Wednesday, September 21, 2011

regarding R.E.M.

After 31 years together, venerable alternative act R.E.M. is breaking up. In a way, the dissolution makes sense; the band is going out after reclaiming their critical glory on Accelerate and Collapse Into Now. Before those albums, the band was on a decade-long creative slide. On a more personal note, the band had also become just a tad irrelevant to me. Call it the curse of being an early favorite; I absorbed and progressed from R.E.M. early in my music collecting. Yet I still mourn the band’s passing all the same.

Let’s be clear, R.E.M.’s break-up is a solid move. They’ve been together a long-ass time, and as far as I’m concerned, their last good album was 1994’s Monster. But there’s still that feeling of finality. Because it’s one thing to think a band should call it a day and another for them to actually retire. And R.E.M. is arguably one of the biggest cult bands of all time. They’re one of the pillars of indie rock. You can hate all of their songs, but your life would be emptier without their influence.

My R.E.M. fandom falls into a weird space. Like many a youth in the ’90s, I knew the band for a handful of singles (“Losing My Religion,” “Orange Crush”) before I actually comprehended the band as a whole. When I got to high school in the early ’00s, I began investigating the group, along with other indie acts that made bank like Nirvana and Sonic Youth. But I was never keen on their underground early successes. Yeah, I dug “Radio Free Europe,” but I was, and remain, only kind of interested in Murmur. The hippest of the hip will tell you to get the first three records, but my trilogy is a different, more commercial one: Green, Out of Time, Automatic For the People. It’s not cool to prefer those records, but they sold huge numbers for a reason, got-dammit.

While Monster and Accelerate tried to be harder, Green is actually R.E.M.’s best strictly rock record. You get hits like “Pop Song 89,” “Stand,” and “Orange Crush.” They’re a little left of the dial, but not so much that it kept the album from going double-platinum. Out of Time is more of a hodgepodge. It’s pop-minded (“Shiny Happy People,” and ya know what, I like “Radio Song” with KRS-One), but it also mines these intense emotional depths (“Losing My Religion,” “Texarkana.” Automatic For the People would take that even further, committing its entirety to a rumination of health and innocence. Yeah, “Everybody Hurts” is thoroughly cheesy, but did you write “Nightswimming?” No you fucking didn’t, so shut your fucking mouth.

Automatic is R.E.M.’s finest moment, and that’s perhaps the only thing Rolling Stone and I have ever agreed on. But from there, the band struggled to find a new direction. Monster tried to take on the already fading grunge movement. New Adventures in Hi-Fi just kind of existed. It wasn’t until 2004’s Around the Sun that the band started to show life again, dropping another soft-rocker akin to Automatic. I think I’m the only person who liked that record, but from the wistfulness of “Leaving New York” and “Last Straw.” Yeah, the band has since disowned the record, but sometimes artists aren’t the best at judging their own work.

For me, Sun should have been the last R.E.M. album. Partially because I couldn’t get behind the retreads of Accelarate or Collapse, but also because 2004 is the last time I truly cared about R.E.M. I was a freshman in college, and yet that’s when I stopped listening to college rock. All of R.E.M.’s supposed strengths – the cryptic, mumbled lyrics, the jangly guitar – started to fade from view. Instead, I found artists who really spoke to me on an emotional level: I started to really pay attention to artists like The Cure and The Mountain Goats, whom I had loved but not truly explored. I got back into punk rock. I went through an ill-advised hip-hop phase. Seven years later, I find that I rarely listen to R.E.M.

But I still have a stack of their albums. And I intend to listen to every last one of them in memoriam.

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