R.E.M. is a vital band, but is their legacy as one of America's great bands becoming tarnished by sub standard rock.
I just dumped R.E.M. and this time it’s for good!
The first time I tried to dump R.E.M. was in October of 1994. The air was crisp, the sounds of the alt-rock that R.E.M. had helped influence had grown to the stale melodies of radio-easy music, and R.E.M. released their “rocker” Monster. Some critics talked about how R.E.M. finally delivered their great rock and roll album after years of toiling with the sad songs of the past. The quartet from Athens, GA finally came through with an album that was all parts Document and Life’s Rich Pageant. I placed that damn CD in my Walkman for a whole month trying to like the thing and one day in October of 1994, I told R.E.M. “I need a break from our relationship.”
Two years later and R.E.M. released a new album New Adventures in High-Fi and I bought it, kinda liked the last track “Eloctrolite”, but it salvaged little from an album of blandness and broke up with them again late in 1996. I was furious. I refused to make up again. I did this back and forth for the next three albums. Each album represented music that did not push boundaries or re-invent (or invigorate) modern music. I would break up with the band, get back together the moment their new album came out, break up after listening to each successive album until one day; maybe a week ago, a good friend came to me with a copy of the latest album Accelerate, an album I purposely ignored and refused to acknowledge, and a small endorsement of the album’s content; “It’s not too bad.” I went home, hooked up my headphones to my stereo, plugged in this latest venture into my musical heart, and two listens later, I frustratingly put my headphones down and announced; “Michael, Peter, and Mike (and Bill), I am officially breaking up with you. It’s over. I cannot handle it anymore. I know you are trying real hard and feel each album is a new venture into your maturing sound-scapes of a career, but really. Stop it. You’re no good to me and you’re hurting yourself.”
Don’t get me wrong: R.E.M. is the most important American band since 1980. No band has the influence on American music like R.E.M. Even Saint Cobain admitted that he loved what R.E.M. stood for in his life and, like Kurt Cobain, I believed in the ideals that this band adhered to in their career. But a simple check through the back catalogue of R.E.M. albums before 1994’s Monster displays a greatness that has been left behind. The question I propose is whether to believe that the last 15 years of R.E.M. is cancelling out the loads of influences that the previous 13 years created (pre-Monster? I am a big R.E.M. fan and I refuse to answer the question in the affirmative as I believe the back catalogue of R.E.M. stands up to the strands of whatever music they attempt to generate, but eventually this big band from a sleepy college town must realize that it is slowly becoming just a sleepy band. This, honestly, makes me sad.
What makes me sadder? Take a listen to R.E.M.’s 1st EP Chronic Town and pay really close attention to a song like “Wolves, Lower”. It’s classic Peter Buck arpeggio work, the mumbled lyrics of Stipe, the solid baseline of Mills, and the constant undertone drive from Berry. Then, consider how “Wolves, Lower” becomes a new language for what to expect from a rock song. There is a band recreating the verse, chorus, bridge, chorus pop-rock song on a small label EP. By the time the band puts out its critical staple Murmur, R.E.M. has crushed what to expect from a rock and roll song and it didn’t do it by recreating the patterns of the rock song, but by disagreeing with what we expect a rock song to sound like. They stood above the song and divided the elements and democratized the rock song. At the core, rock and roll is about Democracy. It’s the shared elements of the music that equals brilliance.
Truly, there is no difference to the frame of most R.E.M. songs than there is to a song by Boston, but it’s in the completion or execution of the song; the way the band hovers over each other, no part greater than the other; this gave rock and roll another lease on life. Ultimately, this is what good music does: it engages us not to try too hard and be weird for the sake of being weird, but rather to take what we already know, shake it up, and present it to us in the same form, but the result of hearing it gives another way of seeing that original unit of measurement.
For R.E.M. they gave us a different unit to measure the pop song. It is an ironic placement of what the ‘80s Alternative Music scene did for rock and roll. No one can call any member of R.E.M. a musical trend setter, but you can say that they made us think about what a pop song is supposed to sound like.
Fast forward today and I cannot help but notice that R.E.M.’s songs no longer carry the same unity. Two-thirds of Accelerate is filled with songs this band could do in its sleep. There is not one bit of innovation. They are a skeleton of loose parts; Stipe the “Cult of Personality”, Buck the accomplished rock guitarist, and Mills dressed like a bombastic rock star.
I get it. You’re no longer R.E.M. of the ‘80s. I don’t really want you to recreate Document, but I would really love you again if you realized that at your best, R.E.M. is a band that recreated the standard of how we hear rock and roll and that each time this band releases sub standard music, it reminds us that they are inching ever closer to becoming the new Boston. It’s only a short ride to “More than a Feeling”. Ironically, I would love for them to stop by my house and play me “More Than a Feeling”. I would love for them to rise above the song, sell it to me as something more than what I expect it to be. Maybe this could regenerate my love for R.E.M. again.
I mean, come on. I broke up with the band, but I’m not going that far away. I’m only a phone call, a short letter, or a new album away.