It is completely irrational. They’re only a band. Many other bands I love have broken up. Many of those bands have gotten back together for reunion tours. I didn’t even cry when the Smiths disbanded, when I was a child and more prone to overreaction.
But when the news of R.E.M.’s break-up came over my Twitter feed yesterday, I was rendered speechless. It’s not even as if the news was shocking, per se. The band has been uneven since Bill Berry left in the late nineties, and their different projects have taken over their lives.
It still hurt.
See? Irrational. Twenty seven years of my life, sure. They have been the band that got me through childhood, the teenage wasteland, birth, death, destruction, hope, and belief. I never missed an album, and if they had ever played near where ever I was living at the time, I would have seen them live. As it was, I was too poor to trek out to Vancouver or Toronto for the joy, and I rely heavily on my copies of their filmed concert films to get past this regret.
It’s that moment in your life where you find something that belongs only to you, you see. No one around you seems to know that it exists. Then you meet another fan. And then another. You stumble across a song. Then another song. Then an album. Before you know it, they consume your life, become your first unhealthy obsession. But it’s YOUR unhealthy obsession. My friends were all into hair metal bands and U2. R.E.M. was mine. All mine. No one else liked them. At least, no one else openly admitted liking them. I was ridiculed for it. As if my copies of Sassy in a YM school didn’t set me up for hell to begin with.
There is an R.E.M. album on the album list. So this article is a massive spoiler alert (though the album I picked for the list should surprise not a single one of you if you have read a single thing I have written). I have decide to talk, album by album, of what I think, save the one still on the list. Since I figure I’ll get to that one in the spring, I will have time and distance to heal from the sadness, and maybe I’ll be less emotionally fragile about it all.
Murmur is the album I have listened to all day. My BFF in school Josie and I would spend our afternoons cruising the streets of High River singing “We Walk” in her car, after a rousing Wayne’s World inspired take of “Bohemian Rhapsody”. It holds these bitter-sweet memories for me. It was the album that got me through yet another move, in another place I couldn’t stand to be, unable to figure out to express what I felt to the people around me. I loved the abstraction of the songs. None of them ever made a lick of sense. I would read countless old articles about the band where the interviewer would set Michael Stipe down and ask about “Sitting Still” or “Talk About the Passion” and get nowhere.
I have found it rather soothing in the last twenty-four hours. It’s a groundbreaking record, no doubt, but it does its revolution as quietly as possible. We’re dealing with solid pop melodies on these songs. They didn’t reinvent the wheel. They just made a better one.
Reckoning continues this story, one that is magnificent in its ability to create great music. As a band, R.E.M. released fifteen studio albums, but their early years were a bounty of productivity and brilliance. One can argue that the first five albums are all brilliant, some might push it to eight. They only released one record I don’t listen to often, and I certainly don’t hate it. Even at their least inspired, they seems to at least have a couple of gems for us.
Reckoning is still very much in the same vein as Murmur, and the sweetness always gets to me. Of the two albums, I prefer Murmur, but Reckoning has the heartbreakingly lovely “So. Central Rain” and the deeply bitter “Pretty Persuasion”, which are two of my favourite R.E.M. songs.
Fables of the Reconstruction is in my top ten.
Lifes Rich Pageant is the most accessible of their I.R.S. albums. A lot of that is due to Don Gehman. Gehman was most famous for producing John Mellencamp, or John Cougar Mellencamp, or Johnny Cougar, or Inspector Clouseau- you know, that guy. It was an oddball pairing, a man known for having precise mixes and bold big rock guitars producing the album of this sloppy but endearing indie band. It worked out. He polished the edges just enough to create genuine hits ( “Fall On Me”, “Superman”) and genuine shouldabeens (” These Days”, “Just a Touch”). But he also allowed them to do the bizarre, and R.E.M. gets no more bizarre than on ” Swan Swan H” and “”Underneath the Bunkers”.
The biggest difference on Lifes Rich Pageant was Michael Stipe’s vocals. In front of the mix, no longer sunk beneath Peter Buck’s sing-song guitars, Mike Mills’ seriously brilliant bass, and Bill Berry’s elegant militaristic back beat, we R.E.M. fans who obsessed over the lyrics for years realized- that they really were nonsense. Deep nonsense, but nonsense all the same.
The breakthrough Document, with the deeply cynical and mean “The One I Love” and the completely ebullient and delightfully apocalyptic “It’s The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” both scoring with mainstream audiences, was the beginning of the band as the best thing to happen to music since John Lennon died. It was also the beginning of my realization that I would probably follow them to the ends of the earth. It was here, the album I realized that I was listening to the music that meant the most to me. It was the politics of “Disturbance at the Heron House” and “Exhuming McCarthy”, or the off kilter “Fireplace”, or the fact that R.E.M introduced me to Wire with their punk on meth cover of “Strange”. The album is pretty much on constant rotation in my house to this day.
Green was the “Sell Out”. Signed to Warner Brothers, leaving the confines of the indie I.R.S., they had real muscle behind them. While the pop ditty “Stand” would become the hit single, it means that people missed out on the smart ass “Pop Song ’89”, or the gorgeous “World Leader Pretend”, or fierce “Orange Crush”. It’s easy to dismiss a band on the strength of their biggest hits. Fortunately, songs like “Stand” were few and far between.
When R.E.M. allowed for the lyrics (GASP!) of”Losing My Religion” to be printed in Sassy magazine on an exclusive CD/Cassette insert, I just about died. To have the real words to an R.E.M. song at that point was real currency to a fan. I read the lyrics to a friend of mine on the phone one night. Needless to say, she was not an R.E.M. fan. I don’t think I made her one that night.
“Losing My Religion” and Out Of Time was a sweet surprise to me. I wasn’t used to mandolins and softer tones. But it was an album that made being a fan worth it, because I was vindicated. Everyone else got it at the right time.
Odd, though, it’s the one I don’t go back to. I listen to individual songs constantly- “Half A World Away” is probably in my top ten R.E.M. songs of all time, and “Me In Honey” is an R.E.M. duet with Kate Pierson that doesn’t make me want to stick pencils in my ears ( DO NOT mention “SHP”. I can’t even type it out).
Pretty much every music critic will have 1994’s Automatic For The People in their top three R.E.M. records. People who hate AFTP deserve derision. It is simply a masterpiece, whether it’s the dark “Rock On” echos that haunt “Drive”, or the silliness of “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite”, or the gorgeousness of “Find The River”. Their most thematically cohesive collection, their best overall songwriting, and their most poignant lyrical collection, it is beyond perfection.
AFTP came to me at a time in my life where I needed it desperately. The sad thing was instead of heeding the lyrics about hope and brightness amidst the sad and death, I retreated into the album itself, and I’m not sure I found a way out. It’s the first thing I reach for when I cannot cope. My favourite band became my cave. I often feel like I’m still there. My children know when mummy is really sad. She’s listening to “Everybody Hurts” and “Nightswimming”. And she’s dealing with internet trolls if it’s “Ignoreland”.
And “Everybody Hurts” will make me cry, every single time, regardless of what is happening in my life.
Everybody stop covering “Everybody Hurts”. Now.
I like moments on Monster better than the album . There are some crackin’ tunes on it, from opener “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth” to the soppy ballad “Strange Currencies” and the dark “Circus Envy”. Of course, Michael Stipe’s elegy for Kurt Cobain, the aurora borealis of guitar wash “Let Me In” is on this album. It’s just such a genuinely moving song.
Monster is the beginning of the frustration I have with R.E.M. I loved it on first listen. Then the appeal dropped off. It would happen more and more.
The last genuine masterpiece R.E.M. had was New Adventures in Hi-Fi. It was released the first full week I was in college. They really were there every step of the way, you know.
The flashes of classic R.E.M., along with their wish to sound more aggressive and to be a guitar band again that played more glam-punk than folk-punk was their first mistake. They really couldn’t pull it off convincingly. My favourite moments like “E-Bow The Letter” and “Electrolite” are not the same as the still good but less successful “Departure” and “Wake Up Bomb”.
They were the biggest band at the time. They had huge records and huge singles. “E-Bow” is certainly the most interesting song they ever released as a single. And it has Patti Smith adding a vocal touch, and that is just awesome on so many levels. But then everything started going wrong. Bill’s aneurysm, and subsequent retirement. That was really tough for them, and for us. Drummers usually don’t mean much. Spinal Tap blows their drummers up regularly. Bill- he was crucial. And I didn’t know how crucial until he left.
The last five records were hit and miss affairs that all had bright moments and dark lows. Up is certainly a stronger album than some give credit for. Atmospheric and experimental, the band still managed to get a hit out of “Daysleeper”, though “Walk Unafraid” and “Falls To Climb” remain my favourite songs of the album. Reveal has the sing along “Imitation of Life” and the lovely “All The Way to Reno”.
Around The Sun is widely considered to be the nadir. Angry record, saved from total waste by the gorgeous ballads “Leaving New York” and “Electron Blue”. Even at the bottom of their list is an album with a couple of gems.
The band’s last two albums, Accelerate and Collapse Into Now, saw a return to strong melodic sensibility and rock basics. While both albums have their weak points, I saw the light at the end of the tunnel. I was looking forward to the future.
The band has been the centre of my music experience. They have been the one I play for every important moment of my life. My children know this music inside out (against their wishes).
As I tweeted yesterday, though- “I am gutted but grateful.”
They have brought me so much joy. I can’t imagine my life without them, and that’s the tough part. No more new R.E.M. music to expect. Solo projects? Other bands?Perhaps. They’re all in their fifties now. We’ll see what they do.
But still- I’d love just one more, guys. I know. I’ll get there eventually.