The symmetry of R.E.M.’s announcement that it's disbanding was hard to ignore. It marked a perfect 30-year arc from the band's sublime first single, “Radio Free Europe” to the release of its most recent album, Collapse Into Now, which came out earlier this year.
It was also notable just how the band broke up, in a joint statement expressing heartfelt thanks to their legions of fans without any semblance of acrimony or rancor. For a band that always forged its own path, a path that led them to becoming the world’s biggest band for a moment there without ever really striving for that goal, it was a suitable grace note to a brilliant career.
Speaking of that career, I would guess that the post-mortems we’ll be hearing in the next few days and weeks will take one of two angles, neither of which is completely on the nose.
You really don’t need to define R.E.M., or, for that matter, eulogize them, not with music as vital as what they have given us over the years.
Angle A will be a knee-jerk look at the band’s history which goes something like this: R.E.M., featuring singer Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills, and drummer Bill Berry, comes barreling out of Athens, Georgia in the early '80s, beginning a steep ascent. They release a string of excellent albums, and peak with 1991’s Out Of Time and its monster single “Losing My Religion.” From that point, their career starts a downward spiral of decreasing relevance and diminishing returns in terms of sales and quality, exacerbated by the departure of Berry in 1997.
This scenario suffers from a number of inaccuracies. First of all, there are many who would argue that the early albums were the peak, filled with the band’s moody chemistry and dark elegance. Others would say that Automatic For The People, the follow-up to Out Of Time which gave the band its “Hey Jude” moment with “Everybody Hurts,” was the summit. Either way, the point is that this band never followed a tidy narrative. In addition, it’s a disservice to disregard the bounce back the band has produced with its last two albums, Accelerate and Collapse Into Now, which feature the kind of energy and feistiness the band hadn’t displayed since Berry left the fold.
Angle B will likely play up the band as the forefathers of the alternative rock scene. I would argue that the only thing alternative about the band, even its early days, was its integrity in a time of artifice. While Top 40 radio, driven by MTV in the '80s, embraced showier acts with a lot of sizzle but little substance, Stipe and Co. preferred to remain faithful to their mysterious, alluring sound, making music that you had to dig deep to reach. That the band eventually conquered the charts and music television is a testament to the quality of their work, which drew college kids who didn’t want to be spoon fed and desired a challenge.
Indeed, I’m not sure how to summarize or define R.E.M., who remain as elusive as Stipe’s on-stage serpentine dancing. Seeking inspiration for this article, I popped in Eponymous, the group’s best-of CD from their early '80s years spent recording for the independent label I.R.S. records. What a fantastic group of songs it is, from the punky energy of “Radio Free Europe” to the lovely sadness of “So. Central Rain,” from the effortless country of “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville” to the stirring drama of “Driver 8.”
Berry and Mills are a propulsive rhythm section, with the latter providing crucial harmony vocals. Buck’s riffs stir up the emotions, and Stipe, ever the contradiction, keeps listeners at arm’s length with the lyrics while simultaneously pulling them in with his evocative vocals.
And all of this came before smash hits like the ones mentioned above, as well as “The One I Love,” “It’s The End of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” “Orange Crush,” “Man On The Moon,” and “Nightswimming,”as well as later should-have-been-hits like “The Great Beyond,” “Leaving New York,” “An Imitation Of Life,” and “I’ll Take The Rain.”
Rest assured, that list leaves out a ton of great songs, and, ultimately, that’s the legacy that any band would like to leave behind.
You really don’t need to define R.E.M., or, for that matter, eulogize them, not with music as vital as what they have given us over the years. Their disbanding means they might not be seen for a while, but they most certainly will continue to be heard wherever anyone values great music.