Friday, February 1, 2013

An Appreciation of REM

Last year REM very quietly broke up, something that left me with some mixed emotions, certainly not what my teenage self would have expected.  REM was without a doubt my favorite band from the moment in 1991 when I saved up some lawn mowing money and plopped it down on the barrellhead at the local Musicland to buy Out of Time. By the time a year and a half had passed I had bought their complete back catalog (mostly on cassette) and spent hours in my room plumbing the depths of each album. At a time when "alternative" music had not yet gone mainstream, REM fandom was a badge of honor, a sign of sophistication in the face of a wave of hair metal and homogenized pop. During my senior year of high school I became a disciple of punk rock, and for awhile that was about the only music I listened to.  While REM still held a place in my heart, their music no longer seemed quite so revelatory to me. That feeling grew in college, and when the band soldiered on after drummer Bill Berry retired, they began to look more like rock dinosaurs than innovators.  When they finally called it quits, I felt like the decision was ten years too late.

Although the last fifteen years of their career did not produce much of value, REM's classic-era music really holds up.  Today I listened to "Life and How to Live It" as my express subway train rollicked down the tracks, a sublime and exhilarating experience.  Now that I'm older I understand that REM's greatness lay in their collective nature, much like The Band and The Beatles. Most rock bands are one or two charismatic people surrounded by side musicians who usually hog too much of the spotlight. Not so with REM, all their songs had the byline "Berry Buck Mills Stipe," an acknowledgement that the band created the music, not some enigmatic genius. For that reason I think it's hardly a surprise that the group was lost in the wilderness after Bill Berry's departure. Each one of its members made unique and irreplacable contributions.  Let's break it down:

Bill Berry. At first glance, former drummer Bill Berry might not seem all that important, but the group just wasn't the same after he left in 1997. Berry's drumming was not flashy, but that was the point. Instead of distracting from the songs, his steadiness and subtlety allowed them room to breathe, much like Ringo Starr's unjustly maligned drumming. His backing vocals also contributed to the wonderful harmonies that set REM off from clumsier acts. Last, I think his laid back attitude and humor kept the group grounded during their rise to stardom.

Peter Buck. Re-listening to REM's early records I am blown away by the beauty of Peter Buck's jangly guitar parts, which sound like a post-punk reinvention of the Byrds. (My favorite Buck guitar part? The opening to "Pretty Persuasion.") Buck is definitely the musical center of the band, and growing up he was the one I idolized. He seemed like the supercool, laid back guy with a quick sense of humor that I wanted to be, not the shy dork that I really was.

Mike Mills. Bass player Mills is like the guy on a basketball team who can come off the bench and bring everyone else up, the Vinnie "the Microwave" Johnson of alternative rock. Not only do his melodic bass lines fill out the band's sound, his wistful backing vocals often provide great counterpoints to Stipe's leads. On the occassional tracks where they let him take the spotlight ("Texarkana," "Superman") he shines. He's also the guy who's undergone the biggest physical transformation, going from a nerdy look to growing out his hair and wearing Nudie suits. (Hey, if I had the money I would too.)

Michael Stipe. Stipe was probably the most compelling front man in alternative rock, and that genre's sensitive, poetic answer to the preening Mick Jagger. They have plenty in common despite the contrast between Stipe's earnest social conscience and Jagger's decadent satyr personae. They share an androgynous edge, both Jagger and Stipe have uniquely spastic dancing styles, and they even share similar vocal sensibilities. Though Stipe is a better singer, he and Jagger both borrow heavily from, and slightly parody roots music traditions. Jagger's affected drawl imitates the blues with a knowing leer by way of the East End, whereas Stipe's twang sounds like country in drag. For proof, check out this vintage rendition of "Don't Go Back to Rockville," where he amps up the hillbilly factor.

Ages of You: A Guide REM's Eras and their Albums
[This is nerdy and obsessive, but I feel like doing it. There, I said it.  Ed.]

The Early Years of Mystery, 1982-1985 (Chronic Town, Murmur, Reckoning, Reconstruction of the Fables)
Coming out of the gate with songs like "Wolves, Lower," on their debut EP Chronic Town, early REM combined cryptic, mumbled lyrics with fierce jangly guitars and melodic bass over basic drums. Murmur, their first proper album, is one of my favorites to listen to at night, its mysterious nature seems ill suited to the daytime. Off of this "Perfect Circle" and "Moral Kiosk" are particular faves. Reckoning offers up a slightly less mysterious but still strong set of tunes with Mike Mills' bass getting more attention on tracks like "7 Chinese Bros." I used to think that Reconstruction of the Fables was the weakest of the early albums, but now I love its explorations of rural weirdness and rainy-day feeling.  The band, however, always said this one was their least favorite, which is perhaps why they decided to change up their sound afterward. Signs of the future can be found in the funky "Can't Get There From Here" and the less opaque lyrics of "Driver 8."  The music from this period was like nothing else at the time, and its many imitators have failed to match it.  Despite all the great stuff that came after, the first EP and three albums will probably be what REM is known for decades from now.

The Rocking Out Years, 1986-1990 (Life's Rich Pagaent, Document, Green)
With 1986's Life's Rich Pagaent the group switched gears and took on a much more straightahead rock approach which some die hard fans still bemoan. Considering that they had pretty much played out their old approach, I'm happy that tracks like "These Days" rock hard. Another change came in the lyrics, which became a lot less mumbly and a lot more political. "Fall on Me" had an environmental message, "The Flowers of Guatamuala" addressed conflict in Central America, and "Cuyahoga" decried the genocide of Native Americans. 1987's Document perfected the band's new formula under the guidance of producer Scott Litt (who went on the produce most of the following albums), and even yielded its first hits in the form of "The One I Love" (the song that first got me interested in the group) and "It's the End of the World As We Know It." The follow up, Green, was their first on a major label, but mined the same shaft as Document to lesser effect (except for the awesome "World Leader Pretend.")

The Mandolin Years, 1991-1993 (Out of Time, Automatic for the People)
With 1991 the group had their biggest hit, "Losing My Religion," but did so after taking a step away from their rawk sound of the late 1980s. The lyrics are cryptic, but the topic isn't the United Fruit Company or nuclear weapons, it's matters of the heart and perhaps, *gasp* the previously verboten subject of love. Perhaps most momentously, Peter Buck's mandolin part drove the song, signalling a shift towards a more folk rock vibe. Out of Time still had some very pop, Byrdsy guitar moments like "Shiny Happy People," a much attacked song that I will defend to the death. It's a fun homage to sixties psychedelic pop and comes complete with a soaring Kate Pearson vocal and shining Buck riff. What's not to like? The follow-up, Automatic for the People, took things in a darker direction with a similar folky sensibility, and is easily their best album after the early years (or perhaps the best bar none.) "Drive" is an appropriate elegy for rock music, and tracks like "Sweetness Follows" address death head on. "Nightswimming" is perhaps their best ballad, "Man on the Moon" a pop classic, and "Find the River" a sublime way to close things out.  The album?  A masterpiece.

The Return of Rock Years, 1994-1997 (Monster, New Adventures in Hi-Fi)
At the height of their fame and artistic ability, REM decided to go back into rock mode, perhaps influenced by the contemporary grunge explosion. In 1994 they unleashed Monster, the most feedback-laden record of their career, and one that die hards (but not me) love to trash. With the first single, "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" they seemed to announce their relevance to all the flannel clad youngsters out there and claim their status as Godfathers. While touring off of Monster they recorded a lot of 1996's New Adventures in Hi Fi on the road during soundchecks (evidently the recording of Monster had almost broken up the band.) It's got a lot of rock and roll on it, but also a cutting sense of dread on songs like "E Bow the Letter" and "Bittersweet Me." Despite an overlong playing time and some needless filler, it's their last great album.

The Post-Bill Berry Era, 1998 to 2012 (Up, Reveal, Around the Sun, Accelerate, Crash Into Now)
Berry left after having a scary brain aneurysm, and even though REM has produced some good music since then, it's been pretty patchy in quality. Up and Reveal brought in some of the pop feel of the early nineties and a lot more keyboard textures, and even a handful of solid tunes ("All the Way to Reno," "Imitation of Life," "Lotus," "At My Most Beautiful" ) but nothing out of this world. Truth be told, I have yet to listen to their last three records, the only REM albums I don't own. Perhaps now that I have Spotify I can at least see if I was missing anything.  On the bright side, I've enjoyed Peter Buck's contributions to the Minus Five and The Baseball Project, and it's pretty amazing that REM managed to keep updating their style without ever really sounding derivative.

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