For some odd, quite random reason I woke up the other morning, wondering: what’s R.E.M. up to these days?
Turns out, the legendary group disbanded in 2011. Ten years ago no less. Time flies. I Googled a bit, and recounted memories of the band. Not my favorite I confess. But they were everywhere back in the day. So many 80’s and 90’s house parties in Ottawa were powered by R.E.M., and, of course, they dominated radio and their arthouse videos received regular rotation on Much Music.
As I read interviews with the band and scanned their discography my curiosity was piqued. I’ve only ever purchased three R.E.M. CDs: Eponymous; Monster; and Out of Time. As a greatest hits package I’m embarrassed Eponymous is one of them. This is never the civil way to listen to a record. It should be done using the proper, original album sequence from side A through to Side B (or in some cases with R.E.M. from Side C to Side D or from the Hi Side to the Fi Side or from the Up Side to the Down Side) — just as the artist intended. There’s a reason why songs are arranged they way they are, and stories need to unfold properly.
I can confirm I still have crappy 192kbps MP3 rips of those CDs on my hard drive. My guess is I’ve only ever listened a few times to those albums. I just happened to be more of a new wave/electronica guy back then.
Streaming services these days like Spotify, Apple Music and the ones I used to revisit R.E.M., Tidal and Qobuz, give us instant and informative access to an artist’s work. Surfing discography is much easier than in the past; no need to sort through CDs or albums to pull together the story and jump into a listening session.
Then an idea came to mind…
Why not listen in chronological order to R.E.M.’s entire discography from start to finish? From 1983 right through to 2011. 15 studio albums spanning a 28-year career.
I’ve done this before with film and directors. Why not music?
You can glean a lot from this sort of linear, artistic journey. I would do this for some of my favorite directors. For instance I’d start with Eraserhead (1977) by David Lynch, and work my way across his work in sequence, from Blue Velvet (1986) all the way up to Mulholland Drive (2001) and Inland Empire (2006). Same too with Hitchcock (might take a year or so!), Kubrick, Paul Thomas Anderson, Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan), Francis Ford Coppola, Ingmar Bergman (Persona is cinema), and Andrei Tarkovsky amongst so many others. Note: always try to seek out the writer/director stuff — aka the auteurs — as it’s the purest form of that individual’s vision.
So this would be a first for me, revisiting a band I never particularly paid much attention to and seeing how an intense retrospective listening session over several days would or would not alter my perspective on their music and artistry.
My expectations going in to this exercise were not exactly positive. This is going to be a slog I thought. A dull, grinding melancholic exercise in doom and gloom. Spending a few days inside Michael Stipe’s brain felt like a doomsday task. After all, this is a guy seemingly forever cloaked in despair. Even radio hit “Shiny Happy People” was not quite about shiny happy people. More on that later. For now I resigned to myself, that if I were to listen to all 15 R.E.M. studio albums back-to-back with a serious intent to learn along the way then I’d be exposing myself to the ultimate real-life Linus (Linus van Pelt). Well, at least a could-be Linus that had attended Oxford and won the local poetry reading contest that is. I was/We were headed into a rabbit hole overflowing with a conflation of intellectual and existential angst, one perhaps best suited to random hot takes on songfacts.com or a university thesis or at the very least a deep, deep conversation at the end of a bar at 1am. I would definitely not be hanging out with Winger.
A retrospective is like flying a drone over an artist’s work: you can see and study and admire the big picture. Especially since, as is the case here, the group had disbanded and consequently there was a definitive beginning and end.
But before I jump headlong into R.E.M.’s work, some initial observations and thoughts.
In the Beginning: Jangle Rock
To understand the music of R.E.M., we need to start with something called Jangle Rock, or Jangle Pop. There’s other genres used to describe the band too — College Rock and Alt Rock and Indie Rock/Folk are also common. Jangle Rock seems to me to be the polar opposite of a harsh Canadian winter. Rather, it conjures images of hot summer nights in the South, guys drinking beers and fooling around with guitars, mandolins and keyboards. Acoustic musings. Easy going stuff with infectious rhythm. A wild guess that many an alcohol-based libation probably fueled those scenes. Athens, Georgia is a college town so all the elements were in place.
Per Wikipedia, “Jangle or jingle-jangle is a sound typically characterized by undistorted, treble-heavy electric guitars (particularly 12-strings) played in a droning chordal style (by strumming or arpeggiating). The sound is mainly associated with pop music as well as 1960s guitar bands, folk rock, and 1980s indie music. It is sometimes classed as its own subgenre, jangle pop. Music critics usually deploy the term to suggest guitar pop that evokes a bright mood.”
Early bands employing this technique included The Beatles, The Byrds and The Everly Brothers, among several others.
I’d describe R.E.M.’s interpretation as a less industrial, more folksy version of, say, The Edge from U2 who also uses strumming and pedals to create a pulsing, sonic layer of guitars.
Regardless of labels and descriptors, the band puts their own, completely unique stamp on this flavor of sound.
R.E.M. — Uncompromising Artists & Visual Storytellers
It’s impossible when talking about R.E.M. not to call out the band’s attention to visuals. From artistic liner notes, interesting artwork and photographs to stunning music videos and their imaginative album covers, they are not unlike, say, David Byrne and the Talking Heads. If they weren’t musicians it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine them as painters, photographers and writers. R.E.M. is very much grounded in the arts.
Music videos were a big part of the backdrop during their career, especially in the 1980’s. If you watch one R.E.M. music video let it be “Losing My Religion”:
An iconic music video. Undoubtedly, one of the most beautiful ever made. Also see: U2’s “With or Without You.”
Later the band would slightly lose this sensibility with the relatively straight ahead Monster in 1994, a change in direction that distanced themselves, if only momentarily, from some of the artistic magic they had spent half their career establishing. Nevertheless, you could always count on REM to challenge you with lyrics that almost never meant what they seemed on the surface. Visuals, metaphorically and literally, are a big part of the secret sauce.
Speaking of visuals, I especially enjoy admiring and studying album artwork. It’s one of the great joys of the vinyl experience, and one that streaming (and even CDs) can’t replicate.
Interestingly, the R.E.M. logo and font changes for every single album. Where some bands might find a consistent style (Winger!), R.E.M. prefers to keep morphing, just as their sound would too. For someone like me, the result when looking at their visual discography can result in overwhelming disconsonant vibes.
Here’s 15 studio albums worth of font inconsistency — in the most artistic and beautiful way possible:
Shiny Happy People
Midway through Automatic for the People the band seems to say “screw it,” let’s just party and jump up and down. The result: “Shiny Happy People.” On the surface it’s literally happy people singing and dancing. Shiny happy people. Good thing for Google. Before I dismissed the track as a respite from the proceeding sorrow and melancholy I searched the internet just in case Michael Stipe had cooked up deeper meanings. Maybe something festered beneath the infectious melodies. Indeed:
Ah, the irony of a deeply political song wearing a happy pop dress. In a way it demonstrates that if you give propaganda a catchy beat the result can be even more effective — the people will gladly chew that bubble gum.
As the early 90’s rolled around and Monster (1994) arrived the band still sounded like R.E.M. — even on the supposed change-up Up they do — but with an obvious effort to be more rock-n-roll and an emphasis on heavy guitar placed front and center. This makes sense. After all, the 80’s were long dead and so was new wave. Nirvana put the final nail into that coffin and grunge took over. So bands like Blind Melon, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and Stone Temple Pilots were dominating the airwaves with an anti-pop sound. Naturally R.E.M. would take this on-ramp and give the scene their own take of guitar forward alt rock with Monster. Still, it marked a departure from the jangle formula that had propelled them to this point in time. More on that curious detour when I circle back with some thoughts after I finish listening through their entire body of work.
R.E.M. Revisited from 1983 to 2011
The images below are social shares from Roon, with album information and rating provided by Allmusic.
A few basics before we start listening.
R.E.M. is a 4-person band formed in 1980 in Athens, Georgia: Michael Stipe on lead vocals; Peter Buck on guitar; Mike Mills on bass guitar; and Bill Berry on drums. They’re all quite musically talented so it’s not uncommon for them to switch instruments for a song or two. Further, they’re not adverse to introducing instruments not typically associated with alt-rock/pop bands. Things like the mandolin, accordion and organ. They recorded under two labels. I.R.S. in the early years and Warner from Green through to the end in 2011. R.E.M’s first national TV appearance was a promotional performance for Murmur on David Letterman in 1983. It’s worth pulling that grainy video up on YouTube. You immediately get a sense, with that thrilling and unbridled performance, that this band is going places.
If you feel like playing along and have a music streaming service at hand feel free to pull up their discography and listen along. I’ll add commentary along the way for each record.
Murmur was the first R.E.M. album, so we’ll start there, way back in 1983…
A blazing debut album. The energy. The excitement. The catchy hooks. It’s all here. R.E.M. definitely makes quite an opening statement. To hear this record in 1983 against the force what was then new wave and electronic music must’ve been quite something. Having already heard most of R.E.M.’s material it’s hard to evaluate this as if hearing the band for the first time, coming out of nowhere, with a unique sound. Critics who reviewed Murmur at the time, in the moment, likely captured the initial euphoria surrounding this up-and-coming band from Athens. A great listen. Still sounds fresh and hasn’t dated a bit — a testament to the chemistry among Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Bill Berry. I wonder what with the slightly murky mix and the album’s title if this is a subtle nod to mumblecore film? (probably not, but I like the obscure reference), Murmur came three years after Boy an equally striking, but different sounding debut by a band called U2.
These are early R.E.M. records. Michael Stipe’s vocals seems so far away! As a result there’s a certain muddiness or just plain distance to the whole thing. Later productions (especially the Monster re-mix) would straighten things around. Though, not necessarily for the better. There’s a certain feeling Reckoning has, and it really plays like a continuation of the debut record. “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)” reads like an R.E.M. template for future big hits. Stipe’s signature soaring vocal, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry” gives goosebumps, knowing that within a decade or so these four guys would become one of the biggest bands — if not the biggest — in the world. 38 minutes gone in the blink of an eye. Stellar sophomore effort.
Fables of the Reconstruction (1985)
I really appreciate that these I.R.S. records are available in hires FLAC 192kHz/24-bit lossless. They sound fantastic. I’m still listening on my Sony MDR-V6s headphones. Maybe a little too bright, but they do bring out the guitar work. Stipe’s lyrics here are already a tour de force. Check out “Driver 8” as but one example. The track certainly feels like something out of their childhood. So far my only minor criticism of these early records is that they tend to all feel very alike, and, also, they all seem to be devoid, for the most part, of the ebbs and flows in emotion and pacing found in later work. Still, another top notch R.E.M. record that’s over in a flash.
Lifes Rich Pageant (1986)
“Fall on Me” and “Superman” are early signs that this band can write radio friendly tunes and was set for super stardom. Most of the songs are shorter in length, which again contributes to an exhilarating session that leaves you wanting more. On this, the band’s fourth album, I think we’re starting to hear the result of higher end production. There’s a good mix here of mythology, environmental and politically charged themes, and just good old fun. “Superman” is a glorious sendoff with beautiful harmonies and Mike Mills taking the lead with outstanding results. Is it about narcissism? Love out of control? A stalker? You decide. Regardless: a knockout of a closing track.
Document (R.E.M. No. 5) (1987)
Producer Scott Litt is now on the scene, and would lead production for the next decade. And what a ride it would be. I believe this to be the band’s breakout, both artistically and commercially. Document is an exciting record, start to finish. R.E.M. is clearly in the zone, and I suspect that they’re fully aware and absolutely confident that they’re about to make history. Yes, they are now truly rock stars, ready for take off. While this is mostly considered indie/alt rock there’s some hard driving tracks that almost pre-date the impending grunge movement that would hit in about four years time led by Nirvana. That R.E.M. avoided synthesizers and other electronic effects, instead focusing on being a tight, straight ahead guitar-oriented unit, really grounds their sound and helps make it feel timeless. I like that they added “R.E.M. No. 5” in parenthesis to the title. Was Tarantino or R.E.M. first in this stylish flourish? Monster hits: “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)” and “The One I Love.”
Green is a decent entry that actually gets better with repeated listening’s. To the point where I’d now say it’s fantastic. The 41-minute record gives us pretty much more of the same, and generates a few more catchy hits, though I can’t help but feel it falters a bit towards the end. Clearly Litt has found the formula and the the band is as slick as ever. Even non-R.E.M. fans will likely recall hearing “Stand” and “Orange Crush” at a bar or friend’s house or on the car radio. It’s worth noting that this is the first album recorded under the Warner label. So distribution and marketing would become formidable. But so too would pressure on the band to deliver. If there was any pressure, though, you certainly don’t feel it on Green. There’s no desperate attempts at could-be cliched attempts to “write a radio hit.” I wouldn’t move to Silicon Valley for another 10 years at this time, yet I had to smile at how well Stipe captures this State in “I Remember California.” Given his penchant for outspoken environmentalism and promoting good causes and so forth, I wonder how he’d interpret the wildfires and massive climate change we’re seeing across the country, especially in these last few years — not to mention the rise of populism. “Stand” is an excellent example of how an R.E.M song can sound deceptively simple (and catchy). Following along with the lyrics I realize the intricate interplay between the lead and backing vocals involves tricky timing and belies — what at least seems like on the surface — Stipe’s simple and repetitive “Stand in the place where you are” line. Plus, that nearly imperceptible background organ. Three minutes of pop perfection.
A brief listening break…
I grab a plateful of ridiculously sweet pastries (leaving a small share for Loni back in the kitchen) and a fresh shot of espresso.
I change headphones.
I love the Sony MDR-V6s which I’ve been using for decades (having replaced the pads more than a few times) and primarily turn to them during lengthy editing sessions for Stark Insider videos requiring precise sound work. But the Sennheiser HD518s present music with a richer and lusher presentation as the audiophiles might say. There’s less top end, so trebles are muted compared to the Sony’s. In return I find I can listen longer without fatigue. And the seal is better, further reducing outside sound, and getting me even more intimate with the R.E.M. sound, which seems right about now as I head into the peak of their career.
Out of Time (1991)
Masterpiece alert. U2 has The Joshua Tree (1987) and Achtung Baby (1991). R.E.M. has Out of Time (1991) and its successor Automatic for the People (1992). I believe this to be definitive R.E.M. Everything is perfect here. Pacing. Production. Lyrics and songwriting. Stipe’s voice soars on “Radio Song” with Mills’ gorgeous chords backing the chorus so, well, perfectly. Hey, hey, hey! Indeed. Of course many will remember the duet “Shiny Happy People” the most, what with that super infectious video, and Kate Pierson’s (B-52s) energetic vocals (reminds me of an indefatigable Julie Andrews from The Sound of Music who, Nazis be damned, because when she wants to, knows how to have fun singing and spinning on a very good day and will not be denied). I find the backstory and true meaning of this song a bit of an eye opener. I just never knew back then. Instead, when this song came on, we were all dragged on to the dance floor… every time. In any case, it demonstrates how diverse this band had become in their ability to master so many different styles, while still retaining and building an ever increasing fanbase. “Losing My Religion,” of course, made Michael Stipe an international icon and rock star. He and the band shot to superstardom. Art direction for that music video is stunning. If there’s one bug in the anointment it’s the usually reliable Allmusic review and choice track selection. 2.5 stars?! Nope. Wrong (they’re also way off the mark with Bridges Over Borders by The Spoons, as a Canadian new wave aside). I’ve taken the liberty to set the record straight for Out of Time:
Automatic for the People (1992)
Between Out of Time and this gem, Automatic for the People, R.E.M. reveals their full selves across two successive albums. Accomplished pop song singers with catchy and even danceable hooks, and, alternatively, a brooding, dark, and mysterious bunch of story-tellers. It’s the latter that likely will keep listeners particularly engaged because of the depth and ability of the challenging material to reveal more after each listen. “Monty Got a Raw Deal” once again sent me to Google to figure out the meaning. Same too for the album’s title which, of course, has yet another backstory.
yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Loni briefly interrupts me during Automatic for the People. I tell her how amazing this experience is so far, revisiting R.E.M. album by album. Then I realized I had teared up a bit listening to this one. Tracks like “Everybody Hurts” (one we’ve all heard oh-so-many-times) and “Sweetness Follows” and “Man on the Moon” had immersed me completely and I had stopped taking notes and was just absorbed in the music, memories of college days and hanging out on Elgin Street projecting in my imagination like a home movie. Mike Mills’ songwriting acumen is devastatingly effective on the ballad “Nightswimming” (and I should mention how his backing vocals are an instrumental part of the R.E.M. sound and often a valuable counterpoint to the melodies).
Day 1 was emotional. I didn’t expect that. This was a good place to stop for now. I needed a cold Stella, and some time to reflect.
The next day I fire up Roon on my PC video editing rig and once again pull up R.E.M.’s discography and the journey continues…
I made a mistake here. There’s a handful of versions of Monster available on streaming. I have Qobuz and Tidal subs and use Roon as the main interface. The most obvious pick here is the “25th Anniversary Edition” as it had been remastered and was available, like much of R.E.M.’s catalog, in hi-res. So I chose that one. Later I learned that not only was it remastered, but it was also re-mixed by original producer Scott Litt who was unhappy with the murky original. Oops. No, no. A shame. At least for this experience I always want to hear the original recording as it was at that time (a “remaster” is fine as it retains the mix and intention). So I had to re-listen to Monster, this time opting for the original Orange Bear mix. No big deal, as this is a solid alt-rock record (note: there’s a significant difference in the mixes, and I do appreciate the newer one by far, though at times it might feel a bit like an over-sharpened, over-saturated Instagram photo). I’m not convinced by Stipe’s Prince-like falsetto on “Tongue” but “Bang and Blame” is a scorcher and leaves an impression and there’s the hit and lead single “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” which sounds just as smart some 27 years later. “King of Comedy” suggests the band is reflecting on the trappings of celebrity. “Star 69” — I remember that, call tracing. “Let Me In” is apparently Stipe trying to talk Kurt Cobain down. Chills. This feels like a Rockstar’s rocker record — there’s hints of Glam, and certainly no shortage of swagger. Mike Mills calls this album a counterpoint to the more somber Automatic for the People and pop-oriented Out of Time. Indeed this is loud, arena-ready material, even if they managed to sneak in some little birdies during the fade out.
New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996)
The big Warner contract. $80 million starts here. The deal is for six records and is one of the largest of all-time. Interestingly, the group would break-up (amicably) after fulfilling the Warner obligation. Opening track “How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us” has a Michael Hutchinson vibe, and along with its cool swagger and repeating beat and light guitar might be easily included in a mid-80’s INXS album. Note that several of the tracks — “The Wake-up Bomb,” for instance — are tagged as “Live” by Allmusic. But there’s no crowd noise and they don’t seem to be live in the traditional, recorded-during-a-concert sense. My guess is that these tracks were actually recorded live, with the band in concert formation, running through the song on stage in some space somewhere, as opposed to engineering a song one layer at a time with individual studio sessions, gradually mixed together. Maybe the thought was that approach would produce a more lively and dynamic recording to juice up the energy level on the album. Parting thought as I neared the end of Hi-Fi: I wonder if the Mulholland Drive mention in “Electrolite” is a David Lynch reference or strictly just the famous Hollywood street itself. Or maybe both? Either way, a strong closer to another milestone R.E.M. album, oozing in strong visuals and metaphors, and yet not compromising on its innovative and mesmerizing musical platform courtesy of Mills, Buck, and Berry.
Up opens with “Airportman,” an ethereal track that’s almost hypnotic in its Brian Eno-esque presentation. I suppose that’s the guys prepping us for an updated sound on their first record since the departure of drummer Bill Berry. New producer too. Up has a low key, laid back feeling. Stipe’s voice is sounding different, but I can’t put a finger on why. He’s getting older? Nevertheless, despite many critics signaling Up as a significant departure in style this still sounds like R.E.M. and the results are occasionally enjoyable enough. Emphasis on keyboards is welcome. Electronic Jangle Pop. Achievement unlocked. The pace, however, is glacial and bland. But even worse: it’s just a boring record. Too bad, I was expecting something wild and unexpected. Not memorable and far from their best. Worth a listen for completists.
Let me tell you about left turns!
Up supposedly marked a left turn for R.E.M. A dramatically new sound, possibly a bridge too far for some fans. Uh, with all respect, no way. Try U2 from Rattle and Hum (1988) to Achtung Baby (1991). Or Goldfrapp from Head First (2010) to Tales of Us (2013). Those, I posit y’all, are left turns.
I had moved to Silicon Valley from Ottawa by now. So my life’s imagery as I recall these next four albums is against a backdrop of tech, and boom and bust. Cold Ottawa winters hunkered down and muggy summers with Dave Matthews Band a distant memory. Well, this is much better. Michael Stipe has found his voice and energy again. The dreariness is gone, replaced instead with wonderment and curiosity, sparkling once again with whimsical lyrics. There’s an interesting dreamy quality to this record. “The Lifting” opens Reveal and sounds absolutely beautiful — and so, so catchy with its ethereal padding and especially the melodic verses. “All the Way to Reno (You’re Gonna Be a Star)” with its cool Johnny Cash guitar twang is another standout. Unfortunately, the back half is weaker and prevents Reveal from being a notable entry. It’s not lost on me that this record came out about the same time as U2’s middle-aged comeback All That You Can’t Leave Behind (2000). Both giving their respective bands new leases on life.
Around the Sun (2004)
Welcome to adult contemporary. By this point R.E.M. knew every mastering trick in the book and obviously had every production tool at its disposal, along with some of the best talent to put the polish on the final product. For me at least, that’s a problem here. There’s just too much polish, too much smoothness, too much slick production. The result is something with little bite — Picasso might suggest there’s not enough teeth here for the work to defend itself. For instance the opening track “Leaving New York” moves along suitably, but there’s just no joy, and the track is devoid of interesting ebbs and flows or instrumentation. At their best R.E.M. takes us into exciting and often uncomfortable places. Here, they’re simply not pushing the envelope in any respect. Even Q-Tip’s rap in “The Outsiders” doesn’t feel as dynamic as it should. All way too safe. Despite this critique, I find Stipe’s lyrics and songwriting skills a treasure. Sadly 2004, the year I proposed to Loni, did not yield an R.E.M. record to which I’d return to replay that afternoon above the Golden Gate bridge on a blustery July 4th in San Francisco. American Idiot it is!
And not a moment too soon U2 and The Killers producer Jacknife Lee brings back the much needed visceral energy. Up-tempo and thrashing “Living Well Is the Best Revenge” shakes off the cobwebs and things get off to a flying start on aptly titled Accelerate, R.E.M.’s second-t0-last album. Things continue to accelerate with “Man-Sized Wreath” another very-R.E.M. danceable track, “Kick it on the dance-floor like you just don’t care, oh” Stipe invites us. Well, okay! It helps here that the songs are not only quick and snappy in tempo, but also short in length. Plus, Accelerate clocks in at a lean 34 minutes, a welcome change from the previous few that ran about an hour — and felt it too. Peter Buck’s guitar gets the spotlight, and he takes advantage, throwing in lots of punk-inspired flourishes (“Horse to Water”). I can envision this album playing at a house party in Ottawa with good friends on a cold winter’s night with snow whipping around outside; cheap draft beer would flow and all would be right with the world.
Collapse Into Now (2011)
Sticking with Jacknife for their finale proves to be a good choice. This bookend sounds very R.E.M. in the best way possible. Intelligent. At times brooding. Introspective. And, rocking. Guitars carry the day again. As the band takes a grand victory lap, there’s plenty of cameos including Eddie Vedder, Joel Gibb, Peaches, Lenny Kaye and seminal influencer Patti Smith. Yet, there’s still room on this record for occasional jangle, so Collapse into Now neatly encapsulates the essence of the band’s preceding decades of work. Michael Stipe injects plenty of cheeky lines of course, like in “All the Best” when he says “I’ll give it one more time” and offering his idea of being a role model, “Let’s show the kids how to do it fine, fine, fine.” Great stuff. Regarding the experience of working together for the last time and the opportunity of “going out on a high note,” Mike Mills said, “We tried to enjoy it as much as possible and make it as fun as possible, but we’re not super-sentimental people in that sense. The only time we got really poignant was when we were working in Berlin, and they have a beautiful room there, Meister Halle, where we recorded seven or eight songs. There was no one there really except some friends, family, and significant others, and we knew that was probably the last time we would ever play together as R.E.M. That was a pretty fraught day. But it was fun.”
28 Years Of R.E.M.: Observations & Themes
Phew, what an adventure. Listening to 15 studio albums over just two days is an intense and rewarding experience. I guess you could call it a binge, that’s for sure. A band that had spent most if its existence on my periphery had come well into focus.
Now that I’ve spent another day or two pondering the experience, in addition to re-listening to some early works, live recordings, and watching some interviews on YouTube, I’ve bounced around some thoughts and come up with a few observations and themes I thought I’d share.
A Monster Mistake? Out of the band’s entire discography, Monster seems like the proverbial red-headed step-child. Maybe Michael Stipe could not resist, and finally wanted to strut down a catwalk, the proud Glam Queen. Or maybe management applied pressure to appeal to the current “sound” at the time. Regardless, this should’ve/could’ve been R.E.M.’s third masterpiece, to close out the Out of Time and Automatic era. Instead we get a mostly generic wall of sound. I’ve read they wanted some boom-y arena-ready material to help rock arenas on tour. Okay. It’s not a bad record, but it feels a bit like their Godfather III. It’s decidedly non-R.E.M. and missing the je ne c’est quoi — quirky hooks, unexpected melodies and that ever present jangle pop backbone. In hindsight I’d wish they made this an EP, or tacked them on as bonus tracks, and kept their pedal to the metal in terms of R.E.M.-ness. Indeed for the first time in their remarkable ascent they were following, not leading. Their proximity to the grunge scene in Seattle probably had something to do with that. Monster is perfectly fine as a standalone alt-rock/glam-rock record. But it fails to bolster or at least maintain the band’s standing in 1994. If you want to test my theory, skip this one and jump to New Adventures in Hi-Fi. The sonic continuity feels more appropriate.
When a long-standing, original band member leaves, impact is unavoidable. Drummer Bill Berry left in 1997. This now “three-legged dog” as Stipe described themselves needed to learn how to walk again. I believe this sparked an uneven few years. Case in point: Up. Thankfully, they bounced back effectively. To see a case study in a band completely falling apart when a member (or two) leaves see Duran Duran circa 1986.
Michael Stipe’s lyrics make for material worth revisiting again and again. Stipe is anything but banal. He’s a master painter. Revisiting R.E.M. reminded me of the power of story-telling. There’s a thrilling way he paints his pictures. Of course there’s symbolism and sly references and metaphors. But often it’s the randomness. And the David-Lynch like fragments that he tosses into the mix that really add juice to a track. That mystery and compelling poetic depth makes repeated listens rewarding, especially after so many years when our perspectives may have also changed.
A good producer can make all the difference. Scott Litt is a key name I’ve discovered during this journey. He came on board for 1987’s Document and helmed mixing and engineering for the band’s most successful 10 year period. Making music is all about collaboration.
At their best R.E.M. are more than a band, they’re artists.
R.E.M. Revisited: An Unforgettable Experience
Marias Callas. Andy Kaufman. Montgomery Clift. What’s the meaning of Shiny Happy People? Bang and Blame? New Test Leper? What is counterpoint in vocals?
Just a few of the things I noted and Googled along the way.
Plenty of interesting subplots emerge when you start trying to interpret R.E.M. The resulting sleuthing across the internet often reveals further meaning, taking me on unexpected tangents. The whole process itself revealed layers upon layers beyond anything I could have ever anticipated when I first hit play on Murmur. I mean here I was all of a sudden watching Saturday Night Live outtakes of R.E.M. with Sarah Jessica Parker. Later, watching a documentary follow the band navigating deep hallways Spinal Tap style inside 30 Rockefeller Plaza, in search of wardrobe assisted by none other than Bill Murray.
Armchair quarterbacking R.E.M.’s career was also interesting.
Here’s four guys who decide to form a band — perhaps while jamming jangle rock style and downing a few beers on the porch somewhere in Athens, Georgia. They get noticed in college. Steadily release quality records for six straight years in the 1980’s. Yet even in the era of Madonna, Billy Idol, Duran Duran, Michael Jackson, Prince, and Bon Jovi manage to cut their own completely unique path. Stardom and a massive record deal ensue, as do equally massive concert tours. Success. Fame. Money. Michael Stipe shaves his head. R.E.M. reaches the pinnacle. Yet, they continue to produce quality records and don’t seem to get caught up in all of it (at least it doesn’t seem that way from the outside looking in… I’m sure there are “stories”).
Time and time again, the band’s resilience and consistency strikes me as being among the best ever. 28 years. 3 Grammy wins — so few! but I suspect they’d rather have none! And into the Hall of Fame on first year of eligibility. Chef’s kiss? Ending it all on your own terms and without compromise.
** Important: these are estimates only. Please consider this table cloth math and do NOT cite. **
Record sales numbers are surprisingly hard to find. I thought I’d easily find an official source and be able to plug the numbers into the table below that I created. Not as easy as that. Wikipedia summarizes album certifications (Platinum, Gold, Silver, etc.) from various country’s recording agencies, but even those aren’t necessarily accurate or up to date. Also, record sales are fluid. R.E.M. like any band, whether still recording or not, is still selling records. When smash Out of Time came out, interest in the band skyrocketed, prompting massive sales of its back catalog.
We do know R.E.M. has sold at least 80 million records worldwide. And the peak was Out Of Time and Automatic For the People.
Nielsen Soundscan is apparently the most reliable source of truth. However, I don’t have access.
To further complicate things, this is an antiquated model. Sure, bands still sell vinyl and CDs. But most consumers now access music through a streaming service like Apple Music or Spotify. Aside from the 3 R.E.M. CDs I own (and abysmal MP3 rips) I didn’t buy any of these 15 studio albums. Rather, I did what everyone else is doing: I streamed them. In this case I used a combination of Tidal and Qobuz, and opted for a hi-res version whenever possible. So bands are getting royalties based on streams. None of that is factored into this table.
This is an amalgam of Googling and stitching together a relative picture of the band’s sales. I believe the actual numbers may be much higher. In any case, if I’m able to get reliable data I will update this chart going forward.
Bottom line: R.E.M. has sold a boatload of records. In the age of streaming and the attention-challenged internet generation I wonder if something like this (or U2) can ever happen again? I guess there’s always Taylor Swift!
*Estimates only, as of August 30, 2021 by Clinton Stark.
I get it now. Listening across 15 studio albums, over the 28 year career of R.E.M. reveals a band that is introspective, challenging, daring, confusing and even sometimes whiny. All of the things that we celebrate as the human condition.
Give a poet like Michael Stipe a powerful musical base as so enthusiastically and consistently plated by guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry and you’re just asking for a musical cocktail channeling the likes of David Lynch, Neil Young and Bob Dylan. Somehow, some way, the formula yields some of the most interesting and, at times, gut-wrenching music ever written and performed.
Growing up in Canada the closest approximation in my world would be The Tragically Hip. Though The Hip are a legendary Canadian band they never really made it in the States in a big way — or, at least, in the way they deserved. I think part of that may be due to their unequivocal Canadian perspective and lyrics, that makes the group a hard sell in other parts of the world. Too bad. Gord Downie and the band could sure tell a story (“One day in El Paso the cops go into the crowd…”).
I’d easily point out underdog 54-40 as another similar group in aesthetic; a Canadian band worth a look if you’re into R.E.M and/or The Hip.
In the end I didn’t stand a chance against the sonic force that is R.E.M. I had naively dismissed them for the most part during high school and university. Yet, looking back glad I was able to discover the joy that music can bring; the discovery, the emotion. Several times I found myself a bit emotional (“Everyone Hurts”) as my mind drifted as I recalled memories of Ottawa, family, and now going on 17 years of a West Coast adventure here with Loni in San Francisco.
- Out Of Time (1991)
- Automatic For The People (1992)
- Murmur (1983)
- Document (R.E.M. No. 5) (1987)
- Lifes Rich Pageant (1986)
- Reckoning (1984)
- New Adventures In Hi-Fi (1996)
- Green (1988)
- Reveal (2001)
- Fables Of The Reconstruction (1985)
- Monster (1994)
- Accelerate (2008)
- Collapse Into Now (2011)
- Around The Sun (2004)
- Up (1998)
- R.E.M. was at its artistic peak from 1987 to 1996, an amazing 11 year/6 album/3 Grammy run.
- Even Up which I ranked last I would not consider a “bomb,” demonstrating how high this band set its creative bar, and how it consistently delivered quality over its 28 year existence right through to Collapse Into Now, the final album.
- Interestingly, most of the band’s weaker material, aside from New Adventures, came after signing the monster $80 million Warner contract in 1996. Still, I think Reveal (2001) is a better than average R.E.M. album, recorded during an attempted revitalization that was partially successful.
- In their peak years the production values definitely favored the “arena” sound vs. the intimate casual jangle rock in the early college and club years or introspective sound of their final years.
- Much like U2, R.E.M.’s sound veered to adult contemporary in later albums.
- Rankings can be silly sport, and album positions debated (I especially struggled with sorting their early works, because they’re so strong), but one thing is sure, R.E.M. made two definitive masterpieces: Out of Time (1991) and Automatic for the People (1992).
- This is what a Hall of Fame career looks like and I’m guessing the timeline holds up well against many other legendary bands of the 20th century.
R.E.M. requires effort I think. This is not cotton candy. But the rewards are worth it if you’re up to the task. I now understand why Stipe’s lyrics are worth attention. Often mysterious, maybe even at times taunting, but always exploring, wandering and asking us to question ourselves.
A final point, on consistency. As a lifelong Duranie, man I’ve paid the price (and I mean DURANIE, as in white leather tie tucked into blue dress shirt a la Rio, gel, and all). After the second British invasion and the smashes of the eponymous-titled debut, followed by their high watermark that is Rio (1982) and outstanding Seven and the Ragged Tiger (1983), Duran Duran publicly struggled with their identity, and most certainly with consistency. It didn’t help that guitarist Andy Taylor, an essential key to their sound, left the band. Ensuing quality and direction was all over the map from Notorious (1986) and beyond, frustrating us fans. Fortunately they’d regroup for the gorgeous Wedding Album (Duran Duran, 1993) and their later material would feature some standouts as well.
Greenpeace & Michael Stipe’s Committed Activism
At the time I didn’t know it, but Michael Stipe was ahead of his time. In almost every interview, or public appearance he’d promote Greenpeace or other causes during the 80’s and 90’s. As a naïve college student and wannabe Alex P. Keaton junior overachiever at the time all that stuff just annoyed me. Talk about the music man! Come on! Anything but this boring environmentalism stuff dude!
Having lived in California now for over 23 years my perspective has, needless to say, changed. We got solar for our home back in 2007. Ever since the sun’s been getting hotter and hotter. There’s hardly any rain now. Few clouds and not much wind. Lakes are drying up. We are in the throws of a mega-drought. Forest fires are out of control and now unfortunately a regular part of weather forecasts and emergency alerts. Most of the country, and the world, are experiencing their own impacts due to climate change.
At the end of a live performance of “Everybody Hurts” on the 25th Anniversary Hi-Res Edition of Automatic for the People (1992), Stipe briefly explains why there’s a truck out in the parking lot with weird stuff on top. Turns out, they’re solar panels, filling batteries thanks to the sun that will later be used to power a multi-band benefit recording for Greenpeace.
“What Greenpeace is doing is trying to kind of push the envelope on solar energy,” he tells the audience. “And the possibility of alternative energies for the future.”
This was almost two decades ago.
By comparison, R.E.M. had no such egregious gaps in quality, not that I could see upon retrospective review. Duran Duran often didn’t sound like Duran Duran at all (mostly in the worst possible way), yet R.E.M. always sounds like R.E.M. (even Up). I disagree with many of the lower scored albums (Out of Time for instance). But that’s besides the point. The point is that these guys were able to navigate massive swings in musical taste, from the new wave/poppy 1980’s through the grungy 1990’s and to the drab 2000’s without falling for any fads, or completely re-engineering their sound. That their line-up remained intact throughout (aside from the departure of Berry in 1997) surely helped. As did, I’m guessing, their work ethic. A lot of people chalk up success in music, film or the arts to “creativity” or “genius.” Loni and I both agree, yes, there’s a bit of talent involved, probably luck too, but it’s actually mostly grueling, hard work that makes the difference. I guess it just sounds better to say that someone like Michael Stipe is a creative genius or a poet for our generation rather than an exceptionally hard worker who rarely misses a deadline when handing in assignments.
I do know this. After spending a few intense days with R.E.M. and adventures in cerebral jangle pop, my obscure Canadian new wave fries and gravy — Poutine! — sounds positively bromidic by comparison. Long lost acts like Images in Vogue, Strange Advance, Rational Youth, and, even, Honeymoon Suite (“New Girl Now” – hey, it’s true, he has a. new. girl. now.). But I love it all anyways. After all, it’s all about the feeling. Then there’s the fact that I’m married to a Swiftie so there’s at least some songwriting acumen to counterbalance my life.
The best art transports us somewhere. Invites us to take on different perspectives on relationships, people and life. Whether it’s a Rothko just sitting there on the wall taunting us with its apparent simplicity and beautiful color, or a cheeky Warhol silkscreen of Marilyn Monroe or maybe even it’s a painting or drawing by your children, or friend, at the best of times art makes us see things differently and possibly move us.
And moved I was by R.E.M. Unexpectedly so. Many times over the two days I spent studying the band’s career I drifted away, my imagination racing, fueled by their words, beats and melodies. Almost 12 hours of pure and exhilarating escapism.
Whether or not you’re an R.E.M. fan, the band is inextricably linked to the zeitgeist of the late 20th century music scene. Everyone knows at least a tune or two. But if you dig in and take the effort to go beyond the radio hits there’s even more to discover.
I’m pleased to report: the band members continue to carry themselves with class to this day (mostly Stipes and Mills on the circuit). They’ve left such an earth shattering legacy that to see them so humbly recount their legacy and share their thoughts on topics of the day (NME) with intelligence, whit, and humor (Rolling Stone) is a refreshing anecdote to today’s news and politics. Inspiring to see — an American success story of the best possible kind. There’s no other choice but for me to now call myself an R.E.M. fan.
On day three, I woke up and missed the mission, of diving into yet another one of R.E.M.’s albums — even if most of the lyrics and messages flew over my head. Sure enough, I inevitably found myself circling back to the beginning. I wondered, how would Murmur sound on a second lap?
Lead photo credit: R.E.M. touring in 2008 at the Naples, Carpisa Neapolis Festival by Dr. Conati. Public Domain via Wikipedia.