Radio Free Generation: A Guide To R.E.M.

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The origins of this guide predate my ever doing these discographies in the first place.  They date back, in fact, to September 22nd, 2011, to the day that the band officially called it quits (until they all discover big expenses later in life, anyway), and to the news item published by Gawker that day.  It was a Brian Moylan piece, of course, so it was needlessly snarky and a little obsessed with its own cleverness.  The piece referred to R.E.M. as a “90s indie sensation” that people “hadn’t thought about since Automatic For The People“.  It also called Fables Of The Reconstruction  “the good old days”.  There may be band breakup articles that got it more wrong, but I’d be hard-pressed to name any.  I wanted to sit down and write out the defence of the band as the Great American Sensation that they were, the definitive first band to rise up out of Generation X’s early obsession with music scenes to conquer mainstream radio, paving the way for the Grunge Revolution and everything that came after.  Then I realized that their comment forum was a bad place to say just about anything, and shelved it for another day.  Today, however, is a different day.

R.E.M. first appeared in the Athens, Georgia scene in the early 1980s.  Athens is a college town, hosting a campus of the University of Georgia, and it has been a reliable music mine, giving the world the B-52s, The Whigs, Indigo Girls, Widespread Panic, Matthew Sweet, Danger Mouse, Harvey Milk, and the entire Elephant Six collective.  In 1980, Peter Buck and Michael Stipe met at a local record shop, where Stipe kept buying all the records that Buck, who worked there, was putting aside for himself – both of them, as it turned out, were fans of Television’s Marquee Moon.  They met Mike Mills and Bill Berry, a rhythm section of university kids who spurred Buck and Stipe into making music together.  It was all very casual at first, of course, but when the crowds they drew began to dwarf the rest of the scene, it became suddenly much more real.  They had something special together, a spark that drove them to become Generation X’s first real college rock heroes.

I went to the only record shop in St. Catharines the other day, looking to fill up my collection, restless to dig through stacks.  I came out with four records:  The Texas Campfire Tapes by Michelle Shocked, Station To Station by David Bowie, Remain In Light by Talking Heads, and Lifes Rich Pageant.  When he was jotting together the total, the proprietor told me that there had been a time when he’d fallen out of love with rock ‘n’ roll, but that the Smiths and R.E.M. had brought him back into the fold.  That’s the kind of spark they have, the sort of ambitious sound that bridges divides and saves souls.

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Murmur

Released April 12th, 1983 on IRS Records

#36 on the Billboard Top 200

“Radio Free Europe”: #78 on the Hot 100

Murmur is the album that has been summed up as “Gen X Goes To College”.  It’s a cryptic, deliberately hazy album, the birthplace of the descriptor “jangly” which has been overused to describe primarily the guitar sound found here.  That sound – perhaps the most important kick-start for the “alternative nation” – came about because of a bad experience the band had with producer Stephen Hague.  Hague had tried to get the band to concentrate on technical precision and cutting-edge technology, going so far as to add in keyboards to the original recording of “Catapult” without the band’s permission.  Upon finally getting their way with IRS, the band brought in Mitch Easter, who had done the production on Chronic Town, their scene-breaking EP from the previous year.  Easter let the band record as they wanted; in a fit of pique after their experience with Hague, this meant that they decided to eschew guitar solos, contemporary synthesizers, and the sort of big-sound recording flourishes you’d typically have expected from an LP in 1983.

The result was a moody, swirling album, but less moody than contemporaries like The Cure or anyone else who was positioning themselves as an ‘alternative’ to the big-rock Zeppelin and Purple chasers who were even then bringing mainstream rock to a shuddering stand-still.  It was still structured like a traditional mainstream rock album, to be sure – guitars and vocals up front, rhythm section swinging away in the background – but instead of high-gain shred heroics and riffs that drank from the well of Tony Iommi, R.E.M. put together songs made out of chiming guitars straight out of the Byrds catalog, with clean, punchy bass to back them up.  Instead of an up-front caterwaul dripping with overt masculine sexuality, Michael Stipe kept things mushy, indistinct, and obstinately obscure.  Stipe, from Murmur onward, became the poster boy for mysteriousness in rock ‘n’ roll, penning lyrics that were couched in oblique metaphors and blending them into the songs as another instrument among equals.  Put together, Murmur is a timeless album, crafted out of a number of genres but owing fealty to none of them.

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Reckoning

Released April 9th, 1984 on IRS Records

#27 on the Billboard Top 200

“So. Central Rain” – #85 on the Hot 100

Taking a step forward from the pioneering sound of their debut, Reckoning found the band trying to capture the essence of the sound of REM playing live.  As a result, there was more of an effort to “rock out” on this album, an attempt to clean up the haziness of Murmur while keeping the singular songcraft that had marked the band out as something much different than their Athens contemporaries.  They went back to that original EP, Chronic Town, for inspiration, mining it for another go-around at jangly guitar pop that seemed to come straight out of the garage.  It was cripser, and somewhat more comprehensible, but at the same time it was lyrically a bit darker than the vague hash of poetry found on Murmur.  Part of the album’s sound is due to the fact that Murmur hadn’t sold to IRS Records’ expectations, and the powers that be at the label were looking for a more commercial album.  The band responded by making things bigger, cleaner, and punchier – Bill Berry’s drums in particular stand out much more than they did on the debut.  Part of the album’s sound is due to a violent storm that lashed Athens during the recording, resulting in the death of friend-of-the-band Carol Levy.  The aftermath resulted in an abundance of water imagery, notably on the wrenching “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)” and “Camera”.  “Pretty Persuasion” and “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville”, were a couple of Chronic Town-era compositions whose rootsy rock incidentally gave birth to the Tragically Hip.

Reckoning is a part of the DNA of the alternative movement, putting Murmur‘s jangle-pop into a much flashier setting and paving the way for all of the chiming, rootsy college rock bands that would follow in its wake.

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Fables Of The Reconstruction

Released June 10th, 1985 on IRS Records

#28 on the Top 200

“Can’t Get There From Here”:  #14 on the Hot 100

“Driver 8”:  #22 on the Mainstream Rock Chart

After Reckoning the band decamped to London and switched up producers to Joe Boyd, who had previously worked with Nick Drake and Fairport Convention.  They chose to use their time in England to explore the geography and the mythology of the American South, crafting their own southern gothics influenced mainly by their travels across the landscape during the near-constant touring they’d gone through in the course of their first two albums.  “Feeling Gravity’s Pull” represented a different sort of opener; dark and bouyed by a string section, it referenced surrealist photographer Man Ray and falling asleep while reading.  “Driver 8” was awash in railways and trains; “Maps and Legends” paid homage to Rev. Howard Finster, an Alabama artist and Baptist minister who’s art adorned the cover of Reckoning.  “Life And How To Live It” referred to Brvis Mekis, who self-published the book of the same name and kept every copy in his closet.

These were all fine concepts for an album, but Fables Of The Reconstruction played them out in a slow, dragging sort of half-time version of what they’d polished on Reckoning.  Aside from the rollicking “Can’t Get There From Here” the songs limp along in a dour funk.  Whether the sound stems from the exhaustion the band must have felt after three years of crossing the country or from the mood-altering English weather, it mars what could have been a much better album.  Bill Berry was of the opinion that it sucked, a decade after its release; Michael Stipe agreed at one point but he has come around on it, claiming a love for it.

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Lifes Rich Pageant

Released July 28th, 1986 on IRS Records

#21 on the Billboard Top 200

“Fall On Me”:  #5 on the Rock chart, #94 on the Hot 100

“Superman”:  #17 on the Rock chart

Recorded in Indiana, Lifes Rich Pageant shows REM’s first steps towards a much more expansive, arena-filling sound.  Dan Gehman, John Mellancamp’s producer, brought them to his bosses Belmont Mall Studio and brought out the crisp snap present in Bill Berry’s drums, let the bass dance on top of it, and managed to tease out the pop melodies inherent in Michael Stipe’s vocals.  It serves as the final chapter of their early college jangle and as the first chapter of their work as one of the leading lights of the more widescreen ambitions of the alternative movement.  Christgau called it “music for mushheads” but this was the sharpest that REM had been to date.  Lyrically it was overtly political, including a newfound interest in ecology (it was the mid-1980s, after all).  “The Flowers of Guatemala” brought out their political side, while “Fall On Me” gave the verse “There’s the progress / We have found a way to talk around the problem / Building towers / Foresight isn’t anything at all / Buy the sky and sell the sky / And bleed the sky and tell the sky”.  “Cuyahoga” follows up on the ecological theme presented on “Fall On Me”, referencing the Ohio river that actually caught fire several times during the 1950s and 1960s due to over-saturation of chemicals from the nearby heavy manufacturing presence.  The most famous song today remains the band’s cover of The Cliques’ “Superman”.  The track features Mike Mills on lead vocals, since Stipe was unimpressed with the idea of covering the song and preferred to defer to the bassist.

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Document

Released September 1st, 1987

#10 on the Billboard Top 200

“It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”: #16 on the Mainstream Rock chart, #69 on the Hot 100

“The One I Love”:  #2 on the Mainstream Rock chart, #9 on the Hot 100

“Finest Worksong”:  #28 on the Mainstream Rock chart

Document is the first album produced by Scott Litt, a collaboration that would carry the band through until 1996.  Like Reckoning, it takes the sounds they’d pioneered on the previous album – the big gestures, the snap of the drums, the arena-ready tone – and brought it closer to the way those songs were performed live.  Document is a big album; the songs seem to inhabit the sonic space to their comfortable limits, filling in the corners of REM’s sound in a way they’ve never been able to duplicate since.  As a whole it was even more political than their work on Lifes Rich Pageant.  The band has since acknowledged that many of the songs were a response to the state of Reagan’s America in 1986 and 1987.  “Exhuming McCarthy” conjured up the ghost of the Red Scare’s premier architect, imploring the listener to meet them at the book burning and pointing fingers at those who “bought the myth by jingo, buy American”.  “Welcome To The Occupation”, like “The Flowers of Guatemala”, shook its fist at American military involvement in the fascist regimes in South America.  “Finest Worksong” feels like the opening anthem to a revolution, and “Disturbance At The Heron House” and “King of Birds” follow along in that vein, through the streets and the riots.  “Fireplace” is a cut-and-paste of a speech by Mother Ann Lee, who led the Shakers in the late 18th Century.  The big tracks, of course, were “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” and “The One I Love”, both which are now staples on rock radio, as well as film and television soundtracks.  The former, with it’s rapid-fire stream of consciousness vocal, would drive millions to try to memorize the whole thing just to belt it out; the latter, a moodier track in the vein of Murmur, contained some of Stipe’s most vicious lyrics, including the classic “This one goes out to the one I love / A simple prop to occupy my time”. Both hit the Billboard pop chart and carried the band into wider mainstream consciousness for the first time.

Document and I have a thing.  Every year, when the warm weather finally arrives back in southern Ontario, I buy some beer, throw the windows open, and get drunk with the album as a soundtrack.  It’s my spring ritual, and I can’t imagine doing it with any other album.

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Green

Released November 8th, 1988 on Warner Bros

#12 on the Billboard Top 200

“Orange Crush”:  #1 on the Mainstream Rock chart, #1 on the Modern Rock chart

“Pop Song ’89”:  #16 on the Modern Rock chart, #14 on the Mainstream Rock chart, #86 on the Hot 100

“Stand”:  #1 on the Modern Rock chart, #1 on the Mainstream Rock chart, #6 on the Hot 100

“Turn You Inside Out”:  #7 on the Mainstream Rock chart, #10 on the Modern Rock chart

After Document, REM had grown sick of their record label.  IRS Records kept pressuring them to sell increasingly more albums; the distributor, meanwhile, didn’t consider the band a priority and made it difficult for them to fulfill IRS’ wishes.  Warner Bros, sensing a growing hit act, reportedly offered the band upwards of $12 million to sign, which they accepted.  The step up to big labels and big budgets came at a time of crisis, and Green proved to be a much different REM album than any that had come before.  Bored with their “assigned” roles, they switched instruments and began jamming with different goals in mind:  new styles, major keys, more exuberant rock songs.  The result was an eclectic mixture of styles that popped out a number of hit singles, prompting some long-time fans to cry “sell-out”.  Peter Buck would later describe it as an REM album without typical REM songs, and the overall collection is not as cohesive as their efforts with IRS Records.  The band labelled the two sides of the album “Air” and “Metal”; Air would be the poppier, lighter songs, and Metal would be much more dour, like the stodgier moments on Document.  Regardless of the overall project, their singles found major coverage on the radio and after the album’s release the band would embark on an exhausting eleven month tour in support of it.

The band would continue with the political statements they’d begun on Lifes Rich Pageant.  The release of Green was timed to coincide with the 1988 American Presidential election; the band was obviously critical of then-Vice President George H.W. Bush and supportive of Michael Dukakis.  “Orange Crush” examined the legacy of Agent Orange in Vietnam War veterans; “World Leader Pretend” blasted the outgoing Reagan administration’s bulldozer foreign policy. “Turn You Inside Out”, meanwhile, examined the nature of the singer and the audience that Stipe was already beginning to question, “Pop Song ’89” found them wondering where to go next in terms of the conversation, and “You Are The Everything” introduces what would become a major staple on future REM releases – Peter Buck’s new mandolin.

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Out Of Time

Released March 12th, 1991 on Warner Bros

#1 on the Billboard Top 200

“Losing My Religion”:  #4 on the Hot 100

“Shiny Happy People”:  #10 on the Hot 100

Out Of Time may have been the band’s big commercial album, but it sounded like the first album where R.E.M. had no idea what to do next and were firing in every direction.  Green was a little bit like that, but Out Of Time found them trying like mad to keep up their pop bona fides.  They brought in KRS-One to lay down a verse on the cheesy “Radio Song”, which feels to this day like a dated, forced attempt to keep up with pop circa the last decade of the 20th Century.  “Low” tries to go for a mid-tempo dirge feel and falls flat (something that “Near Wild Heaven”, by contrast, actually succeeds at).  “Endgame” is a nice enough instrumental although it comes off as fluff, filler for a band out of real ideas.  “Shiny Happy People” is the really egregious breach of good taste here, a lame pop confection that stands out as the worst hit single in their oeuvre.

It’s not all bad, of course.  Stipe’s trading in of the political in favour of the personal resulted in some rather emotionally affecting moments, notably “Half A World Away” (which would point the way for their next album), “Texarkana” (which sounds like a cleaner take on something from Fables Of The Reconstruction, and of course “Losing My Religion”, which will likely stand for eternity as the definitive R.E.M. song, and possibly the most misunderstood.  An entire generation grew up thinking that Stipe was making a metaphor about losing his innocence in the increased spotlight of global fame, when the phrase was really just a colourful Southern expression that meant “to flip out and start cussing”.  Still, despite these efforts, Out Of Time remains a sore spot in their classic catalog.

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Automatic For The People

Released October 5th, 1992 on Warner Bros

#2 on the Billboard Top 200

“Drive”:  #28 on the Hot 100

“Man On The Moon”:  #30 on the Hot 100

“The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight”:  #24 on the Mainstream Rock chart

“Everybody Hurts”:  #29 on the Hot 100

After the exhausting year-long tour behind Green and the scattershot pop explosion of Out Of Time, R.E.M. made the seemingly crazy decision not to tour behind their first #1 record.  Instead, they buckled down and went back into the studio to record the follow-up.  In many ways the years 1991-1992 were a major turning point for the group as artists.  They turned 30 and realized that the underground scene that they’d grown up in during the 1980s no longer existed.  By 1992 Husker Du was gone, and the Replacements were crumbling to nothing.  The glammed-out pop-metal scene to which they’d originally been such a powerful antidote was a bad joke, replaced in the hearts of the adolescent consumer block by grunge, hip hop, and R.E.M.  Driven by this rather somber realization, they cut out the candy-pop shenanigans and trend-chasing that had marred Out Of Time and made a spare, intimate, and very mid-tempo album.  Automatic For The People (named after the slogan of Weaver D’s Delicious Fine Foods in Athens) is, then, the peak of R.E.M.’s powers as rock ‘n’ roll’s premier ballad machine. Led by “Drive”, the album runs through a series of introspective ballads formed out of disconnection, failure, and loss.  “Man On The Moon” – one of only three up-tempo tracks present – mourns for Andy Kaufman; “Everybody Hurts” strives for a universal experience and nails it; “Monty Got A Raw Deal” examines the downward spiral of actor Montgomery Clift, whose car accident in the 1950s led to being mired in drugs and obscurity; “Try Not To Breathe” talks about the acceptance of mortality and the defensive posture of “having lived a good life”.  “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight” was put on the album to break up the rather gloomy mood present throughout, and in this it succeeds admirably; the track manages to be bouncy pop fun without stooping to the level of “Shiny Happy People”.  The band would come close to achieving the sort of quality they established here, but they would never quite hit this height again.

Of musical note is the presence of Peter Buck’s mandolin, perhaps never more present elsewhere than it was on Automatic For The People.  Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones provided the gorgeous string arrangements for “Drive”, “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight”, “Everybody Hurts”, and the gorgeous, shimmering nostalgia trip of “Nightswimming”.

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Monster

Released September 26th, 1994 on Warner Bros

#1 on the Billboard Top 200

“What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?”:  #21 on the Hot 100

“Bang And Blame”:  #19 on the Hot 100

“Strange Currencies”:  #47 on the Hot 100

“Crush With Eyeliner”:  #20 on the Modern Rock chart

Despite the commercial and critical success of Automatic For The People there was no tour behind it either.  Instead, the band met in early 1993 to figure out where to go next.  The consensus was to make a new album and tour behind it, as though they were some sort of normal band of plebs.  Bill Berry stuck his hand up and requested that they make a more rock-oriented album, something to break up the mid-tempo path they’d been on since 1991.  As such, they intentionally designed Monster to be an album of simple arrangements and the sort of loud, distorted guitars that were clogging up the airwaves at the time.  Stipe designed it lyrically to allow himself to take on the role of multiple characters, so that he could deal with the nature of fame and celebrity.

The recording process was apparently quite tense, with tempers flaring often.  At one point in the process, the band briefly broke up and then reunited.  Two of Michael Stipe’s friends, River Phoenix and Kurt Cobain, died during the process – Phoenix from a drug overdose caused by speedballs at L.A.’s Viper Room, and Cobain from a self-inflicted shotgunning at his Seattle home.  “Let Me In” was written in tribute to Cobain, while River’s sister Rain was brought in to sing back vocals on “Bang And Blame”.

I read an article once where it was revealed that Monster was one of the albums most frequently found in used record store’s bargain bins (another one of those albums was Last Splash by the Breeders, so take all of this with a grain of salt).  The problem with Monster is that the singles are great, and the rest of the album isn’t.  In a way, it’s an example as to why, less than ten years later, music piracy would be such a big deal:  casual listeners were drawn in on the strength of a radio single and discovered that there was a lot of filler to skip over in exchange for their $20.  “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” is the strongest song on Monster, to be sure, with it’s examination of the sort of paranoids that one can attract as a public celebrity.  “Bang And Blame” and “Crush With Eyeliner” both nail the kind of post-Nirvana alt-rock that the band was going for, while “Strange Currencies” continues on with the type of balladry that they’re best known for, in the vein of “Everybody Hurts” or “The One I Love”.  The rest of it, though, is utterly forgettable.  Tellingly, “Bang And Blame” would be the band’s last song to chart in the U.S. Top 40.

R.E.M. would embark on a tour behind Monster, travelling alongside Radiohead (who were supporting Pablo Honey) and Sonic Youth.  Stipe, Mills, and Berry would all develop health problems during the tour.  Berry was the worst off of the three:  at a show in Switzerland in 1995, during the intro to “Tongue”, he collapsed behind his drum set.  It would turn out that he had suffered an aneurysm, which would be the eventual impetus behind his departure from the band after the next album.

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New Adventures In Hi-Fi

Released September 9th, 1996 on Warner Bros

#2 on the Top 200

“E-Bow The Letter”:  #49 on the Hot 100

“Bittersweet Me”:  #46 on the Hot 100

“Electrolite”:  #96 on the Hot 100

New Adventures In Hi-Fi, R.E.M.’s last great album, was recorded mostly during the tour behind Monster.  As such, it’s primary obsession is with motion, and travel.  The bog-standard alt-rock guitars that made Monster a slog are still there, but they’re neatly tempered with mid-tempo experiments with form and atmosphere, and a dollop of country-rock thrown in for leavening.  The result is, as the title suggests, a cleaner, bigger R.E.M. side that begins the lean towards adult contemporary sounds.  Stipe leaves the mumble and mystique of his youth behind for good, finally projecting his voice towards the back of the stadium, like a preacher exhorting the crowd.  It lends real weight to tracks like “How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us” and “Bittersweet Me”.  “The Wake-Up Bomb” is one of the most criminally unappreciated songs in the band’s catalog – in terms of a late-period example of how well the band could do loud rock ‘n’ roll, it’s perfect.  “Electrolite” is another shimmering, beautiful track, like “Nightswimming” with more studio trickery.  “E-Bow The Letter” is one of the best songs to have been written in the 1990s – graceful, gorgeous, cutting-edge, and featuring Patti Smith on backing vocals.

It would be the last album Bill Berry would be the drummer on, as well as the last album Scott Litt would produce.  It goes without saying, perhaps, that the band would never be the same again.

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Up

Released October 26th, 1998 on Warner Bros

#3 on the Top 200

“Daysleeper”:  #57 on the Hot 100

Exit Bill Berry, and enter a series of session drummers and drum machines.  The rest of the band chose to soldier on and figure out how best to go about getting on without him, and they chose to follow the late 1990s into incorporating electronic sounds into their songs.  The result is a brittle, fragile sounding album, R.E.M. songs built on gossamer and thin thread.  AllMusic called it “easy to admire, hard to love”, and while I tend to agree with that statement I think that there is something muted and beautiful about Up.  They weathered the trend of putting electronic flourishes into songs rather well, much better than some of their Eighties contemporaries like U2.  The band was always good at ballads, which may go a long way in explaining why Up succeeds.  At any rate, it staved off the decline for a whole album longer than would normally be expected for a band in their position, and with the album’s examinations of the clash between the religious or spiritual with the force of science and technology, they used their newfound electronic influences to say something interesting about the modern age.

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Reveal

Released May 14th, 2001 on Warner Bros

#6 on the Top 200

“Imitation of Life”:  #83 on the Hot 100

More robust and melodic than Up, Reveal attempted to capture what the band thought of as the classic R.E.M. sound, only with more light, sunny breezes, and Beach Boys 45s.  It was deliberate and calculated and honestly not all that good.  “Beat A Drum”, “Summer Turns To High”, and “Beachball” are all written as homages to the Beach Boys, and are about as bland and inoffensive as you can imagine.  “Imitation of Life” served its place as a single, but there’s not much to it beyond a recognizably nostalgic melody.  The only real interesting song on the album is “Disappear”.  During a period of time when Radiohead’s Thom Yorke was suffering from intense stage fright, Stipe gave him some good advice about how to deal with it; this advice later inspired Yorke to write “How To Disappear Completely”.  “Disappear” was Stipe’s inspiration based upon the Radiohead song.  Come to think of it, that story is really the only interesting thing about the song.  Reveal didn’t progress the band, and its adult-contemporary sound didn’t win them any new fans or convert any casual fans into followers.

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Around The Sun

Released October 5th, 2004 on Warner Bros

#13 on the Top 200

About as inessential as you might imagine.

I once had a conversation that went like this:

A:  “Out Of Time is the worst R.E.M. album”

B:  “Have you never heard Around The Sun?”

A:  “It only gets a pass because it’s after Bill Berry left, and who cares about those albums?”

Naturally, Around The Sun was the first R.E.M. album to have no singles chart.  That’s because there isn’t even a passably good song on it.  Peter Buck once opined that it was the sound of people who were so bored with the material they were playing that they couldn’t stand it anymore.  It’s an apathetic album, devoid of weight, ideas, and emotional impact.  Every little nook and quirk that gave R.E.M. personality is sanded down into strict, safe Adult Contemporary.  Reveal at least had some bounce; Around The Sun can’t even mange to shuffle its feet.

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Accelerate

Released March 31st, 2008 on Warner Bros

#2 on the Top 200

One thing you can say about R.E.M. is that they at least recognize when the ship is sinking and try to bail it out.  Accelerate found them stripping down to their essentials and bringing raw guitar back to the forefront of their sound.  It was more propulsive and high-impact than anything since Document, and Stipe hadn’t been as political with his lyrics since Green.  Like the final years of the Reagan administration, the final years of the Bush administration provided him ample fuel for his viciousness.  “Until The Day Is Done” kicks off with the verse “The battle’s been lost, the war is not won / An addled republic, a bitter refund / The business-first flat-earthers licking their wounds / The verdict is dire, the country in ruins”; “Man Sized Wreath” begins with the raw sarcasm of “Turning on the TV and what do I see? / A pageantry of empty gestures all lined up for me – wow!”; “Houston” follows up the tragedy of incompetence that was Hurricane Katrina with the line “If the storm doesn’t kill me the government will”.  While Accelerate doesn’t really recapture the heights of Lifes Rich Pageant or Document, it’s a lot better than it really has a right to be.

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Collapse Into Now

Released March 7th, 2011 on Warner Bros

#5 on the Top 200

This is the final R.E.M. album, and in retrospect it feels like it.  There’s a lot of finality to the lyrics here, a lot of summing up and becoming okay with growing old and moving on.  In the best possible way, Collapse Into Now sounds like an R.E.M. album, and while there are weak moments through out, there are more moments that sound like they’d spent a lot of time re-listening to Lifes Rich Pageant. Stipe would again abandon the political he’d rediscovered on Accelerate in favour of more universal themes:  “Discoverer” recounts his arrival in New York City for the first time and is the only openly autobiographical song he’s written; “It Happened Today” finds him claiming his right to speak, after all that has occurred; “All The Best” makes for the perfect farewell for a band going out on a high note.  “Blue” ends in a swirl, with Stipe singing the title, before briefly reprising the intro of “Discoverer”.

Six months later, in September of 2011, R.E.M. would break up, making Collapse Into Now the band’s final statement.  It could have been a lot worse – Around The Sun could have been their final album, and that would have left a pretty sour note ringing down through history.  Collapse Into Now is about as close to the classic R.E.M. sound as you’re likely to get outside of their actual classic albums, and that’s about what you can ask out of a band thirty years into their career that isn’t Swans or the Flaming Lips.

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