How to take the fact that R.E.M. have apparently broken up? It’s not with sadness or shock exactly. Thirty-one years from a band that, at one time, carried the flag for the “alternative” or the “indie” would conceivably inspire, well… something else.
There was an integrity to R.E.M., however, a sense that the band was always doing pretty much what they wanted to do, not what the market, nor the recording industry, nor even their loyal following wanted or expected. And while they were in certain ways pioneering in their sound — a fusion of the jingle-jangle with folk and post-punk — I don’t think anyone would assert they invented anything. “Alternative” rock? I don’t think so. There were always, even in their earliest days, lotsa bands that introduced more and spit more ardently in the face of the establishment that these mellow neo-hippies from Athens.
What R.E.M. always did, without fail, was their own thing. So, perhaps we can agree they were the original “indie” band, laudable avatars of the Indie Rock Movement. I’d argue for that. They came from a backwater, stayed on the road playing backwaters well after they made it big, issued several seminal albums whose lyrics were more or less unintelligible, and, aside from offering more enunciation over time, consistently delivered the same sort of anachronistic, original work well after signing with established labels, playing bigger venues and establishing a national following. Hell they even covered Roger Miller, Tommy James, Glenn Campbell and Aerosmith (when it was totally not cool to do so). Even today, in an era when commercially viable bands never really go away, R.E.M. has gone away, on their own terms, seemingly without rancor.
In addition to serving as avatars of the indie movement, R.E.M. were, on a personal level, the beginning of my own predilection towards mournful rock, something to which my wife will attest, perhaps with a roll of her lovely blue eyes. Ditto for my housemates at college. I wore out the early R.E.M. albums, Murmur and Reckoning; one dirge off the latter, “Camera”, was a particular favorite (of mine). You just can’t beat the melancholy beauty of these tracks, most of them accented by some truly inspired high-background harmonies from bassist Mike Mills, the most underrated aspect of the R.E.M. appeal, in my view… Cuyahoga!
There were always a few radio hits off each of these first 6 to 8 R.E.M. albums, the ones to which I paid particular attention, at the time, and to which I pay particular homage here. What made these LPs so great was their depth. The longer the listening, the more they served up, and the more I tended to discover and better appreciate the deeper cuts. This is the sign of a truly great album in my book, and it’s rare — so the fact that R.E.M. did it with so many albums on the trot is noteworthy.
I’m thinking of “Camera” and “Seven Chinese Brothers” off Reckoning; “Wendell Gee” and “Green Grow the Rushes” off Fables of the Reconstruction; “World Leader Pretend” off Green; “King of Birds” off Document; “Find a River”, “Try Not to Breath” and “Ignoreland” off Automatic for the People (an underrated-but-spectacular piece of work, start to finish); “Electrolite” off New Adventures in Hi-Fi; Murmur’s “Laughing”; and “Near Wild Heaven” off Out of Time. There are dozens more…
The risk in praising R.E.M. for its indie cred is ignoring the critical acclaim and radio play they did garner, which I suppose is what makes them indie poster boys: commercial success combined with the continued disinterest they showed toward success. Some of their “radio” songs were deserving of wider marketing support: “Fall on Me” was the lynchpin of what I believe to be their finest album, full-stop: Life’s Rich Pageant (a consistently fabulous compilation of songs, keyed from the get-go by “Begin the Begin”, one of the finest album-opening riffs in rock history).
“Radio Free Europe” off the incomparable debut LP Murmur, got tons of deserved play, as did Reckoning’s “Don’t Go Back to Rockville” — one of those tunes that people of a certain age will unabashedly wail along to, if drunk enough. It’s nearly anthemic, something indie rock isn’t supposed to inspire. These two radio hits are from the early days, from the high mumbling period, and yet they still penetrated the wider culture. I remember walking through the airport in Savannah, Georgia, circa 1994, and hearing a sort of easy-listening version of another Reckoning single, “South Central Rain,” over the PA. Ten minutes later, I saw Peter Buck and a woman I presume to be his girlfriend walk past me on the way to baggage. I still regret not running him down and soliciting comment on the irony.
At the same time, there were lots of radio songs that, in light of the great depth of R.E.M. albums, fell short of these high standards: “Orange Crush”, “The One I Love” and “Losing my Religion” seemed to me repetitive and derivative compared to the broader contents of their respective LPs. The latter just got played to death, and I’m still tired of it. But then, who can really claim to extend logic to the process of choosing hit singles (indeed, they poked fun at that very dynamic with “Radio Song”, the lead cut off of Out of Time).
These are front-loaded observations. The band’s later work was, to me, largely lost in the welter of other adult interests, musical and otherwise. Maybe there are people out there who find their last 6 or 7 albums just as good, just as strong as their earlier work, but I honestly have not heard that point made, even by staunch R.E.M. freaks. As they pointed out last week, it would seem they were simply out of time.