Upon learning that R.E.M. announced it was disbanding yesterday, my reaction was a mixture of dull acceptance and a steadily increasing, wistful sadness. Although the landmark, three-decade-old alternative rock group has somewhat stealthily become one of my favorite bands over the last decade (one day you’re walking around your apartment and you realize you own four out of the first five full-lengths and a best-of, and then decide it’s time to get more), after 30 years and its best work long behind it, the end of R.E.M. is an eventuality that would’ve been coming sooner than later. Judging from the information currently available, the breakup was amicable, which at least allows the band to be put to rest on a peaceful note.
Instead of laboriously laying out in meticulous detail what R.E.M. (first as a quartet, then continuing as a trio of singer Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck, and bassist Mike Mills ever since drummer Bill Berry retired in 1997) has accomplished and what it has meant to music, I’ll give you the quick hits. R.E.M. was not the first alternative rock band — there really was no such thing, as the genre’s messy birth out of punk and post-punk landscapes resulted in simultaneous, like-minded strains that would meld together to form the basis of a broad style — but it might as well have been. In the early 1980s, the (then) quartet’s ringing Rickenbacker guitar jangle, intertwined yet arching harmonies, and obtuse lyrics and artwork were a refreshing contrast to punk’s straightforward anger, New Wave’s slick kitsch, post-punk’s dour demystification, and hard rock’s feel-good macho swagger—and a definite portent of things to come.
R.E.M. was the first alt-rock act most major critical outlets paid attention to, receiving heaps of awestruck garlands for landmark LPs like Murmur (1983), and would help blaze the trail for alternative up the album—and later, the pop singles—charts and onward to commercial radio. The switch from I.R.S. Records to Warner Bros. in the mid-‘80s gave it the marketing and distribution muscle to conquer the world, and by the time of its early ‘90s commercial peak, R.E.M. was considered one of the most important bands going, a enviable example of how a socially-conscious underground band could reach the big time largely on its own terms. Stipe and Mills showed up to the 1993 inauguration of American President Bill Clinton, and weighty musical figures ranging from Nirvana to Radiohead to Pavement considered all of them heroes and inspirations. Quite justifiably, R.E.M. joined rare company when it was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame back in 2006 in its first year of eligibility.
Doubtless, R.E.M.’s legacy has been secure for a long time. The issue that exists is that it’s hard to get people to really care about it all. Given all the hubbub about R.E.M. that’s choked the media channels since the 1980s, one would think that Murmur, Automatic for the People (1992), and their ilk would be necessary rites-of-passage on the path to becoming a well-rounded music fan. But in my experience of bringing up the band in discussion with fellow musophiles, I generally run into replies that fall into categories like “I never really bothered to listen to them”, “Oh yeah, they do those hits that were big once”, and “I hate that guy’s voice”.
Folks aren’t necessarily in a rush to delve into the R.E.M. back catalog. Radio play has been scant for the group in recent years, and when R.E.M. manages to get a mention in a television piece for one reason or another, the accompanying background music is usually a well-worn (and sometimes way overrated) tune plucked from a very limited pool: “Losing My Religion”, “Radio Free Europe”, “Man on the Moon”, “Everybody Hurts”, “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”. I remember being struck by an article from 2007 that established that the highly-touted Murmur — often marked as the proper starting point of alternative rock—sells less than 12,000 copies a year, according to Nielsen SoundScan. What the figures plainly show is that when people want to explore ‘80s alt-rock, they don’t reach for R.E.M. on the record store shelves; they reach for the Pixies.
In my view, what’s happened is that it’s been taken for granted that R.E.M. is an “important” band for so long, few have really bothered to try to make sure the actual music gets across. For a lot of people, R.E.M.’s music doesn’t endear itself all that easily to instant devotion: the band’s songwriting skills seemed more hard-worn than inherent, its attack was often subtle and languid instead of direct, and Michael Stipe’s keening wail could at the wrong angle be as grating as cats fighting. The standard recommendation options aren’t necessarily the best, either. Few bands are the subject of “Their early work was way better!” raves more than R.E.M., and there’s some definite truth to that.
But the go-to recommendation is often Murmur, which in my opinion just doesn’t live up to its reputation; its mystique is largely tied to the context of the period when it was released, and its most famous track, “Radio Free Europe”, is actually kind of a weak song except for its prechoruses. Murmur is still a pretty good album, but it’s a horrible entry point. And anything past the ensemble’s ‘80s output needs delicate handling, as the wrong choices could turn off younger listeners who don’t want to be bothered by you and your dad-rock. I say that if you want a solid introduction that pulls out the stops, spend an hour with the band’s fourth album, Lifes Rich Pageant (1986), which I have on good authority is one of most thrilling LPs from the group’s oft-celebrated I.R.S. years — if not the utmost finest. That album’s bracing, assured first half should dispel any preconceptions about R.E.M.’s perceived stodginess pretty quickly.
If one does become an R.E.M. fan, he or she will have to inevitably deal with the late-career slump. Things arguably started to wear thin starting around Monster (1994), but Bill Berry’s 1997 departure irrevocably altered the group. Good songs were still to be found in later years (the Beach Boys homage “At My Most Beautiful” is my favorite), yet the excruciating dullness of the low points can leave a listener wondering where the magic all went. Accelerate (2008) was a vigorous revitalization for the band, a clear sign that Stipe, Buck, and Mills still had it in them. That strong late-period showing was why I felt the remaining trio could’ve tried harder on its last album, this year’s Collapse into Now, as that latest record merely replicated the surface elements of what made Accelerate shine. Little did I know that when I implored the band to buckle down and give its music its top effort once again a mere few months ago, I myself was taking for granted that R.E.M. would be around to prove me wrong with several follow-ups.
R.E.M. already earned its place in music history a long time ago. Maybe it’s a little silly to feel sad that there will not be any more potentially-disappointing full-lengths to come our way until the day Stipe, Buck, or Mills passes away. Still, here we are drawing a line underneath the career of one of the founding fathers of alternative rock, the Rolling Stones of its genre, one of the most momentous rock groups that ever existed. Even if you had to let the music waft in or unravel gingerly before you, when it connected emotionally — be it due to Buck’s delicate string plucking, Mills’ melodic basslines and boyish harmonies, Berry’s well-placed drum fills, or a quixotic couplet by Stipe that would make all the sense in the world when he brayed those words to the moon — it was evident that the critics weren’t just being overly excitable about the boys from Athens, Georgia. While acknowledgements and dutiful tributes are at the moment springing up to mark this occasion, I care that R.E.M. is now gone. Very much.