The Passion’s Gone: R.E.M.

When I was young and full of grace
and spirited, a rattlesnake.

– “I Believe”, R.E.M.

R.E.M. has been a thing of the past for nearly 15 months now and any time I hear one of their albums it still seems a bit sad to me.  It’s not as if there was a death in the family, but it seems like a part of me died with them.  As many people who listened to them, I was in my formative years when I first heard their music.  I remember a vivid night as I looked out at all the small houses below while standing on a mountainside park with a girl I knew at the time, thinking of “Nightswimming”.  I remember spending an entire summer listening solely to Automatic for the People, part of the time trying to decipher the chorus to “Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite”, part of the time learning how to play “Find the River” on guitar.  I remember listening to “Fall on Me” and actually feeling that this world won’t last forever, that we are destroying it one tree at a time.  And I remember playing “Country Feedback” over and over again one night around 4AM, each playback hitting me harder than the last.  “Crazy what you could have had.”

R.E.M. was so ingrained within the culture of my youth, both as a popular act and as a comfort during my own introspective moments that without them, it seems that that youth is now, officially, over.  There is no fall back anymore.

However, if I am honest with myself, R.E.M. stopped being R.E.M. a long time ago.  Their string of success lasted for an absurdly long time given how out of place they were with the musical culture through most of it.  For starters, you could hardly understand their lead singer in their first few albums.

Case in point:

As time went on, they gained a cult following through their work on the independent label, I.R.S.  This included a nearly unparalleled string of successes, each album a bit different than the last.  Lifes Rich Pageant was clear statement on environmentalism, while Document was more geared towards the politics of the working class.  On and on they went, until they finally switched over to a major label, Warner Bros., leaving people skeptical.

The 90s for R.E.M. started with Out of Time, which was a good, but not great album.  It had “Losing My Religion”, which I honestly cannot stand any more.  It also had “Shiny Happy People”, which to this day I believe is some kind of deeply ironic statement on something.  I just don’t know what.

Then came, in my opinion, their best album, Automatic for the People.  The album was centered on mortality.  Dark, morose ballads were the centerpiece of this group of songs.  As a popular album from a majorly popular rock band in 1992, Automatic for the People was a bold release.  Think about it.  1992 was when grunge exploded, Kurt Cobain hadn’t killed himself, U2 was on their Zoo TV tour, and electric guitars and defiance was at the epicenter.  R.E.M.  went completely in the opposite direction.  And it worked.  It was that rare album that sold millions, yet also was deeply personal to each listener.  The last three songs (“Man on the Moon”, “Nightswimming”, and “Find the River”) are still the best group of closing songs I’ve ever heard on an album.

From there on, the group shifted again to two rocking albums: Monster and New Adventures in Hi-Fi.  Of the two, the latter is the one to invest in.  However, the latter was also the last with the whole band.  Bill Berry, the band’s drummer, left after the conclusion of the following tour.

But the band played on.

Instead of continuing in the same musical vein, they shifted again to a more electronic, quiet sound.  This led to Up, Reveal, and Around the Sun.  And after Around the Sun failed spectacularly, they finally took a step back to find their well worn bag of tricks.  This led to two good, but only good, albums: Accelerate and Collapse into Now.  Both played the nostalgia factor to perfection.  Neither had a new idea to speak of.

And then it was over.

In looking back, after Bill Berry left, the band was never the same.  The edge was gone.  The moment was gone.  R.E.M. was over before the band knew it.  Band’s have a shelf life and R.E.M.’s lasted from 1980-1996.  It was a great run.  Their last moment of relevance was the last lyric on “Electrolite”, the closing song on New Adventures in Hi-Fi.

Your eyes are burnin’ holes through me
I’m not scared
I’m outta here

– “Electrolite”, R.E.M.

The Passion’s Gone: U2

“The Passion’s Gone” is an on-going feature examining the creative trajectory of different bands in order to pinpoint the exact moment when their creative relevance dries out.  

“U2”

As far as bands go, few if any can compete with the success of U2.  They have sold hundreds of millions of albums and have been critic darlings for decades.  They are the epitome of the word “institution”, along with the Stones, the Beatles (what’s left of them), Bruce Springsteen, and Madonna.  So much has been said about them, in books, magazines, talk shows, and newspaper articles that you’d literally have to live under a rock to have not heard about them.  And that rock would have to be smashed with other rocks.  And those rocks would then have to be decimated…

Anyway, the point is, I won’t bore you with details of their ascent.  All you need to know I’ve listed as bullet points below (you’re welcome):

  • Bono is a megalomaniac.  Unfortunately, he’s also an amazing lyricist and, in his prime, one of the absolute greatest rock singers of all time.  He also at one point did this:    This was in the 90s during U2’s “ironic” phase, when Bono decided the best thing to do was to dress up like the devil, call the president, mock foreign leaders (being “ironical” of course) and sing us sweet lullabies like “Love is Blindness”. It was a grand old time.
  • The Edge understands how to use delay pedals for a guitar.  Just listen to “Pride (In the Name of Love)”, “The Unforgettable Fire”, “Even Better Than the Real Thing”, “With or Without You”, or really any song they’ve ever done.  It’s a majestic thing.  He may be faulted for his technical simplicity, but the man creates landscapes.  He revolutionized sound.   He’s OK.
  • There are two other guys.  Their names are Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr.  They do not have nicknames.  They are good, but not great.  Their career highlights include the bass line for “Bullet the Blue Sky” and the drums for “Sunday Bloody Sunday”.  Those are great.
  • If you don’t have a U2 album (in which case I don’t know how you ended up at this blog), there are a few you have to buy.  Here they are, in order from the-fact-that-you-don’t-have-this-album-seriously-makes-me-question-your-street-cred to pretty great: The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby, Pop, Zooropa, The Unforgettable Fire, War.
  • These guys are probably very good people and Bono really probably does want to save the planet.  However, they cannot convince me that they care about the environment. The energy cost of the Zoo TV tour alone probably could run Ireland for a few days or so.    However, it was awesome.  And really, the environment never rocked out like U2.  U2 wins.

So, now that you should have a pretty good idea on the outrageous talent that is U2, let’s get to the interesting part: where it all unravels a bit.

After U2 had completed their Zoo TV tour in 1994, they were undeniably the outright biggest and best band in the world.  Not only had they leapfrogged the bar for stadium tours with the gigantic artistic statement that was the Zoo TV tour, but they had delivered one flat out classic album in Achtung Baby and one great album in Zooropa.  This was a band that was continuously delivering knock outs while somehow also changing their own sound AND selling millions of records.  In short, they could do no wrong.

Then they did wrong…or so it seemed.

They released Pop in 1997, an album that was hyped as U2’s foray into dance/techno music.  Without going into the details, their fans did not eat this music up as they did every other album they had made in the last decade or so.  Then they booked a massive stadium tour, which sold only mildly well (for U2’s ridiculous standards).  All of this led the album and accompanying tour to be labeled a colossal failure*.   Apparently U2 had pushed the envelope so far that they had forgotten what made them special in the first place.  It was like when Michael Jordan decided to play baseball.  Why stray from such a good thing?  And so U2 did exactly what Jordan did, they went back.

And just like Jordan, going back led to success, at least commercially.

That retread came in the form of All That You Can’t Leave Behind in 2000.  You may have heard of it.  It had “Beautiful Day”.  It basically took over the pop charts for the better part of a year and U2 had “gone back to basics” and The Edge had “rediscovered his guitar” and apparently “it was on fire”.  I put these in quotes because I know some critic somewhere said some, if not all, of these things during the year 2000.  The album was quite good, particularly it’s first half.  However, it was harmless.  None of the caustic, biting sounds that drove Pop were on this record.  As critically and commercially successful as the new album was, it lacked any forward movement.  In fact, it prided itself on looking to the past.  This was the beginning of the end for U2’s creative relevance.

Theories may abound over why U2 chose, for the first time in its career, to look back instead of forward.  I have my own, take it or leave it.  U2, as previously explained, was the rarest of rare bands.  They were adored by critics and the masses alike.  For nearly 17 years, they were able to take musical risks while somehow growing their fan base.  As this continued, they ventured further and further away from their comfort zone.  This led to groundbreaking works like Achtung Baby.  Yet once commercial “failure” arrived, it came hard, and they were unable to cope.  They had never tasted any real failure. And they panicked.   They decided to find their fans again.  And with that, they joined the Nickelbacks of the world in whatever $5 bin you find them.

Someone wise once said something about how you only know you’re pushing boundaries if you’re pissing someone off.

U2 now, at its tamest:  

U2 what it once was:  

*=Side bar:  Pop was a great album.  Pop was not techno music.  Pop was very heavy musically, and contained some of Bono’s best vocals and lyrics.  The song “Wake Up Dead Man” will make you a believer.  My theory is U2 was so big at the time, it was destined to fail.  They had spoiled their fans and the weight of expectations were their undoing.  Dylan had the foresight to get in a motorcycle crash.  U2 had the gall to keep on.  Dylan 1, U2 0.