Hearing the news that R.E.M. called it quits after over 30 years is sort of like hearing that a beloved grandparent passed away after a prolonged stay in a nursing home. You’re inclined not to feel the weight of it, because the person that you’d care to remember disappeared long ago. At the same time, it’s the definitive end of someone that helped to shape your life, even if in your mind you’d already said goodbye to them.
That may seem overdramatic, but at its best, so was R.E.M. They could be sappy, or strident, or simplistic. But it didn’t matter. R.E.M. were important not only for their music, but also for the way in which they defined the ethos of an era of rock history. They were the princes of indie rock, standing as the poster boys for the counterculture of the Reagan Era. At a time when consumerism and technology ruled music (sound familiar?), R.E.M.’s calling card was always their purity. A four-piece from Athens, GA, they synthesized the strains of musical Americana in a completely original way, but always wore their influences on their sleeves. They wanted their music to “mean something” (Michael Stipe famously swore he would never write a love song, a vow he kept for over a decade before Out Of Time… not unrelatedly their biggest album). They had a disdain for artificiality, although their definition of it wasn’t exactly constant. And they were at the crest of the brief wave that dragged the underground into the mainstream.
Some people couldn’t get past what they saw as pretentiousness, or maybe more aptly preciousness. But those who bought into R.E.M.’s vision of America were richer for it.
For a long time, R.E.M. vowed that they would breakup after a show on New Year’s Eve, 2000, twenty years after they started. Then drummer Bill Berry quit in 1997, and the rest of the band decided to soldier on. Like Michael Jordan coming back with the Washington Wizards, that call cost the band an artful end, which also had the added benefit of being perfect timing. Their last album before 2000 was Up, their first subpar album, but which included some strong songs, most notably At My Most Beautiful. Since then, they came out with Reveal, Around The Sun, Accelerate, and Collapse Into Now. It would be hard to argue that a two-disc Best Of R.E.M. album should include a song from any of those albums, except for completeism’s sake. Now, R.E.M. isn’t the first band to overstay their welcome, but for a band that always stood against rock conventionality, it’s worth noting.
But from 1983-1996, R.E.M. came out with 10 albums, none of which deserve to be rated lower than four out of five stars. Their music ranged from fuzzy guitar rock to traditional folk songs to sincere pop ballads. They moved from college radio stations to MTV, leading a strain of underground music into the mainstream. They wrote and recorded some of the best songs ever written and recorded. They inspired countless bands with their music and their sensibilities.
Much as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones are seen as the leaders of the first wave of rock, R.E.M. and U2 have always been the twin towers of ’80s indie rock. Both released their first album around the same time to enthusiastic college radio response. Both had amazingly stable lineups. Both were active politically in a way that could be alternately annoying and admirable. Both were known for their great live shows. Even their career progressions were similar for a long time, with their creative peaks generally coinciding.
But that’s where the comparisons end. Popularity, and I’m afraid legacy,-wise, U2 was the only true heir from the ’80s to The Beatles and Stones. U2 can continue to pack stadiums full of people wanting to hear their anthems… R.E.M. couldn’t. U2 has sold around 150 million albums… R.E.M.’s at about a third of that. The Joshua Tree sold 25 million albums… Out Of Time sold 15 (Sales-wise, Depeche Mode has a case for being the Stones to U2’s Beatles… they’ve sold 100 million albums, Violator sold 15, and they could probably still sell out a nostalgia stadium tour). Maybe R.E.M. was always meant to be remembered more on the level of the Velvet Underground, their early ’90s bout with stardom a fluke of the Cobain years. Maybe their music is too quirky, too personal to exist on a big stage for very long. In the end, it really doesn’t matter all that much… the choice between being the Velvet Underground or the Rolling Stones isn’t exactly clear, except where money is concerned.
I would argue that R.E.M. was the best band in rock history, and there’s a case to be made, but there’re plenty of other bands with cases as well. What I know for sure is that R.E.M., along with Nirvana, was one of the two bands that meant the most to me, and they were with me for much longer. When I was starting to learn about music, I stared at the tangled kudzu on the cover of Murmur as I tried to decipher the lyrics. When I was immersed in the anger of adolescence, the blast of Michael Stipe’s voice and Peter Buck’s guitar on Life’s Rich Pageant made me realize that there were bigger things to hate than just what was around me. When I was navigating the wistful border between childhood and adulthood, Automatic For The People served as the eulogy, Nightswimming and Find The River providing the soundtrack to dawn. Inside every great R.E.M. song was a fragile memory, a sense of loss, the knowledge that even as the moment was unfolding, it was passing and, like them, would soon be gone.