Friday, February 4, 2011

More thoughts on R.E.M.

I've been thinking a lot about R.E.M. lately -- as I often do when a favorite band or musician has a new album coming out -- and someone wondered why I didn't think Accelerate (their last album, from 2008) was a great "comeback," an album worthy of their 1990s peak. Accelerate was, after all, hailed my most critics and fans as a "return to form," and as far as I know, it sold relatively well and was popular. But no, I really don't agree -- but I'm not looking to discredit anyone's enjoyment of Accelerate. For me, it seemed like a "reactive" album rather than an "active" album -- ironic considering all the energy in the tracks -- but what I mean is that it seemed like they had a band meeting and tried to figure out what the fans wanted, and then tried to make THAT album. I'm not calling it a "sell-out" -- I'm totally willing to believe that they had entirely respectable intentions, whether they felt they owed a "classic R.E.M." album to their fans, or whether they themselves agreed that they had gone off the rails with Around The Sun, or whether they were just trying to see if they were still viable as a rock group anymore.

Whatever their reasons were for making Accelerate, I was ready to take the album at face value, and I bought it eagerly on release day as most loyalists probably did. But it just never moved me, and I can't entirely explain why. Part of me feels like they just plain forgot how to ROCK in an "R.E.M." way a loooong time ago (like, since Document -- THAT long ago), and whenever they decide to "crank it up to 11" they sound like some other band that I'm just not that crazy about. Part of me thinks they sound like their hearts aren't in it anymore, that they're too complacent, or too insulated from the fans they're recording for, or maybe even just too gentlemanly to say out loud that they want to break up. And finally, part of me just didn't like the songs -- the melodies didn't grab me, Michael's gruff shout-singing didn't work for me, and I found no texture or subtlety in the music.

I mentioned in an my last post that I felt that R.E.M. had lost their WARMTH, their vibe of compassion and empathy that made me admire them in the first place. It all comes back to THAT for me. When I was younger, listening to R.E.M. was like being HUGGED by an album, if that makes sense. Even when they rocked pretty hard, as on Lifes Rich Pageant, the songs made me feel like they cared about stuff -- the world, their friends, their fans. They cultivated that feeling of community, it became who they WERE, and they nurtured it until it grew into full bloom on Automatic. That album just OOZED empathy. "Everybody Hurts" was a massive song of "Let It Be" proportions, and was soon being heard on TV shows and in supermarkets all over the place. It was the apex of their "R.E.M. cares about Y.O.U." image.

I don't know if the "hugeness" of Automatic spooked them, or if it was a coincidence that they decided to remake themselves as something more glammy, more self-absorbed, more DISTANT from their fans, but the warmth started to slip away with Monster (an album I still really liked). I thought they struck a good balance with New Adventures in Hi-Fi, though, with "New Test Leper" and "Electrolite" and others balancing out the "Wake Up Bomb"s and "Binky The Doormat"s. I think Bill Berry's departure stirred up some strong feelings in the remaining band members, and to me Up -- while still being more inward-looking than outward -- was full of emotion and deep thought.

After that ... I just don't know. I really don't like to think about it much, because it just makes me kinda sad. As I've said before, it's brought me no satisfaction to lose touch with R.E.M. -- it's not like I'm angry that they sold out, or I resent that they're rich, or I thought they got lucky in the '90s -- I've always been, and remain, open to them and their music. It just hasn't worked for me for about a decade now -- that's a long time to be a fan in exile. I'm happy for anyone who liked Accelerate, but we all experience music differently, and that just wasn't how I felt it. I'm curious about Collapse Into Now -- I love the title, and a couple of the songs have stirred something in me -- but I think I'm going to just wait and listen to it all the "old fashioned" way, after it's released. I look forward to discussing it here!

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