Dear Peter, Mike and Michael,
News broke last week that you have completed recording your 15th studio album and plan to release it in Spring 2011.
I write today with one simple request: don’t.
I am not your biggest fan. It’s not like I’m the ’80s college-rock version of Eminem’s Stan. But I have been, and remain, a huge admirer. So I hope you take this request with all the love and respect intended.
Seeing you like this breaks my heart. Like seeing Kyle MacLachlan guest-starring on Desperate Housewives. Like watching Seinfeld after Larry David left.
In general, I’m not in favor of imposing our collective will on artists and athletes and telling them when to hang it up. I strongly believe that most artistic declines are not irreversible. But there are exceptions. There are times, like watching Michael Jordan gasp around the court in a garish Wizards jersey, that a retirement decision affects not just the public figure in question, but all of us.
I fear we’ve reached such a time, gentlemen.
When R.E.M. first reached national prominence, you guys used to joke that you’d break up on December 31, 1999. Obviously, some consideration was given to calling it quits when Bill Berry left the band to go work the land, Favre-style. Neither of those things happened, and I’d argue we’re all the better for it. More presciently, Peter, you once told an interviewer that you always figured R.E.M. would end in some dive bar, over cocktails, following a couple crappy albums. Well, I know a few good dive bars here in Chicago if you guys need to meet in neutral territory. It’s centrally located!
I think most fans and critics would argue that R.E.M. should have broken up when Bill Berry left the band. The last album Berry played on, New Adventures in Hi-Fi, is also the last great R.E.M. album. It’s a logical stopping point. Also, in your younger days, you swore up and down that R.E.M. could only exist with all four original members.
From an article in Slate some years ago:
In retrospect, the band’s host of promises—broken, one by one—to their fan base appear designed specifically to ward off the dilemma they now find themselves in. They vowed never to play a venue larger than 5,000, then it was 12,000, then they said they would never do an arena tour. They would never lip-sync in their videos. They would never sell a song for commercial purposes. (True, they turned down Bill Gates’ proffered green for Windows 95 commercials—a paycheck the Rolling Stones happily cashed—but they did provide “Stand” for use as the theme song to Chris Elliott’s sitcom, Get a Life.) They would break up on New Year’s Eve 1999. They would break up if only one band member quit. Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope.
It’s a fair point, but whatever. People grow up. People change. People learn they like big houses. I bear no grudge for any of the broken promises, and I don’t really think a band owes such things to its fans anyway. And I also don’t think you should have broken up when Berry left.
The albums immediately following his departure, Up and Reveal, are troubled and inconsistent, but they’re also the sound of a band taken out of its comfort zone, of a band pressing against its own limits and experimenting for the first time in a long while.
Up and Reveal contain more than a handful of flawed, weird gems. Gentle, unwanted little songs like “Suspicion,” “Hope,” “Sad Professor,” “Disappear” and “The Lifting.” The world would be a worse place without these songs.
But your next album, 2004’s Around the Sun, was an unmitigated disaster. Its 12 songs were the worst kind of adult contemporary slop. It would have been a disappointing album from a band with one tenth your talent; so coming from R.E.M., it was a fucking disgrace. You sounded tired, bored of being in a band, with nothing new to say. Michael, your lyrics were beneath you:
It’s easier to leave than to be left behind
Leaving was never my proud
Leaving New York, never easy
I saw the light fading out
I take that back. Your lyrics were beneath Heidi Montag. I mean…are you fucking kidding me? That’s not even English. And that’s taken from the best song on the album.
But I remained ever faithful, and was cautiously optimistic when early reviews of 2008’s Accelerate hailed it as a return to form. You were supposedly re-energized, and refused to play more than three takes of any song in the studio. Well…it turns out that Accelerate has a bunch of fast songs on it, and that’s about the best you can say for it.
Accelerate doesn’t sound like a band re-energized and re-committed to making vital music. It sounds like a band forcing itself to try to sound re-energized, and that’s a huge difference. It’s basically like Monster, which you made when you clearly still wanted to be playing mandolins and organs, except completely devoid of creativity and spark.
So you’ll forgive me if I don’t have high hopes for next year’s album. I see that you recorded in Berlin, in an effort to channel Bowie and Achtung Baby. It makes for a nice media hook, but then again so did John Mellencamp recording his latest turgid effort in the footsteps of Robert Johnson or whatever. I have literally no hope that redemption lies around the corner.
Peter, Mike, Michael…please don’t make this harder than it has to be. You’ve only had two truly horrid albums. It’s not too late. Please leave while there’s still some grace to be had in the departure. Leave before our memories grow tainted by the endless parade of lacking new material. Let us have our memories. It’s not too late.
Yours truly and sadly,
Unrelated: Have you ever read this article from the ever-contrarian Slate? It is one of the most delusional, offensive, wrong-headed pieces of pop music criticism ever published. It’s from a decade ago, but it’s still worth ridiculing.