R.E.M’s decision to call it a day and embrace early retirement took us all by surprise. The announcement was sudden and far from inevitable, rather than ending on a low or showing signs of wear and tear, the R.E.M of 2011 appeared to be rediscovering form.
Hardly coming apart at the seams the band appeared rejuvenated in the live arena with headline performances at Isle Of Wight and T In The Park effortlessly re-establishing the band as an essential live outfit, while the green shoots of recovery were beginning to emerge on record. Accelerate captured energy, if not the imagination, of youth, and Collapse Into Now showed that R.E.M. could still rise to the occasion with the poignant reflection on Hurricane Katrina “Oh My Heart”.
Still R.E.M’s decision to bow out gracefully on a relative high can only be applauded, but now they’re gone, it’s time to consider what exactly R.E.M. meant to the music world?
R.E.M. arrived fully formed. When Murmur was unleashed in 1983 it not only represented a perfectly constructed debut, but captured a sense of innovation and adventure. R.E.M. are rarely considered post-punk, but they embodied the spirit of 1977-1981 period of intense innovation and reconstruction, while simultaneously taking American indie music from the art house and into charts.
The phrase Art-pop defined R.E.M. early years. Michael Stipe’s pop sensibilities have always been highly attuned, but Murmur was a daring and confounding record. His enigmatic lyrical experiments, and the disoriented layered arrangements created a sonic forest, verging on a mish-mash that refuses to be pinned down. The sublime “Radio Free Europe”, “Laughing” and “Pilgrimage” are utterly enticing, you’re drawn in by the band’s warm palate and Stipe’s vivid turn of phrase, but no matter how hard you study or how deep you delve, the words are impenetrable and meaningless, but not devoid of meaning. R.E.M. challenged their listeners to fill in the gaps, they prodded; charm, heartache, hope and wistful reflection are all encouraged but the listener must provide his own emotional input to make these tracks whole. They set the tone, they create landscape, and you populate it with meaningful sentiment.
R.E.M. carved out a remarkable legacy on the independent label I.R.S. Full of invention, the little known band from Athens, George would create a jangle pop formula which, with it’s airy light guitar work, gripped the 80’s and returned to prominence during this century’s indie revival. There was more to R.E.M’s work than simple indie structures however, R.E.M. painted in mood and texture, their tracks would drift and migrate from the intimate and literal into expansive dreamscapes.
“Driver 8” best captures this lucid and amorphous sensation as the track flows from propulsive groove driven indie rock into a weary eyed stream of consciousness where reflection is king, and time slows to a gentle drift. The displacement is so deft, and so drastic, that R.E.M. can slip from bass driven post-Joy Division indie to harmonica driven country stomp without a jolt or judder.
The I.R.S years were undoubtedly R.E.M.’s finest and most fruitful, the spontaneity, creativity and progression of Murmur, Reckoner and Fables Of The Reconstruction are awe inspiring, and all the genre blurring imagination of “Harborcoat” and “Feeling Gravitys Pull” seemed to come to fruition on Lifes Rich Pageant.
The fourth album, the sure sign that R.E.M. were not only America’s answer to The Smiths, but that this band was not be denied, they would not settle for cult status, and they would not live on the underground. The four-track flourish that opens Lifes Rich Pageant is a pure adrenaline rush, all dynamism, all urgency, and beneath the artsy rush lays the impeccably addictive riffs and flare for sloganeering that would turn R.E.M. into chart toppers.
Document merely sealed the deal, R.E.M.’s direction of travel was set, and “The One I Love” and “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” forced the world to sit up and take notice. Stipe and co. soon left I.R.S. for Warner Bros. leaving behind them one of the finest independent label legacies in music history.
R.E.M.’s sound may have become poppier and more polished by the time they found their way onto a major label, but 1988’s Green was far from a smooth start. Half-baked and overstretched, Green was the most challenging release of R.E.M.’s career to that point. Still even while pushing their sound in new directions, Michael Stipe never lost sight of the charts and the intentionally inane “Stand” and “Pop Song 89” provide instantaneous hits, while “Orange Crush” became the band’s most important release to date.
The riff was huge; a stadium filler so daunting it would send shivers down The Edge’s spine, while lyrically R.E.M. launched a scathing assault on war and blind obedience. The title was a coy reference to Agent Orange but the track extended beyond Vietnam, it was a harrowingly, wide-eyed, and utterly sardonic assault on false moral righteousness that leads men to war. Stipe’s delivery is so gormless and enthusiastic that “Orange Crush” never becomes weighed down, it never lectures, and it’s anything but hectoring, it truly is a master class black-comedy and satire.
From then on in the hits just kept on coming, Out Of Time may have been the worst release of R.E.M’s career by 1991, but it spawn the indelible “Losing My Religion” and the joyous “Shiny Happy People”. However, R.E.M.’s defining statement, 1992’s Automatic For The People, was anything but a carefree hit parade. It spawned some of the band’s biggest anthems (“Everybody Hurts”, “Drive” and “Man On The Moon”) but the band turned from the wild abandon of carefree pop to produce a lavish album, rich with sweeping portentous strings and sweet subdued folk melodies.
Its themes were bleak; reflections on death and aging allowed a sense of terrifying tranquillity to grip Automatic For The People. Stipe is meek, his voice is often dampened, and when he choose to exude personality and burst out, his voices cracks, falters and settles into the gentle tones of weary acceptance.
“Nightswimming” and “Find The River” steal the show, beautiful companion pieces that find solace in a befuddled lack of clarity, celebrating the rankers of the journey and the poignancy of the moment rather than the over arching meaning or the grand solution. These tracks were born of conflict; fear and relaxation, a miserable present and a beautiful memory, grandeur and insignificant, ardour and effortlessness. They sound glorious and uplifting in the exact moments they break your heart and snuff out hope. “Nightswimming” and “Find The Driver” are beautiful anthems that inspire unsettled conflicted queasiness in us all.
Fans and critics still debate when the decline set in, some point to Monster as the first real disappointment in the band’s back catalogue, but while it never reached the heights of it’s predecessor it still had a wealth of highlights, most notably the rollicking “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?”.
Conversely, consensus has emerged that New Adventures In Hi-Fi was R.E.M.’s last great release. More sombre in tone, it embraced the gravity of Automatic For The People but the spirit and imagination of the I.R.S. years. As a result New Adventures In Hi-Fi feels dissonant and disparate, but focused enough to inspire. “E-Bow The Letter”, possibly R.E.M.’s finest effort, anchored the LP; a letter never sent to a friend in the throws of addiction, there’s a hopeless and fatalistic quality to the entire affair. Patti Smith and Michael Stipe’s timing and tone are pitched to perfection, and the track is overwhelmed by regret, a chance missed and a life drifting inevitably away.
Drummer Bill Berry left R.E.M. and the band struggled for both consistency and relevance across three disappointing albums, but even during a slump the band continued to write great songs, or more acutely, rewrite great songs. “Bad Day” introduced a new generation to the quick fire thrills of “…(I Feel Fine)” while “Imitation Of Life” was genuinely charming, recalling the joy of youth and pinching the chord structure from “Driver 8”. “The Great Beyond” became R.E.M.’s last huge hit, and with it’s utterly unavoidable chorus it dominated the radio waves and provided Man Of The Moon, the Andy Kauffman biopic, with a heart warming and enduring anthem.
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