Saturday, 24 September 2011

R.E.M. 1980-2011

Back in March I wrote a preview article about the new R.E.M. album Collapse Into Now. Enthused after a first listen of new material that is both vibrant and energetic, two important ingredients missing in recent years, I recalled the days when I first discovered the band. The lead track Discoverer is all too aptly named. Compelled and indeed obligated, the article, and subsequent full album review, is filled with optimism for the future and regained love of the past.

I did not grow up with R.E.M. I wish I had. It would have helped me through my formative years and got me interested in those things that fascinate me now as a man on the brink of his fifth decade: literature, art, politics – all frequent subjects of the band’s music, ethos and direction. But what was great about getting into a band ‘in the middle’ was going back as well as forward. Discovering a back catalogue is as wonderful as the anticipation of new albums. Fitting, now and then, that the first R.E.M. album I bought was Out Of Time.

I did not know it then but I was writing about the last R.E.M. album. This week the band announced on their website that they are no more and feel it is time to ‘call it a day’. So was Collapse Into Now, a title that now seems very appropriate and slightly ironic, just a last great hurrah? Michael Stipe spoke earlier in the year about the album making process and said that each record takes everything out of him, every time, to the point of truly not knowing if he (and the band) can ever do it again.

But they have, time after time, through the IRS years; finding form on Life’s Rich Pageant, then Document, into major label success (musically) with Green and (commercially) on Out Of Time and Automatic For The People. Since then it has been a lesson in limits and limitlessness. Monster was just that and saw the band disintegrate, the departure of Bill Berry (‘the heart of the band’) and the music falter. Moments of brilliance on New Adventures In Hi-Fi and Up lead to huge disappointments on Reveal and Around The Sun – the ups and downs of a band ‘learning to run on three legs’.

But there have always been reasons to be an R.E.M. fan. Every album, every song, every note – has something special. A good friend of mine once said, ‘Even a crap R.E.M. album is a good album’. Crass, yes, but you can’t say that about many bands. There are always smart lyrics, neat musical touches and affecting arrangements. Making music this good consistently for fifteen albums takes a life-force to which mere mortals can never aspire.

So R.E.M. is no more. Once the inevitable ‘greatest hits’ box set is released and Buck, Mills and Stipe have had time to sit back and reflect on their achievements and work, what will happen then? A solo career for Michael looks the most likely. Or a career in politics maybe? Likewise Mike and Peter could be the ones to form new bands. I hope they continue to make music in some form, either together or apart. A comeback World Tour in ten years to trawl back through the archives sounds, on the face of it, a ghastly prospect. On the other hand I don’t want them to just ‘fade away’. I have only seen R.E.M. live twice, once at Glastonbury and again at Live 8. I would love to seem them perform again.

Before this article veers into the realms of elevating a band to God-like status and portrays the author as some pathetic doting fan-boy, I will conclude by putting things into perspective. I love music. I love writing about music (even though most of the time I’m not very good at it). And I admire and revere bands that make music that affects me. If I had to pick one band that has had the most impact, and has been such a big part of my life for over two decades, it is R.E.M.

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