“How do you thank someone who has taken you from crayons to perfume?”
“It’s the end of R.E.M as we know it, and I feel fine. Not really. But we did get some great music out of R.E.M. Thank you, Mike.” — Peter King (“Mike?” What are the chances that Peter King’s favorite R.E.M. song is “Shiny Happy People”? 75%? Or maybe “Leaving New York”? “‘Leaving New York never easy…’ You don’t know the half of it, Mike. The boarding delays on the Acela have been ridiculous lately. And don’t get me started on the citrus beer selection.”)
David Simon Cowell already wrote a great eulogy for R.E.M. for this site, and the group’s retirement has also inspired a lot of fitting tributes elsewhere:
- The AV Club
- Marathonpacks in The Atlantic (As part of an argument for R.E.M. as America’s Greatest Rock Band, he writes: “It’s important to separate R.E.M. from other American rock icons like Dylan, Simon, and Springsteen, because a group of musicians is much tougher to maintain over decades than a leader with a backup band.” Co-sign times one million.)
- Jon Wurster
- No Depression
- Pop Matters
There’s probably not much I can add to all that analysis and fond remembrance, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t write about the end of R.E.M. given the importance of that band in my life.
No band will ever mean as much to me as R.E.M. meant when I was 17. No thing will likely ever mean as much to me as R.E.M. meant when I was 17. R.E.M. announced their breakup on my ninth wedding anniversary. If it weren’t for R.E.M., I might not be married at all. I certainly wouldn’t be married to this woman. For me, this band is the everything.
There’s a big difference between “best” and “favorite,” and while I believe that R.E.M. is the best band of all time, I know for a fact that they’re my favorite. So my objectivity when it comes to their music and career is almost certainly flawed. Consider this a personal story.
Life is about things changing, ending and going away. It’s a series of adjustments to loss. And being an R.E.M. fan for the past 15 years has been a series of adjustments to loss. To losing Bill Berry. To the band losing its way. To the band no longer mattering on a cultural level. And now to the band no longer existing. Those earlier losses prepared us for this final loss, but it’s still a little painful. Somewhere deep inside, I still held out hope that R.E.M. had one last great album in them, or one last amazing song. The group’s official retirement means it’s time to retire that hope too.
In so many ways, R.E.M. created the template for how bands are supposed to behave and age. As part of the “college rock” generation of bands from the ’80s, they bridged the gap from punk to grunge, and carried the torch through a very dark period for commercial music. While Paula Abdul and Motley Crue dominated the charts, R.E.M. and The Replacements and Husker Du were down there beneath the surface, touring endlessly and keeping hope alive for integrity in the industry.
Cowell aptly pointed out the parallels between R.E.M. and U2, and that R.E.M. never reached U2′s level of commercial success. But it’s an upset that R.E.M. even got as big as they did. It’s not that they didn’t have ambition — they did make the jump to arenas, sign with Warner Bros. and all the rest — but U2 was designed from day one to fill stadiums with their anthems. R.E.M.’s music always seemed stranger and more personal; even their hits like “Losing My Religion” and “Man on the Moon” never really fit in bigger venues. As someone who loves both bands, I always felt a much deeper connection with R.E.M. and their songs.
R.E.M. was the band for whom you pored over lyric sheets, tracked down every B-side, and rooted for the personal success of its members. Their every move and decision was imbued with meaning. They never seemed entirely comfortable in the spotlight, even in Michael Stipe’s period of overreacting to his earlier shyness and building a cult of personality (circa Monster).
After I went to college in Athens largely to try to meet R.E.M., I finally succeeded in meeting Peter Buck at South by Southwest earlier this year. With last month’s announcement, that meeting now takes on added importance to me, and that five-minute conversation matters more than before. Because while Buck will surely remain on the music scene, R.E.M. is gone. And I’m going to fucking miss them.
We probably do have to address the post-Berry years. Cowell claims that no song from this most recent era could crack a two-disc greatest hits collection. I don’t agree, but he’s not far off (“Oh My Heart” from their last album and a couple songs from Up would be strong contenders). The band’s output from the last 15 years obviously can’t come close to competing with their halcyon days, but there’s some worthy work there. Up in particular remains worth examining. If New Adventures in Hi-Fi was the sound of a band falling apart while desperately trying to hold things together, Up is the sound of a band trying to reconstruct itself but having no idea how to do so. Things tailed off from there, but with the exception of Around the Sun, there is material worth investigating on every album.
I don’t mind that R.E.M. pressed on after what seemed like a natural endpoint, and I don’t mind the various compromises they’ve made in their long career. I’d rather have songs like “Oh My Heart” and “At My Most Beautiful” in my life than not, and if the price for them was some disappointment and some cognitive dissonance, that’s OK with me.
I suspect I’ll have more to say about the band’s legacy and impact at some future date, but for now it’s enough to say that it’s over. And thanks.
Now let’s break this down a little:
R.E.M. Albums Ranked in Order
- Automatic for the People
- New Adventures in Hi-Fi
- Lifes Rich Pageant
- Out of Time
- Fables of the Reconstruction
- Collapse Into Now
- Around the Sun
By Far the Worst Two Album Tracks of the Berry Era
Shiny Happy People
Best Original B-Sides/Rare Cuts
Photograph (w/ Natalie Merchant
Star Me Kitten (w/ William S. Burroughs)
Voice of Harold
Ages of You
First We Take Manhattan (Leonard Cohen)
Arms of Love (Robyn Hitchcock)
Pale Blue Eyes (Velvet Underground)
Songs That Took the Biggest Leaps Live
Country Feedback – Buck’s stunning, melodic, feedback-drenched solo on this song on the Monster tour remains one of the greatest guitar solos every played.
Undertow – A grander, more dramatic affair than what’s on Hi-Fi.
Try Not to Breathe – A great song on record, but more churning and desperate live.
Underrated R.E.M. Ability
Writing killer waltzes — Swan Swan H, Try Not to Breathe, Disappear, Houston and Oh My Heart are all in 3/4 time.
Favorite Stipe Lines/Couplets/Verses etc.
These corrosives do their magic slowly, and sweet. (E-Bow the Letter)
All the ashtray cities and the freeway drives
Broken casinos and waterslides
The 18-wheeler and the payback dives
Gravity pulls on the powerlines.
A jetstream cuts the desert sky,
This land could eat a man alive.
Let’s say you leave it all behind (Low Desert)
Birdie in the hand for life’s rich demand
The insurgency began and you missed it (Begin the Begin)
This flower is scorched
This film is on
On a maddening loop (Country Feedback)
Here’s a scene:
You’re in the back seat laying down
The windows wrap around
To sound of the travel and the engine (You Are The Everything)
This is my mistake
Let me make it good (World Leader Pretend)
Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye
Click here for a farewell Spotify playlist. This isn’t intended to be a best-of or a collection of favorite songs. It’s a goodbye. Goodbye.