I've had two weeks to digest R.E.M.'s inevitable breakup announcement. I have to say, they went out with class. While they lost of lot of listeners after New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996), the last four R.E.M. albums were all very good. They were true to the band's roots, involved a fresh dose of Brian Wilson influences, and a few times went back to the sound of perhaps their most loved album, Automatic for the People (1992).
R.E.M. spent over 10 years as a consensus choice as one of the best rock bands in the US. They shared that title with other acts that have come and gone, including Talking Heads, The Pixies, Living Colour, Soundgarden, Metallica, The Smashing Pumpkins, and Luna (and some that have stayed, such as Wilco and Interpol). They were not only one of the best bands in the US, but they were also part of the New Wave. They entered the scene thanks to airplay on American college radio alongside the likes of Talking Heads and U2. And they were simultaneously part of the Athens Georgia music scene, which, along with Boston, Chicago, and Seattle, is a founding city of the Indie music scene of the 1980s and 90s (later to be branded "Alternative" by the music industry). R.E.M. is one of the few bands (the only band?) to bridge the New Wave movement and the American Indie movement, and arguably helped to found the Indie movement. While their Athens counterparts, the B-52s, remained in the New Wave movement, R.E.M. established the framework of how a small band from a college town could get radio airplay nationwide and music videos on MTV. In just four short years, R.E.M. went from having a critically acclaimed, yet underground album (Murmur (1983)), to a breakthrough video on MTV in September, 1987 for The One I Love:
I entered high school with Document, graduated college weeks after drummer Bill Berry suffered a ruptured aneurysm on atage (and bought a Georgia farm in preparation for his retirement), and firmly settled into New York to the sounds of New Adventures in Hi-Fi. I rocked out in my dorm room to the contemporary, distortion pedal sounds of Monster (1994) and enjoyed drinks in a bar in north Amherst with friends and the occasional female to the sounds of the honest, somber masterpeice, Automatic for the People.
There have been magnificent articles and books written about R.E.M. I close this post with some recent articles I've read in the past few years.
Here, [in Collapse Into Now], they discover the glow of middle age, warmly acknowledging the past -- hello again, Peter Buck's mandolin -- while realizing that the present can feel just as comforting. The sober, pretty "Uberlin" sounds like a happier cousin to "Drive." Twinkling ballad "Every Day Is Yours to Win" updates "Everybody Hurts" for the other side of despair, when optimism seeps back in. "Discoverer" and "All the Best" deliver sexy crunch for Monster fans. It's R.E.M.'s many faces, collapsing into now.
Even as the band’s popularity increased — Top 10 Billboard hits, MTV heavy rotation, arena tours, mainstream radio airplay — there was nothing overtly contemporary about their music.
From almost the beginning, there's been something backward-looking about R.E.M. fandom, a secret wish that R.E.M. never become more than a heralded but middling-selling college band from Athens, Ga.—even though such obscurity would mean that the vast majority of R.E.M. fans engaged in this Edenic pining would never have discovered them.
Even R.E.M.'s "political" songs of the era, like "Fall on Me" or "Exhuming McCarthy," are tricky to parse. " Fall on Me" could maybe be about acid rain, or maybe air pollution in general, or maybe, uh, missile defense? Whereas U2's political songs of the 1980s are a little easier to work out: "Pride (In the Name of Love)" is about Martin Luther King Jr., for example, and "Sunday, Bloody Sunday" is about Bloody Sunday. Stirring as those songs are, there's very little a listener can bring to them; they are Bono's take, not yours, unlike "Fall on Me," which, for me, in 1987, was a deeply personal song about the crushing whatever of existence.