R.E.M. didn’t reinvent the wheel or demolish any stylistic barriers when the quartet popped its curly little head up from the collegiate fields of Athens, Georgia, at the beginning of the 1980s; the power pop underground already had other Byrdsian bands with jangly guitars and mumbly singers. Of course, no other band had a mumbly singer with the potent artistic vision or charisma of Michael Stipe, or the unique brains/brawn extrovert/introvert art/rock chemistry of R.E.M. — two of the reasons why the group rose steadily through an uneven series of ’80s albums to stand as one of the world’s biggest and best-loved rock’n’roll combos. Unlike Nirvana, whose success defined an era, the equally inscrutable R.E.M. (and their trans-Atlantic cousins, U2) worked their way into household namedom without setting off any revolutionary times-they-are-a-changin’ alarms. True, plenty of imitators followed, and the group’s breakthrough proved highly beneficial for others whose humble/indie beginnings would no longer be looked on with commercial skepticism. R.E.M. also helped prove that rock didn’t have to be callow, cynical and calculated to resonate with large population segments, but the world after Document sold a million copies wasn’t significantly different than it had been.
R.E.M.’s rough-hewn guitar pop was introduced in 1981 by a stunning independent single (“Radio Free Europe”), an avatar of homegrown, populist rootsiness. Blending Pete Buck’s Byrdsian guitar playing with Stipe’s hazy, sometimes melancholic (but never miserable) vocals and impressionistic lyrics, plus a strong, supple rhythm section (drummer Bill Berry and bassist Mike Mills), R.E.M. started out playing memorable songs with unprepossessing simplicity and emotional depth. As hip acceptance gave way to full-fledged stardom, R.E.M. found its creative path harder to navigate, but the group has remained intelligent, independent minded and committed to artistic expression (not only theirs).
The five-song Chronic Town EP, co-produced by Mitch Easter, continues the sound (if not all the rushed excitement) of the single, and boasts the remarkable “1,000,000” and the equally memorable “Carnival of Sorts (Box Cars).”
Murmur is a masterpiece, containing all the essential components of truly great serious pop music. On “Catapult,” “Pilgrimage” and a reprise of “Radio Free Europe,” Stipe inscrutably but evocatively mumbles his vocals with unmistakable passion, while the band spins haunting webs of guitar rock that are heavy with atmosphere. A completely satisfying collection, Murmur served as a guidepost for many of the bands who chose to follow R.E.M. back to the New South for inspiration in the early ’80s.
Doomed to disappoint by comparison to the debut, Reckoning is not quite as consistent, although it contains enough equally great music to maintain R.E.M.’s reputation for excellence. “Harborcoat,” “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry),” “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville” and “Pretty Persuasion” are all wonderful, and display not only clearer production (Easter and Don Dixon) but a less hurried pace and more articulate Stipe singing.
Fables of the Reconstruction (aka Reconstruction of the Fables), produced in London by Joe Boyd, finds R.E.M. largely neglecting catchy melodicism and driving rhythms for reflective, languidly meandering numbers that lack focal points and seem to start and finish with the structured inexorability of a light switch. A number of the songs are flat-out boring, and the album is generally vague and colorless, although not entirely bland. Still, “Can’t Get There from Here,” “Driver 8” and the raucous “Auctioneer (Another Engine)” do have familiar R.E.M. qualities.
A shortage of rewarding musical ideas and an air of flagging enthusiasm on the politically minded and far too restrained Lifes Rich Pageant make it a remote and generally ignorable chapter in R.E.M.’s inexorable march towards the big time. Excepting a totally ace cover of the Clique’s psychedelic obscurity “Superman,” sung in a delicious near-whine by Mike Mills, the rushed “Hyena” and the languid “Fall on Me,” the record is instrumentally dull and almost entirely uninvolving.
With Stipe opting for a brave new world of enunciation on Document, Scott Litt’s dynamic co-production pushes the songs back into the world of the living, with a bright, loud sound and an infusion of much-needed rock energy. Without sacrificing sensitivity, Buck plays up a storm, pushed into high gear by Berry’s walloping big beat. The entire first side is brilliant, from the maniacally intense “Finest Worksong” to the stomping horn-flecked nostalgia of “Exhuming McCarthy,” a goofball cover of Wire’s “Strange” and the prolix name-dropping nonsense of “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” The back of the LP is half as good, which is to say the sound is swell but the songs aren’t. Nonetheless, millions misunderstood the stinging irony of “The One I Love” and made it a huge hit single.
Dead Letter Office, a curious and amusing B-sides/rarities collection, reveals R.E.M.’s proclivity for recording covers (it contains material by Pylon, Roger Miller, the Velvet Underground and Aerosmith) and a goofy sense of humor not often heard on their albums. Buck’s liner notes explain the origins of all 15 outtakes, pisstakes and oddities, including “Walter’s Theme,” written to be a restaurant commercial. The CD adds the contents of Chronic Town.
Raising their commercial sights in a way the faithful never imagined possible, R.E.M. left IRS for the greener pastures of Warner Bros., prompting the release of a greatest hits package. Eponymous (now there’s a band that knows its rock criticism clichés) is a nearly straightforward compilation, except that it omits some crucial songs and has the original independent 45 version of “Radio Free Europe,” an unused vocal take on “Gardening at Night” (from Chronic Town), an alternate mix of “Finest Worksong” and “Romance,” a soundtrack contribution not previously on an R.E.M. record. It took the English office a couple of years to get around to it, but the import-only The Best of R.E.M. expands on Eponymous with added (and subtracted) tracks.
Quelling fears of sell-out lameness or overfed incapacity, Green—the quartet’s bow into the global pop race—is a great, artistically mature record with more strong songs than on any prior R.E.M. album. Dropping the familiar jangle and crisp rhythms, the band strides boldly into the modern rock arena, finding a characteristic compromise (although several numbers are entirely acoustic) that grants the lyrics and melodies precedence over immediately recognizable presentation. The band tests out novel rhythms (the dancey “Pop Song 89,” a witty reflection on stardom’s social complications whose old-style chorus contrasts strikingly with the new-fangled verses; the tense, piledriving “Get Up”) and uncommon atmospheres (the sweaty palms and U2-ish carpet-bombing of “Orange Crush,” the rough drone of “Turn You Inside Out”). Jane Scarpantoni’s cello adds baroque woodiness to the solemn “World Leader Pretend” (“This is my mistake / Let me make it good”), while Stipe’s voice is the only familiar feature on the catchy “Stand,” an unabashed chart pop bid that worked. Buck’s diverse playing has never sounded better, and piano provides him with an effective complement. An articulate yet enigmatic reinvention that delivers the band to a new artistic plane loaded with possibilities, Green propelled R.E.M. into the future without renouncing its past.
Adding keyboards, strings and horns to adjust the style settings even further, R.E.M. (also employing touring member Peter Holsapple, post-dB’s/pre-Continental Drifters, on guitar and bass) challenged audience expectations and themselves further with the ambitious, overproduced (again by Litt and the band) and inconsistent Out of Time. The numbers that work—”Radio Song” (with guest rap by KRS-One), the folk-rocking “Losing My Religion,” the uplifting “Shiny Happy People” (with Kate Pierson of the B-52’s chiming in), the acoustic “Half a World Away,” “Me in Honey”—effectively progress from (or at least uphold) Green‘s forthright example and are almost enough to carry the weight. The other half of the album, however, drags with material that is either too weak to withstand gummy layers of gratuitous instrumentation or falls prey to gimmicky concept experiments. “Low,” “Endgame” and “Country Feedback” are blandly negligible; the happyface pop of “Near Wild Heaven” and the sung/recited “Belong” are ineffectual in their willful incongruity. Out of Time has too many important songs to ignore, but it’s a dismal reminder of what happens when too many people tell creative musicians how great they are.
Automatic for the People refocuses all the random initiative of the group’s great leap forward into a singular vision, with a cohesive collection of brilliant songs and a profoundly moving mood of somber dignity. Whatever R.E.M. once was no longer counts in the new math being reckoned in this eloquent chamber. On the most restrained and moody of R.E.M.’s records, haunting, beautiful elegies like “Everybody Hurts,” “Nightswimming,” “Star Me Kitten” and the David Essex-quoting “Drive” (some of which make exquisite use of a small orchestra) suck the air away and leave the lingering sadness of a long-ago funeral. Without breaking the mostly acoustic spell, the stronger-shouldered (Who-like, in fact) “Ignoreland” turns up the energy level, giving fuller play to Buck’s distorted ardor, which lurks subliminally in compressed feedback accents elsewhere. In addition to his stupendous, hypersensitive singing, Stipe’s lyrical obsessions are both more obvious and sublime than ever; his homages to Montgomery Clift (“Monty Got a Raw Deal”) and Andy Kaufman (“Man on the Moon”) are quizzical, indirect and loaded with other concerns. The Litt/R.E.M. production, complex and detailed as it is, invariably benefits the songs, culminating in the tightrope balance of “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” and “Try Not to Breathe,” which reconcile everything the band has learned with ideas it had never before explored. That’s creative progress, and Automatic for the People is a masterpiece.
In keeping with the band’s inconsistent but generally true one up, one down pattern, Monster was doomed, and R.E.M. didn’t let down those expecting to be let down. Opening with loud, snarly guitar chords that stay unnaturally high in the mix even after Stipe begins singing “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” (title courtesy of Dan Rather’s unexplained street attack), Monster is the quartet’s raunchy Big Rock effort. Evidently unaware that turning up doesn’t equal turning on, and seemingly incapable of performing hard-edged electric music with credible conviction, R.E.M. appears to have designed this stolid misfire to give Pete Buck a showcase and a chance to check out the tremolo switch on his amplifier. It sure isn’t based on top-notch songs or any need for this warmed-over heat treatment. “Strange Currencies,” a sweet ballad that could be an Automatic leftover, and “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth” are all right, but that’s about it. Despite the lyrics’ surprising sexual directness, “Crush With Eyeliner” and “Star 69” are clumsy nothings; others here don’t even reach their modest plateaus. Stipe’s vocal caricatures never get in synch with the raucous songs (in the case of the toned-down soul of “Tongue,” he trots out a pitiful falsetto); he’s left sounding lost in the studio. Mills and Berry trundle along at such carefully measured paces that they draw off the potential excitement in Buck’s distortion slashes—busting out isn’t usually done with such precise restraint. Anomalies are to be expected in the road of a band unwilling to settle for the easy solution, but this one so obviously doesn’t work that it strikes an especially sour chord. Of course, it does clear the decks for another potential winner…Or, unfortunately, New Adventures in Hi-Fi.
New Adventures in Hi-Fi shoulders the same role in R.E.M.’s Warner Bros. catalog as Fables of the Reconstruction did in their IRS period—the weird, off-putting experimental record that no one can quite cozy up to. Track for track, it’s decent and sometimes even great, but the overarching feeling is one of fatigue and exhaustion. While it may be both forgivable and understandable, given that was recorded on the heels of the Monster tour, during which Berry nearly died onstage in Switzerland from a brain aneurysm and sundry lesser disasters befell the band, it still doesn’t make for an enjoyable listening experience. It’s one of those albums about which all but the staunchest fan will look at the track list and wonder why the hell they can’t remember what any of those songs sound like. All the same, a few stand out: “E-bow the Letter” features Stipe’s Ian Hunter-style sing-speak vocal over a pleasantly droning backing track with prominent Patti Smith backing vocals, while “Leave”—a most atypical song for REM—repeats a squealing, siren-like feedback loop through its seven minutes.
Even at the time of its release, New Adventures in Hi-Fi felt like the end of an era. And it was. Berry, recovered from his illness, chose the life of a gentleman farmer over the role of a touring rock musician. Reneging (at Berry’s insistence, it must be noted) on a vow to break up if any member ever left the band, the other three decided to carry on but not to replace Berry with a permanent drummer. Working without producer Scott Litt for the first time in a decade, Up is R.E.M.’s confrontation with electronica, using keyboards to largely replace their traditional guitars. Given the central role in R.E.M.’s creation myth of a horrified reaction to Stephen Hague’s aborted production of Murmur, it’s kind of a kick to hear the band sounding like one-time Hague clients OMD on the moody opener “Airportman.” Even with the change in instrumental emphasis, Up still sounds like R.E.M. and is their strongest release since Automatic for the People. “Hope,” “Why Not Smile” and especially “Daysleeper” rank among the finest songs of the band’s career. Although a relative commercial failure, Up was an encouraging sign after two disappointments.
Reveal is not bad—in fact, it’s pretty good, containing such strong tracks as the single “Imitation of Life” and “Summer Turns to High”—but its release felt like a non-event, just another album from a band that was no longer a guiding force in music. U2, the only other major band that could be considered their peers in having carried the ’80s college rock banner into the ’90s alternative era, found themselves in the same position following Pop—elder statesmen, respected and admired, but reluctantly conceded to be becoming irrelevant—but through sheer force of will refused to let themselves be written off and remained a vital force still able to combine critical and commercial success. Whether R.E.M. will be able to pull off that same trick remains to be seen.
The two new tracks on the In Time best-of collection do little to indicate what the future may hold for R.E.M. It’s a solid retrospective of their Warner Bros. years. The special edition adds a bonus disc of live tracks, compilation and soundtrack cuts and other rarities.
Around the Sun poses a conundrum: is it R.E.M.’s reputation that buys the album the repeated listens it requires until individual songs finally begin to lift themselves out of the tepid, boring mid-tempo flow of the album? Or is it that very reputation that has raised expectations to such a level that a perfectly pleasant collection of well-written and performed tunes rates as a disappointment? The answer is probably both. No one is likely to get worked up over Around the Sun, not even the band. They were obviously attempting to recapture the autumnal stateliness of Automatic for the People, but were not up to the challenge. Where that ’92 album touched on a whole range of emotions, from despair to longing to hope, Around the Sun is merely competent and professional. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the trio is no longer anxious, or able, to challenge itself or its audience. But this is still R.E.M., and attention must be paid, since they’ve certainly earned it. Effort does pay off, as “Electron Blue,” the Q-Tip-enhanced “The Outsiders” and “I Wanted to Be Wrong” prove themselves among the loveliest items in the band’s catalog. But they suffer from their surroundings — Around the Sun‘s strengths are overwhelmed by a lack of variety; its strong songs succumb to the overall torpor. Ultimately, like Reveal, Around the Sun is simply a good album from a band that used to make great ones.
R.E.M. released their first official live album in 2007, documenting a 2005 Dublin gig on two CDs (the first is the main set, the five-song second contains the encore) and a DVD. A solid enough set from the Around the Sun tour but not particularly revelatory, it’s exactly what one would expect from a late-period R.E.M. live album, with no surprises in performance or set list. It does provide the reasonably valuable service of demonstrating that the best songs from the band’s later albums — tracks like “Imitation of Life” and “Electron Blue” — deserve a place in the canon of the band’s best work. However, the inclusion of what was considered a middling track on an earlier disc, Lifes Rich Pageant’s “Cuyahoga,” just proves that even the deep cuts on earlier albums mopped the floor with most of the marquee tracks on later ones, such as the bland “Leaving New York.” Unfortunately, those underwhelming selections fill a disproportionate share of Live. The one new track, “I’m Gonna DJ,” is annoying and doesn’t inspire much confidence in the band’s future. Overall, Live is a harmless placeholder to kill time while R.E.M. struggles to find a way to reassert its relevance. It does nothing to address concerns that the band has lost the thread of its own career.
By 2008, a decade of buzz-less existence inspired R.E.M. to re-engage their audience, and they set about doing so with all the subtlety of a spurned lover drunk-dialing an ex. The first order of business was to disavow the hapless Around the Sun. That album’s only real offense was its inoffensiveness, but the band’s comments made it seem like the poor thing had been out clubbing baby seals in its spare time. The next domino to fall was producer Pat McCarthy, on whose watch the moderately fascinating transformation which began with Up drifted into unadventurous Adult Contemporary pop. Given that his replacement sported the action-packed moniker of Jackknife Lee and that the album title was to be Accelerate, the direction of R.E.M. redirection was pretty apparent. In light of the band’s decidedly spotty track record at bringing the rock, this was not necessarily great news, but generated R.E.M.’s first blizzard of pre-release hype since MTV still played music.
When it finally landed, Accelerate was (fortunately) more of a piece with the decent Lifes Rich Pageant than the dire Monster. The opening “Living Well Is the Best Revenge” sports the kind of guitar riff Buck had taken to playing on other bands’ records, not his own. The album that follows flies by in a rush, clocking in at a brisk 35 minutes and performed with relocated conviction. The recent Hall of Fame inductees seem determined to not let their career become a museum piece without one last fight. Even “I’m Gonna DJ,” which was unimpressive on the live album, sounds great here in its closing position, a blast of defiant attitude and oddball sonics. Accelerate may have arrived bathed in desperation thick enough for Glengarry Glen Ross, but it does the job it was intended to do in short order and serves notice that R.E.M. is not ready for music’s nursing home.
Having gone a quarter century before releasing an official live album (not counting live video compilations), R.E.M. released three more in the two years following Live. The first, a 1983 Toronto gig added to the 25th anniversary reissue of Murmur, is a concert disc fans were more likely to be eager to hear than Live, as it catches the young band tearing through their greatest hits of the early years. Though R.E.M. at the time had a bit of an erratic reputation as a live unit, it’s clearly a good night. Several of the songs had not yet been recorded and were works in progress: “Just a Touch” is much more jangly than the version on Lifes Rich Pageant would be, and Stipe wisely continued tinkering with the stretched-out pronunciations he was inflicting on “Harborcoat” and got it right by the time it showed up on Reckoning. The Live in Toronto disc is decisive evidence that the original quartet was quite capable of making a convincing racket live and that the hired hands brought along on later tours added noise more than nuance.
The 25th anniversary edition of Reckoning appends a 1984 gig from Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom. It’s only a year after the Toronto gig added to Murmur, but the band is already beginning to choose power over precision onstage. Stipe is still in his mumbling phase, but he mumbles much more loudly. Buck is less finicky in the way he muscles through the intricate guitar lines of R.E.M.’s early material. None of this is a particularly bad thing as far as the recording goes — like the Toronto set, it’s an exciting document of the band’s most beloved era. It is, however, a sign that R.E.M. were already beginning to look past it.
Prior to the release of Accelerate, R.E.M. previewed the album via a series of public rehearsals at Dublin’s Olympia Theatre. The band’s insistence that these were “rehearsals” rather than shows meant to generate desperately needed buzz is undercut by the inclusion of material from the IRS years. Still, it’s not hard to grant the band their conceits when perusing the track list of the 39-song Live at the Olympia. Besides previewing the majority of Accelerate (and a couple of numbers that didn’t make the cut or were reworked), R.E.M. trot out a passel of guaranteed crowd-pleasers and burn their way through them. Delicacies like “Gardening at Night” and “Sitting Still” are beefed up considerably to rock the rafters. They still sound good, but the effect is rather like using Faberge eggs as hand grenades.
The reissue of Fables of the Reconstruction adds a disc of demos rather than an era-appropriate live set. If this was some sort of revisionist attempt to palm off the general lack of love for Fables on Joe Boyd’s production (“See, the songs are fine, it was the production that killed it”), it didn’t work. The songs that everyone always liked (“Driver 8,” “Life and How to Live It,” “Maps and Legends”) sound predictably good in demo form, while the tracks that didn’t turn anyone on in their final form inspire the same reaction in demo form. The mysterious “When I Was Young,” which was listed on the album’s sleeve but omitted from its grooves, turns up in the demos as “Throw Those Trolls Away” and was wisely retooled into Lifes Rich Pageant’s “I Believe.”
Having forced their way back into the conversation with Accelerate, R.E.M. sought to consolidate their reacquired but tenuous toehold on relevance with Collapse Into Now. Their stated game plan was to stock the album with the best songs they had available at the moment. The fact that this approach seemed to elicit cries of “Eureka!” from the band rather than “Duh!” probably goes a long way towards explaining their decade of wandering in the wilderness of Has-Been-istan, but no matter — Collapse Into Now gave R.E.M. their first back-to-back very good albums of the new millennium.
Where Accelerate was a shout of “We’re still here! Pay attention!” that was long on energy but short on nuance, Collapse Into Now returns R.E.M. to the wide-ranging variety of Green and New Adventures in Hi-Fi. There are loud rockers: “All the Best,” “Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter,” enlivened by a Lenny Kaye guitar solo and guest vocals from Peaches, and “That Someone Is You,” a callback to some of the band’s great early “dumb” songs like “Windout.” There are jangly numbers that recall the days of college rock: “Discoverer,” “Uberlin” and “Mine Smell Like Honey,” which would be aces if not for the puerile title. And folksy acoustic tracks: “Oh My Heart,” “Walk It Back” and “It Happened Today,” with barely audible vocals from Eddie Vedder (who, in a historical footnote, was in the audience at the Aragon Ballroom gig added to the Reckoning reissue.) The closing “Blue” recalls “E-bow the Letter” with a spoken Stipe vocal and a Patti Smith guest appearance. Collapse Into Now is far from perfect — “Every Day is Yours to Win” is a self-help seminar so drippy it makes “Everybody Hurts” seem ballsy, and Stipe is now so immersed in being Michael Stipe® that it’s doubtful he’ll ever be able to engage emotionally with his audience again in any meaningful way — but for a band entering its fourth decade it’s not bad at all. For the first time since Berry’s departure, Buck, Mills and Stipe seem to feel comfortable being R.E.M. By deciding for once to not make a “rock” or “acoustic” or “experimental” album, they actually made a “good” one.
Detailing the extracurricular activities of Mills, Berry, Stipe and especially Buck would fill a book (in fact, Tony Fletcher’s Remarks — The Story of R.E.M. lists more than three dozen outside records on which they have appeared), but two albums do stand out for the primary involvement of all but Stipe. Hindu Love Gods is the belated issue of a 1987 studio get-together in which Buck, Mills and Berry back singer/guitarist Warren Zevon on old blues standards and a Prince song. Minus their marquee value, the threesome’s playing is characterless (and not especially adept) bar-band issue, and the album is no biggie. The same is mostly true of the Troggs’ Athens Andover, for which the great British Invasion singer Reg Presley and his current cohorts join forces with the same threesome and Holsapple in the hopes of mounting a hip comeback. It’s the best appointed album of the Troggs’ illustrious career, but that train’s long since left the station, and songs like “Deja Vu,” which resorts to the unforgivable ploy of stringing together the titles of past hits, don’t make the wheels spin any faster. Even the few good tunes are too simple to present any challenge or stylistic opportunity for the players. Presley is a game vocalist but, by this point, a formulaic songwriter (who really should know better than to pen a song that has him repeatedly singing the phrase “it worries me” with a previously unnoticed Elmer Fudd accent). The Americans’ two contributions don’t help much, either. It was generous of R.E.M. to participate in an album by a musical hero, but Athens Andover isn’t anybody’s home run.