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.