R.E.M. performed a vital, yet thankless task: they, more than anyone else, are solely responsible for the modernization of classic rock. It’s impossible to imagine what a good 30+ years’ worth of indie, alternative and mainstream rock bands would have sounded like without an example like theirs, hanging around for as long as they did, seeing flashier and more gimmicky acts come and go, soldiering on through the highs and lows, ultimately proving you could build a Hall Of Fame-worthy career on the basis of sheer musical excellence alone. Has there ever been another group of rock stars who became this popular, yet still seemed so anonymous? Frontman Michael Stipe may have played the role of “artsy weirdo” to some extent, but it never felt as if the band’s appeal or aesthetic was trading on his oddball charisma. They essentially perfected “Our image is having no image,” many years before that sort of thing became fashionable, even. As impressive as their longevity and achievements were, they remained what they began as – a bunch of aggressively grounded, regular dudes from Athens, Georgia who happened to repeatedly make beautiful, evocative, ear-catching and astonishingly well-crafted songs.
That anonymity was more of a guiding principle than a matter of circumstance, and extended to their democratic approach to songwriting – they only ever composed and were credited as songwriters in album liner notes as a group, every song published by Night Garden Music. Through their first five classic full-length LPs, any one of which would have cemented the entire reputation of any contemporary band, they displayed an unparalleled ability to work together as a unit, making every song seem like more than the sum of its parts and tapping into a tangible sense of “singular voice” that transcended their humble origins and improbably lent the band’s music a down-to-earth yet larger-than-life quality. And what’s even more impressive is that they had their entire approach nailed down right away. The quick jangling chords and fast fingerpicking arpeggios which served as guitarist Peter Buck’s signature on their early songs is the world’s first introduction to the band on their 1982 e.p. Chronic Town (1982, A), and they are soon joined by the sturdy melodic bass of Mike Mills, the inscrutable vocals of Stipe, and Bill Berry’s crisp, restless drumlines. The ensuing chorus to “Wolves, Lower” demonstrates another crucial element of their style, the dueling vocal hooks1, and right off the bat you have the entire recipe for the band’s breakthrough success half a decade later.
“Gardening At Night” and “1,000,000” show traces of a band who has studied the aural beauty of The Byrds and infused it with a bouncy new wave/post-punk energy, while “Carnival Of Sorts (Box Cars)” has a moodier, almost Joy Division-meets-The-Police undercurrent to it, at least until its persistent tension is released in a rousing, anthemic chorus. “Stumble” goes on a bit long and feels more simplistic in its construction than the others, but it’s still a pleasant, easygoing listen that retains the rhythm section’s strong backbeat. And that’s R.E.M.’s debut e.p., five straight bangers (well, four-and-a-half) that announce the band musically as an immediate force to be reckoned with. But if you’ve never heard mid-80s R.E.M. before, the thing that will strike you the most about them is undoubtedly Stipe’s inimitable vocal style. Apparently he had no confidence in his lyrics during this period, so they often come out like a collection of disconnected sounds. Very vowelly delivery, not many accents on the syllables, almost no harsh sounds at all. He’s definitely not opening his mouth wide enough. The production also makes him sound like he’s recording in a different room than the rest of the band. And yet miraculously, this muffled, amateurish, affectless approach to singing meshes perfectly with their overall sound. De-emphasizing the vocals goes right along with their democratic principles. If nobody takes the spotlight, everyone is allowed to shine together.
Murmur (1983, A) took this approach to its logical extreme by stripping down the arrangements and pushing the production (with the tireless assistance of Mitch Easter and Don Dixon) in a murkier, richer direction, adding a mystique to the band’s sound that they have essentially retained ever since. This is R.E.M. at their most R.E.M. – or, the most themselves they will ever be. They perfected their template early. If there is a crucial flaw to this album, it’s that it essentially boxed them into a corner for the next few years, one they were only able to fight their way out of by doing everything they were consciously avoiding doing here. And yet it’s not even their best album from a songwriting standpoint, nor does it adequately establish everything R.E.M. were and would become. What it does do is subtly deconstruct the entire idea of playing together in a band. Somehow, through some combination of thoughtful/tasteful instrumentation and a densely-layered yet almost skeletally anemic approach to recording it, they managed to make their music do exactly what Stipe was doing in his singing – come through clearly and earnestly, without resorting to obvious, overt emotional cues. You thought the title referred to the vocals, but it’s actually referring to the album as a whole. This music murmurs.
And so a song like “Shaking Through” initially appears to be riding along a neat arpeggiated guitar pattern, but if you listen closer, you’ll find that these notes are actually supporting a driving, infectious set of piano chords. It’s difficult to tell at first, because the piano and the guitar somehow sound so similar to each other. The music chooses not to separate these sounds, allowing them to work in perfect tandem. And by the time the chorus jumps in, the song reaches an emotional high without impressing upon you anything resembling a definitive meaning. What the fuck is “Shaking Through” supposed to be, anyway? I personally interpret it as an expression of crippling social anxiety, but the beauty of R.E.M.’s style is that all interpretations are equally valid, much in the same way that each individual musician’s input is equally crucial. Remove one (as we’ll see later), and you’ve got nothing. And every other song on the album functions the same way. It’s the most deceptively simple album I’ve ever heard that still absolutely refuses to be pinned down as any one particular thing. I mean, on “Pilgrimage” they play a total of maybe five notes over four-and-a-half minutes, and it’s still one of the catchiest things I’ve ever heard. But it goes beyond “maximizing minimalism” – “Radio Free Europe” is just one great hook after another, after another, without ever feeling overstuffed. And on my favorite song, “West Of The Fields” which closes out the album on a perfect dark note, leaning hard into the band’s “folky Joy Division” side, you can almost hear an entire alternative rock boom of the 1990s getting set to explode.
Murmur knocked the critical community sideways – Rolling Stone magazine couldn’t award it “Best Album Of The Year” fast enough. Yet R.E.M., with that Athenian work ethic, went on their merry way like all the attention they were getting didn’t matter to them, following up their magnum opus with 1984’s Reckoning (B+) like nobody would even notice. Showing zero new-band jitters, R.E.M. had the gall to load this sophomore effort with no less than four different songs (“So. Central Rain”, “Don’t Go Back To Rockville”, “Camera” and “Pretty Persuasion”) that absolutely blow anything from Murmur out of the water. Fuck me, these are some incredible songs. Displaying a newfound confidence, along with the patience to give their songs room to breathe by structuring the arrangements more meticulously, these tracks immediately make the album a must-have for any curious fan. Just a bunch of delightful, heartfelt melodies you’ll want to hear over and over again. As for the rest of the album, OK, maybe there are some new-band jitters here. “Second Guessing” and “Little America” play like worse versions of songs R.E.M. have already done, and on “7 Chinese Brothers” and “Time After Time (Annelise)”, they admirably attempt to stretch their songwriting into mellower, more mature-sounding territory, but haven’t yet figured out how to do that without slowing down the whole momentum of the album.
Speaking of momentum, the opening notes of “Feeling Gravity’s Pull”, the lead-off track to the masterpiece Fables Of The Reconstruction (1985, A+) make me feel like I’m falling off a cliff, like the bottom has just dropped out below me and I’m free-falling, just plummeting through the atmosphere, but then the guitar rhythm changes and I’m jolted awake, on solid ground but still unable to shake the uneasy feeling in my stomach. The following tracks on the album continue in the same vein of nervous energy, of feeling trapped and struggling to find a way out, through abandonment, through fantasy, through any means necessary. Turns out R.E.M. was faking the whole “confidence” thing – this music is frightened, tenuous, tentative and wholly unsure of itself2. But these emotions are delivered with a perfect clarity and consistency of vision, as if the band were exorcising demons they simply could not escape. Part of this drastic shift in mood was due to new producer Joe Boyd (who the band apparently did not enjoy working with at all) recording the band in England instead of America, causing some of the fatigue from their nonstop touring schedule to seep in. This was a miserable time for them by all accounts, and it shows. But the misery was worth it – never before or again have R.E.M. managed to record a such high volume of altogether fantastic songs with such a unified sense of purpose.
What is the opposite of wanderlust? What does it mean to dream of home when it no longer exists? Is it even possible to make a genuine connection with another person, much less maintain one? These are the concerns R.E.M. finally confront head on, as though they’d been running from them this entire time. Dark, sorrowful character sketches like “Old Man Kensey” and “Wendell Gee” read like cautionary tales, while “Green Grow The Rushes” finds the band developing a heretofore-undetectable social conscience, harnessing the power of their collectivist, democratic musical approach to empathize more closely with the downtrodden and ill-treated in society (a theme they would explore further in the following album’s “Cuyahoga” and “The Flowers Of Guatemala”). “Can’t Get There From Here” and “Life And How To Live It” are easily the most upbeat songs here, and they both sound tongue-in-cheek, if not outright sarcastic, presaging a future musical climate where this kind of “ironic happy-sounding depressing song” would come resoundingly into fashion (probably thanks to them). But the real standout here is “Kohoutek”. A minor-key falsetto drone, “Kohoutek” details the slow-motion decay and absolute disintegration of a profoundly deep and meaningful relationship, a love that was more than love, now reduced to nothing more than faded, burnt-out memories of dust and ashes. It is the sound of two hands reaching for each other and missing, of the realization that loneliness is not merely the absence of another, but having your own whole self ripped away from you, of bangles and bells and ribbons all heralding nothing more than the ensuing arrival of emptiness and silence beyond imaging. Do not ever try to tell me R.E.M. weren’t one of the greatest bands of all time, not when they were capable of so precisely articulating such an irreducibly painful level of emotion.
Songs like “Don’t Go Back To Rockville” had served as proof that R.E.M. harbored greater commercial ambitions, but it took until Lifes Rich Pageant (1986, A), for those ambitions to come front and center. College radio formats had always been kind to them, and several videos even made it over to MTV, but this is where R.E.M. would essentially achieve their final form – as the one American alternative rock band so great, and so universally appealing, that even lame-o FM programmers of the mid-80s could no longer ignore them. Part of that is due to the drastic shift in sound – Stipe is no longer mushmouthed and he’s finally allowing his lyrics to sound comprehensible (not that they’re any easier to understand on paper), and Peter Buck actually added some distortion to his guitar tone. But even their very songwriting style seems more direct and immediate somehow, with an easier-to-follow structure, and big, sing-a-long choruses. You sure as hell don’t hear the old R.E.M. doing “Fall On Me”, “I Believe” or “Hyena”. It was as if, in order to break themselves out of the doldrums of Fables, their only recourse was to earnestly embrace all the “obvious, overt” emotional cues they were going so far out of their way to avoid back when they did Murmur.
The bold new direction obviously paid off, but I can’t help but feel like R.E.M. sacrificed what was so unique and special about them to get there. Perhaps they had taken their early sound as far as it could possibly go on Fables, but it was a sound entirely their own – any variance they allowed to it would only serve to render them less themselves. But there’s no going back. From here on, R.E.M. was going to make more-or-less conventional rock records, with straightforward pro-labor political messages, and at least a few great hooks per album. For those of us who still miss the old R.E.M., there’s also the rarities/B-sides collection Dead Letter Office (1987, B-), comprising material recorded during sessions for their first five albums. And as it turns out, R.E.M. had been attempting to break out of their established style for years. Whether it was through covering other bands (Velvet Underground, Pylon, Roger Miller, and…. umm, Aerosmith?), writing weird little surf rock jams (“White Tornado”, “Windout”) literally just reading the liner notes to a gospel album out loud over the backing track of “7 Chinese Brothers” (the awesome, hilarious “Voice Of Harold”) or recording a truly awful attempt at a tongue-in-cheek heavy metal song (“Burning Hell”, weirdly a precursor to their sound on 1994’s Monster), R.E.M. tried all kinds of goofy shit to escape their own identity, or maybe just to blow off some steam. The only songs that would have fit easily onto one of their earlier albums are “Burning Down” and “Ages Of You”, which turn out to be just two rearranged versions of the same song. If you’re looking for more straightfaced IRS-era R.E.M. music along those lines, do not bother with this set. If you’re fascinated by the sounds of a fairly normal band mucking around in the studio, struggling to capture a side of themselves that normally lies hidden, PLEASE pick this up. Hell, you’ll wanna pick up the CD release anyway, as it’s the easiest way to get a copy of the Chronic Town e.p., and contains a couple of bonus tracks.
Everybody’s got to grow up sometime, so the story goes. R.E.M. had always been a critically-acclaimed band, but even that kind of adulation will only take you so far. If Lifes Rich Pageant introduced the world to the new R.E.M., Document (1987, B+) delivered on the promise that they were here to rule. Hell, if you’re gonna sell out, you can’t do it any better than with two tracks as instantaneously classic as “The One I Love” and “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”. They are an interesting study in contrasts – one is just the same simple verse three times, broken up by a one-word chorus, the other has seemingly ALL the lyrics. One is slow and pensive (and sounds EXACTLY like the post-Nirvana alternative rock that would rule the airwaves 10 years later, if you added a little more fuzz box to the guitar chords), the other fast and hyperactive. Technically, they don’t sound much like the same band at all. Yet they share a certain attitude and feeling in common, a disruptive one, as if they are meant as flies in the ointment of mainstream rock (this same year brought us Appetite For Destruction, The Joshua Tree, Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me and You’re Living All Over Me – change was in the air, as slow-acting as it was), as if R.E.M. themselves have tired of their own position as indie darlings and were eager to prove there was more to them, that their music could bridge all divides, hit all four quadrants, appeal to everyone while still belonging to no one but them. It would take a while, but they were clearly on to something momentous.
First, take a step back. Green (1988, B) goes all-in on the pop thing right away, with three of their brightest, catchiest, most upbeat, and stupidest songs yet, “Pop Song 89”, “Get Up” and “Stand”. You could accuse them of being fairly interchangeable in their structure, but coming from a band like this, who have only even tried to make mass-appeal music for a couple of years now, the effort seems almost charming. There’s nothing wrong with going poppier, if you’re good at it. Then on the serious side, you have songs like “World Leader Pretend”, “The Wrong Child”, and “Orange Crush” to prove to you that there’s still some substance to this band, that they are still capable of being as lovely and haunting as they were on Fables. Good, good stuff so far. But then the album hits “Turn You Inside-Out” (an inferior, more negative carbon copy of “Finest Worksong” from the previous album) and it starts to lose me. I’ve listened to “Hairshirt”, “I Remember California” and “____” countless times, over many years, and I couldn’t tell you one thing I remember about them. They sound unfinished. Then you realize that R.E.M. are still going through some growing pains. Or maybe sheer burnout was finally taking its toll. After a decade of constant touring, the band had finally established themselves to the point where they could afford to take some time off the road, and they used the luxury of that much-needed rest to pour their imaginations into augmenting their sound further, with more unorthodox strings, keys, and horn arrangements, allowing them to fully explore the possibilities of the studio environment.
And that’s how we get Out Of Time (1991, A-), the album that cemented R.E.M. as all-timers, and where their commercial success finally caught up to their critical reputation for excellence. “The One I Love”, “Stand”, and “End Of The World” were all deservedly huge, but “Losing My Religion” is simply one of those songs it was impossible to escape, if you still remember the 20th Century with any clarity. If R.E.M. hadn’t made it, somebody would have – that’s how inevitable and relevant it feels, still. A four-and-a-half minute nightmare in pop music form, at once filled with longing and resignation, an entirely too personal and intimate yet all too familiar and universal theme, mandolins and strings and an abnormally heavy rhythm section pounding an inescapable sense of dread and betrayal. This song clearly filled some kind of need. It sounded like not just R.E.M. growing up, but the entire genre that gave rise to them. It was just a stroke of good luck that it happened to also appear on their most adventurous album yet. You won’t find anything else even close to its emotional power there, but “Half A World Away” and “Me In Honey” are easily just as lovely, while “Radio Song” and “Shiny Happy People” continue to build on their repertoire of stupid-yet-weirdly-poignant songs. And if tracks like “Belong” and “Near Wild Heaven” seemed to be pouring on the treacle a bit thickly, they at least felt like they were coming from a mature, veteran band who were finally growing comfortably into their identity.
The alternative rock boom was in full swing by the time Automatic For The People (1992, A-) came out, vindicating R.E.M.’s entire aesthetic and making them look like goddamn geniuses in the process, but by this point the band seemed more concerned with the ravages of middle age and the oncoming spectre of death (AIDS rumors swirled around Stipe, who had begun sporting a shaved head around this time) than whatever teen spirit smelled like. Songs like the uniformly gorgeous “Try Not To Breathe”, “Sweetness Follows” and “Monty Got A Raw Deal” dealt with the mortality theme directly, while even lighter tracks like “Nightswimming” and “Man On The Moon” hearkened back to some half-remembered past, as if anything happening in the moment was still too daunting to consider. Orchestral string arrangements from John Paul Jones further ensconced the band firmly in “classic” territory, while “Everybody Hurts” nearly guaranteed them another good ten years of shelf life as even adult contemporary formats gave up their stubborn resistance to R.E.M.’s cross-generational appeal.
Perhaps tiring of their own stature as an “important” legacy band (and probably gearing up to have some new showstoppers to play on their first tour since the onset of the decade), R.E.M. resolved to take themselves less seriously on 1994’s Monster (B-), turning their backs on 90s alternative rock in favor of some cross between 70s glam metal and whatever the hell U2 were doing around this time. 3 At least Mike Mills’ singing basslines manage to keep “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” from drowning under its glossy fuzz guitar and utterly tepid drumming, but “I Took Your Name” and “Crush With Eyeliner” are just lifeless, tiresome chord-vamps that never get going, and the poorest-quality songwriting we’ve heard from this band on an official release thus far. At least those aren’t recycled versions of previous R.E.M. songs, as “Strange Currencies” and “Bang And Blame” are. That leaves the mellower left-field melodies like “I Don’t Sleep, I Dream” and “You” to pick up the slack, but even those sound a little too self-consciously hip for their own good. Since when were R.E.M. ever concerned with seeming cool, anyway? Isn’t their entire appeal supposed to be that they’re a bunch of dorks? And what happened to the apparent comfort and confidence they exhibited on the previous two albums? Monster is both an awkward fit for them and an abandonment of everything that had made them such an enduring act in the first place. I give them points for trying something different and for a few genuine moments of inspiration, but this is honestly the most hateable thing they’ve ever done (while also being far from their worst album).
Fatigue finally sets in for this insanely prolific and productive group in 1996, heralded by the release of New Adventures In Hi-fi (1996, B). For a bit of perspective on how amazing it is that they even lasted this long, the alternative rock boom which they pre-dated by ten years was finally beginning to peter out around this time. Perhaps having originally established themselves as a band not tied to any specific moment in history made them more durable. Even at their most popular, they were always halfway out of step with the times. Still, they could have picked a more accessible first single than “E-Bow The Letter”, a fascinating piece of Patti Smith-featuring spoken-word poetry built around a strange droning noise coming from Peter Buck’s guitar (that improves on similar sonic departures like “Country Feedback”). How about something like “New Test Leper”, which embraces the much more traditional loping melody and warm, full sound of the R.E.M. we’ve come to expect at this stage? It’s almost enough to make you forget Monster happened. They were apparently as ashamed of that record as they deserved to be, and attempted to follow it up by recording most of the new songs live, while on tour, as if trying to recapture a sense of immediacy which they’d lost when they went on hiatus from touring. As a result, half these songs sound unfinished, and a bunch more are dragged to epic length for no reason in particular, as they struggle in vain to impart their usual magic on these works-in-progress. The end product gives us a handful of pretty songs, and an overall feeling of complete fucking exhaustion on the part of the band, its listeners, and the entire genre of rock n’ roll.
Bill Berry suffered a brain aneurysm on the New Adventures tour and abruptly quit the band in 1997. It’s telling that R.E.M. never officially replaced him, instead moving through a succession of surrogate drummers over the years who filled in as session musicians or live performers, but weren’t considered real “members of R.E.M.” in the original sense. Berry’s uniquely upbeat drumming style was always an essential part of their sound, and he made crucial contributions in songwriting, backing vocals, and the various additional instruments played on their albums. The remaining members apparently had enough sense to view him as irreplaceable on a permanent basis, yet not enough sense to discontinue the band following his departure. To be fair, it was Berry’s explicit wish that they continue without him. And the band do seem committed to a rebirth of sorts from the opening notes of Up (1998 C+), in which an R.E.M. album begins with synths and electronic drums for the first time ever. A move towards a more synthesized direction should surprise no one at this point, but it’s still jarring to hear from a band who made their reputations on rootsy Americana-folk updated for the jaded, postmodern rock fan. Not sure what they’re trying to do with most of these songs beyond “Keep R.E.M. vaguely relevant”. Honestly, most of this stuff might as well be a Stipe solo album for all the resemblance it bears to past efforts. R.E.M. were truly the type of band where each member was of equal importance, thanks to the democratic band dynamic they had carefully developed over every step of their 18 years together, and removing one of them, any one, would render them no longer viable. When they lost Berry, they also lost their inspiration, and possibly any reason they may have still had left to continue.
Or so it would seem. In 1999 R.E.M. recorded “The Great Beyond” for the film Man On The Moon, a biography on the life of Andy Kaufman named after a song that only briefly mentions Andy Kaufman in passing (the song itself is more of a whimsical exploration of the human need to explain the inexplicable), and it turned out to be their best song since Automatic For The People, way back in 1992. A few songs on Up (“Daysleeper”, “At My Most Beautiful”, “You’re In The Air” and “Falls To Climb”, especially) had actually attempted to reconcile the brand-new electronic/ambient R.E.M. with the earthier, songwriting-oriented R.E.M. of old, and this track manages to do just that even better than all of those, probably because it aims to be a sort of companion song to “Man On The Moon”, only this is more of a straight-up love song than a meditation on old conspiracy theories. If they could only keep up this caliber of songwriting for an entire album, maybe they could produce something that would justify the directive to keep going without Bill Berry.
Reveal (2001, C) is not that album. Admirably, they do seem to be putting a little more effort into the songwriting side of things, and it is possible to even identify a vocal hook (only the very thing that this band built their whole body of work on) here or there, with seemingly less reliance on the digital sound effects and walls of synths from the previous album. A few of the songs start off very promisingly, only to end up simply not delivering. The underlying problem this time seems to be that these songs are explicitly designed to be forgotten immediately after they’re over, or even to be ignored and tuned-out while they’re playing. They just don’t demand attention. The tempos are almost uniformly slow, the riffs are incredibly basic, when they’re there, and Stipe’s singing mostly just stays within the same narrow range of notes for the whole song, without much variation between long notes and short notes. “Imitation Of Life” was improbably a hit single, but it’s more-or-less a Fables/Out Of Time rehash, with little of the spark or magic that made those albums all-time greats. The rest of the album manages to present a few beautiful passages, but they sit in isolation, trapped within songs seemingly cobbled together haphazardly by a band who has lost their grasp of structure completely.
There’s no point in dwelling on Around The Sun (2004, C-) much, because EVERYbody shits on this album, and everybody is pretty much right. R.E.M. sound straight up comatose throughout most of it. It takes about seven songs in before something even remotely upbeat comes in (and even then, it’s still not a good song). Maybe this is the real fatigue of being in a band for 24 years setting in. Strangely, live performances from this time show the band in high spirits, in stark contrast to the motionless, anchored Stipe of the beginning of the decade. This album just drags. Like on the last album (and the one before it) there are some nice pretty moments here and there, but you REALLY have to reach in deep to find them. If you’re into the mellower side of R.E.M., you might find something you like (I like “Aftermath” and short pieces of a few other songs). Otherwise the only real reason to hear it is to have an easy answer to the question “Worst R.E.M. album?”
After their run from the late-90s onward, it’s easy to see why Accelerate (2008, B-) was received so rapturously. Remember when this band played uptempo songs? And structured them around Peter Buck’s guitar, with Peter Buck actually playing fantastic, compact little riffs? That alone was probably enough to make this R.E.M.’s best-reviewed album in twelve years, but they also tightened up the songwriting, too – it’s just easier to sit through a three-minute quick song than a five-minute slow song, and at this point the shift is so warm and welcoming you just want to laud the band for seemingly recognizing their own limitations and going out of their way to make an album that would appeal to their core audience, almost functioning as a kind of love letter. They just sound joyous here, more so than they have on anything since “The Great Beyond”. The joy that emanates from this album turns out to be enough to overcome the occasional songwriting missteps (Thanks for sticking “I’m Gonna DJ” way back there at the end, guys) and Stipe’s sometimes-bland vocals. For some reason, R.E.M. started putting out a lot of live albums around this time, as if they were thinking about their legacy, struggling to find the right grace note to go out on.
And as far as last notes go, they don’t get much more graceful than Collapse Into Now (2011, B+). It’s as if R.E.M. were specifically hanging around long enough to make an album like this before calling it quits. The wait was worth it. No longer reliant on the fast tempos or distorted guitars of Accelerate but just as dedicated to tighter, more hook-oriented songwriting and the principles of melody and momentum that made early-to-mid-period R.E.M. such a joy to listen to, this is the work of men who have seen it all, lived to tell, and absolutely delight in sharing their sound and story with the world one last time. Beatles comparisons are truly meaningless, but this actually is their Abbey Road. A band realizing they’ve done everything they were ever going to do together4, understanding what they’ve meant to the world, inviting everyone to join them for the retirement party, essentially. It’s just beautiful to hear a band embracing everything that they are, for better and worse, especially considering how often they seemed embroiled in an ongoing identity crisis. Even the album cover makes them look like they’re waving goodbye.
R.E.M. announced their breakup on September 21, 2011. Their last moment of cultural relevance, from what I can tell, was when “Losing My Religion” was performed on Glee. Their anonymity and commitment to democracy ensured that their personalities would never diminish their accomplishments, and above all, this is the thing about them that I admire the most. More so than any other major artist, R.E.M. always remained true to themselves. Their music was so undeniably appealing, so emotionally unimpeachable, that it allowed them to operate a 30-year career sans compromise. And that’s a weird thing to praise in a band – that of all things that R.E.M. excelled at, they were the very best at being R.E.M. It’s like saying “This band is great because they are great.” But because they occupied such a unique place in the culture, and because they performed such a vital function, they deserve every bit of praise they will ever receive just for being what they were. Because if they had ever been anything else, they would not have served as such a a worthy predecessor, would not have breathed so much new life into their worn-out genre, and would not have left such a significant impression so many lives. R.E.M. may not have been the most compelling public figures, but I cannot envision a world where their music is not celebrated for the wondrous, unifying force that it is – an enduring bridge between mainstream and independent, between critical darling and commercial powerhouse, between the old guard and the new blood. They proved, once and for all, you can be all of these things at once, just by adhering to your own personal credo. It’s a testament to exactly how powerful their music was that even this eternal lesson does not overshadow it.