Tuesday, January 25, 2011

REM: Colliding Into Nowhere?

REM will be releasing a new album in March, called Collide Into Now. A few of the tracks have leaked, and I think I've listened to three of them, once each. Nothing blows me away so far, but I've been a fan of REM for 25 years, so I feel I owe them my curiosity, at the very least. The problem is, deep down, I think the band I loved as "REM" ended in 1996, with the release of New Adventures In Hi-Fi. That was a great album, inspired in its creation and diverse in its sounds and experimentation. But drummer, songwriter, and future hay farmer Bill Berry quit after that album, and REM became something else. For the last decade or so, whenever my old friends release a new album, I wonder what happened and what the future will bring them. Because the Beatles were my first love, they (for better or worse) established the template in my mind for how a band should evolve, and they set the bar -- HIGH -- for any band's success. With that in mind, here's how I see the last two decades of REM:

Out of Time (1991) was their Revolver -- increased track space for Mike Mills (the "George" of the group), the apex of band harmony + mainstream success, creative and ground-breaking (for them) recording decisions. Automatic For The People (1992) was their Sgt. Pepper (complete pop culture dominance) but also their White Album (acoustic and organic), which found the band splintering, working separately, and starting to hate each other. Monster (1994) was, naturally, their Get Back project -- back to basics, rocking again, being a real BAND again, etc. -- but like Get Back, it backfired, and making the album almost broke them up. That makes New Adventures In Hi-Fi (1996) their Abbey Road -- built up from the remnants of the previous project, and pretty much the culmination of everything we would now call "REM music." The band got along better, but as with the Beatles, it would be short-lived, with Berry leaving after years of reluctance to play the rock star and (more crucially) after nearly dying from a brain aneurysm.

So, to me, everything after Bill left has been the "solo years" of REM, with all the joys, disappointments and (eventually) nostalgic yearnings for days past that the phrase implies. Up (1998) was a rush of post-breakup adrenaline -- Buck, Mills and Stipe actually sounded EXCITED to be forced to flip the script and re-invent themselves. Even Berry ruefully noted that right after he left the band, they made their best album. Perhaps he was just being courteous towards his old bandmates (as far as we know, his departure was entirely amicable), and he can be forgiven for exaggerating slightly, but Up was a GREAT album -- it just didn't sound much like "REM music" to a lot of their fans. I've always wished that they had followed through with Michael Stipe's stated desire to re-name the band "Three-Legged Dog" after Berry left -- he may have been joking, but I think fans might have been more generous to the post-Berry albums if they didn't have the intimidating (and hard to live up to) label "R.E.M." on them.

Anyway, things fell apart fast after that. The album after that -- I honestly can't remember the title! ... the cover had a lot of yellow in it ... ah, yes, Reveal (2002) -- was hailed at first as a "return to form" and Automatic-like in its warmth and optimism, but I never bought the spin. Between Reveal and Around The Bend (sorry -- Around The SUN [2004]), I like maybe 6-8 songs, and LOVE maybe two or three. Accelerate sounds to me like REM trying to make the "REM music" that their remaining fans want -- and not making the music THEY want to make. Perhaps Collide Into Now -- GREAT title, btw -- will launch a new era of relevance for the band, or perhaps it will be the last gasp of a tired trio of millionaires. Either way, I'll be there to hear for myself -- and even if I feel in my heart they are "done," it will be with no animosity. They had a great run, and I feel fortunate to have shared most of it with them.

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