them. Everything they did was done with purpose and determination, always moving in some new and unexpected direction. After Berry left, they seemed to be horribly lost; even if the results weren’t entirely bad, they had stopped pushing themselves musically, and Stipe’s lyrics moved down to amateur levels.
Whatever their reasons were for pressing on after Berry’s exit, and whatever their reasons are for breaking up now, it’s over. R.E.M. is no longer an active band; they are now a part of rock n’ roll history. Officially. This, my friends, is a good thing. It affords us the opportunity to look back at one of the greatest American bands of all time, and to appreciate the fact that their success came with grace, humility, and the highest in musical artistry. They were a band that the kids could actually look up to – never riddled by drug addiction or insane sex; they were responsible and smart, proving that you could make great rock n’ roll without acting like a total idiot.
And so I look back. At R.E.M. At myself.
The most powerful music memory that I have is of riding the school bus home in my sixth grade year. It was 1992 and school had just started. Over the local radio station R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” began to play. Given how ubiquitous that song was at that time, I doubt it was my first exposure to the song; it was, however, the first time that it grabbed me by the throat and wouldn’t let go. The bus reached my stop in the middle of the song. I bolted off the bus and ran home to catch the end of the song. It was over by the time I crashed into my room and found the right station, but the song lingered anyway; not because I understood it, but because I felt it.
When asked about the song, Michael Stipe has often explained that it has nothing to do with religion, calling it a “classic obsession pop song” instead. The song title and main lyric are derived from a Southern colloquialism that means to lose one’s temper; as in, “If you keep that up, you’re gonna make me lose my religion.” The thing is that Stipe didn’t sing the song like he was about to explode; he sang it like he really was parting with a faith that he’d held for a long time. He sang it like a break up song. At the time, I likened the song to my own experiences with religion. My mother was a Christian and my father was a Jehovah’s Witness. Not wanting to displease either, I chose neither (for a time), and felt somehow that I was betraying them both and the cultures that they brought me up in. Stipe’s lyrics, through no intention of his, spoke to me in ways that I couldn’t consciously process then. Hearing the song today, even though I’ve heard it hundreds of times, stops me dead in my tracks. It awakens deeply personal memories and fears in the best of ways. My reaction to it is primal almost, which exactly the way that Stipe seems to be appealing to us at his best.
That was how it began with me. I soon joined the BMG CD service and got both Out of Time and Automatic for the People. I listened to those two albums on repeat for the next couple of years, not venturing into their back catalogue at all. When they came back with Monster in 1994, I gobbled it up like a blind grunge addict. The album hasn’t held up for me as an adult, but it hit me where I was in 8th grade; a Jr. High kid listening to Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Bush, and Smashing Pumpkins.
I didn’t realize exactly how good R.E.M. could be until I saw them during that massive Monster tour at the Palace of Auburn Hills. My dad bought us tickets and took us to the show despite the fact that R.E.M. were clearly not his first choice in rock music. The show leaned heavily on songs from the albums that I already owned, but it was the older songs that shocked me. They closed with “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”, which I had never heard before. That song rang through my head for the entire hour and a half drive home, and prompted me to go back and buy Document. From there I bought all of their early albums and listened to them relentlessly. Early R.E.M. were a total revelation to me. Those albums seemed (and still seem) to exist outside of any specific time frame. Yes, they are from the 1980s, but they are totally unlike anything else that came out of that decade and totally unlike anything since. They drew from the Byrds, Gang of Four, and a host of other influences, but they stood alone.
From that point on, I became a loyal fan, buying every subsequent album (sans live releases) regardless of whether I wanted to or not. It’s been a matter of duty and gratitude. If this group could write a song like “Fall on Me” or “Nightswimming” at any point in their career, I owed them the benefit of the doubt today. No other group has garnered this sort of loyalty from me, and I doubt that any other group ever will. If R.E.M. come out of retirement next year and releases a new album, I will buy it the day it comes out. I am a cautious music consumer, but I’m reckless when it comes to R.E.M.
I’ll turn 32 in 2012, which will mark 20 years of listening to R.E.M.
What was the appeal? It certainly wasn’t to be cool. All the kids at my high school were wearing Korn or Rage Against the Machine shirts. Listening to “Everybody Hurts” or “Stand” didn’t get you any points with the cool kids. When I was in high school, R.E.M. were associated with Adult Contemporary music (blech!) long before indie rock. It never had anything to do with R.E.M.’s innovative qualities or their place in rock history either. In discovering R.E.M., I was totally oblivious to all of those factors; and now that I’m aware of those factors, they don’t matter. I didn’t listen to R.E.M. as a way to rebel. My parents seemed more worried about my interest in the Beastie Boys or Green Day; R.E.M. probably seemed like something they might listen to if they were interested in music.
R.E.M. were lightweight, though, because they embraced pop structures without any apologies, and they were willing to be sincere and earnest at a time when the dominate musical tone was of vitriolic anger and sarcasm. The difference between R.E.M. and other pop bands is that with the exception of a few select songs, they didn’t do too much sugarcoating; instead, led by Stipe, they were elusive, obscure, and totally inscrutable at times. Couched in a lot of jangle, Stipe’s lyrics often made little or no sense at all – a stream of consciousness gibberish that even Stipe couldn’t decode; in the very early years, the lyrics were barely intelligible through the mumbling that Stipe became known for. The obtuse quality, however, made R.E.M. oddly relatable. Though Stipe would sometimes use his lead singer position to gripe about politics (see Document), most of his songs were so deeply rooted in his personal psyche that they couldn’t be understood, and therefore could be applied to anyone. And because Stipe always sang with an incredible sense of urgency, the emotions, even if they didn’t have any concrete subject matter attached to them, could be transferred easily to the listener. You could relate to the emotion. And when Stipe was specific, he was able to appeal to broad universal sentiments through specifics in storytelling (the prime example being “Nightswimming”, which is arguably the best song about skinny dipping every written) and particular historical events or figures (Andy Kaufman, Montgomery Clift).
And then, at other times, Stipe would get directly political; most of which was a bunch of drivel, but also forgivable.
Beyond this, R.E.M. built their genius through variety. During the Berry years especially, each album had its own particular vibe. They started out with mumbling on Murmur; moved into a jangly Byrds sound on Reckoning (even dabbling in country music on a couple tracks); then on to a progression of more aggressively electric stuff with Reconstruction, Life’s Rich Pageant, and Document; and finally, before going full adult contemporary, they straddled the line between anathematic rock songs (“Orange Crush”) and acoustic near-folk on Green. And this is all before they got really popular! Even song for song R.E.M. could bounce off the walls at times. Consider the track listing for Out of Time: It begins with “Radio Song”, a tune that alternates between a sweeping plaintive ballad and a fierce rap featuring KRS-1; the album then turns to a mandolin-driven top 40 smash hit in “Losing My Religion”; the third song, “Low”, is a plodding anti-love number; after that we get Mike Mills on vocals for a lush pop song called “Near Wild Heaven”; then an instrumental titled “Endgame”. By the mid point of the album R.E.M. returns to some of the brashness in “Radio Song” with “Shiny Happy People”, a song so direct, so positive, and so damn catchy that it became (perhaps rightly) an instant target for ridicule. Once that little ditty is over, they go in for a spoken word song, a ballad about getting too drunk, another pop masterpiece with Mills on lead vocals, a brilliant dirge called “Country Feedback”, and then it closes with a response to the 10,000 Maniacs “Eat For Two”. The album is all over the place, but it works perfectly. Usually when this type of variety it attempted, it results in a mess like Nellie McKay’s Get Away from Me.
At the height of their powers R.E.M. were a strange group by any standard. They weren’t Sonic Youth-weird or abrasive, but they were off-kilter, slightly. In doing things just a little bit differently, R.E.M. remained fresh and inventive throughout most of their career. You never knew what you were going to get with them. Even their album covers were just plain ugly. When Bill Berry was on his way out, they released New Adventures in Hi-Fi, which was essentially a series of new songs recorded live and mixed down to sound more like a studio recording. Without Berry, they never took those kinds of risks. The post-Berry albums sounded like replicas of the musical trends that surrounded the band rather than extensions of their own creative process. Though the last five albums weren’t bad by any stretch (except Around the Sun, which was truly horrible by any standard), they only seemed to dilute the power of the rest of their work. R.E.M. were never R.E.M. without Bill Berry. They became a run-of-the-mill alternative act, coasting on a glorious past. R.E.M. were safe.
When considering R.E.M.’s history and all the places it took them, we should recall that this is a band that thought about naming themselves “Twisted Kites”, “Cans of Piss” or “Negro Wives”. How different things might have been with any of those names.
I don’t know about everyone else, but I’m glad it’s really over. R.E.M., in any incarnation, are gone now.
Thanks for the music, R.E.M.
You didn’t know when to quit, but better late than never.
Thanks Buck, Berry, Mills & Stipe.
On November 15th, R.E.M. will release a 2-disc career retrospective, highlighting their hits and a few other fan favorites. Here I’ll offer an alternative playlist of 11 songs. Enjoy!
And just for good measure, here’s a link to Pavement’s “Unseen Power of the Picket Fence”, the ultimate R.E.M. tribute.