The iconic group has finally called it a day. We shouldn’t be surprised by the news but rather cherish and remember R.E.M. for what they once were: the most exciting band on the planet.
The statement on Wednesday that read, “To our fans and friends: As REM, and as lifelong friends and co-conspirators, we have decided to call it a day as a band,” seemingly shocked many fans because the timing of the news was unexpected. It went on to say that, “We walk away with a great sense of gratitude, of finality, and of astonishment at all we have accomplished.”
But if you’re willing to parse R.E.M.’s lead singer Michael Stipe’s rather enigmatic comments of previous years, one could make a compelling case that the key statement was actually made fourteen years earlier, in 1997, after the departure of drummer Bill Berry. It was widely believed that the dynamic of the four-piece (alphabetically, they stacked up as Bill Berry, Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Michael Stipe) from Athens, Georgia, turning into a trio would be a creative game-changer they’d struggle to deal with effectively. “A three-legged dog is still a dog,” said Stipe. “It just has to learn to run differently.”
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Up until Berry quit (two years after suffering a brain aneurysm), R.E.M. had gradually made their way into the mainstream without straying too far from their indie, college rock roots. They picked their name at random from a dictionary (it stands for Rapid Eye Movement) and their debut album, Murmur, from 1983, is one of the great onomatopoeic titles. The reason? Nobody was sure what the heck Stipe was singing about (the band hated the idea of publishing the lyrics in the sleeve notes either, which added to the mystery).
But if nobody could be certain what was being said, everyone agreed that nothing quite like this had come on the scene before. They quickly gathered a hardcore, passionate following, and the band resolutely remained on small label IRS, having a breakout record in 1987 with Document, where Stipe’s vocals (now slightly easier to listen to) gelled beautifully with guitarist Peter Buck’s West-coast style (to wit: the chords sounded upbeat). And it chimed with confidence: songs such as “Finest Worksong,” “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” and “The One I Love” were so fully formed, it’s almost as if the next step to stardom was a done deal.
Resistance to the majors — and the big time — was ultimately futile and they signed to Warner Bros. in the late 1980s. Their sixth album, Green, was accessible to a far wider audience and the music matched the new mood: not for nothing is the first song called “Pop Song 89.” The likes of “Stand” and “Orange Crush” made their infectious way inside one’s head but that was a mere appetizer compared to what was coming next.
And what was coming next was the behemoth that was Out Of Time. The year was 1991, grunge was not quite yet the direction much of American college music would take, so we were left with these utterly lovely tunes that employed mandolins, organs, and acoustic guitars. Lead single “Losing My Religion” (helped by its distinctive video) went on heavy rotation globally and the album was their first to reach the top of the U.S. and U.K. charts. “There’ve been very few life-changing events in our career because our career has been so gradual,” Mills said years later. “If you want to talk about life changing, I think “Losing My Religion” is the closest it gets.”
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The one shame for the fanbase was that stunning tracks on Out Of Time such as “Low,” “Near Wild Heaven,” and “Country Feedback” didn’t get the same attention as one of R.E.M.’s first mis-fires, “Shiny Happy People,” which was out of time (lower case) with what had come before. Still, 1992’s Automatic for the People mainly saw a continuation of the impressive output: it was certainly more sombre in tone (and not just the obvious “Everybody Hurts”), dealing with mortality and was ballad-heavy but one cannot fail to be moved by “Nightswimming.” Stipe’s political leanings could now also clearly be heard: the opening lyrics on the record are “Smack, crack, bushwhacked,” a not too subtle reference to the first President Bush.
It’s probably apt that 1994’s Monster was the beginning of R.E.M.’s decline as a force: the album was simply too big to handle. The guitars were distorted, the 1970s glam rock references too pronounced and the material suffered as a result. Then came Berry’s departure, and a lengthy period of ho-hum material (though in retrospect, both New Adventures in Hi-Fi and Up look like masterpieces compared to Reveal and Around the Sun.) Try whistling anything from that era: you’d wager it’s nigh on impossible.
At the same time, R.E.M. made unwanted tabloid headlines: in 2001, Buck was arrested for drunkenly assaulting two British Airways stewards on a flight to London. (He would be cleared, pleading “non-insane automatism,” which sounds more like a classic Stipe lyric than a defense.) By the time their final albums, Accelerate and Collapse into Now, came out (they made 15 in total), the most amusing game to play was to note how many reviews would mention a “return to form.” This also happens with Woody Allen movies but, the brutal truth is (in both cases), that the early work will always be unmatched.
Mills has already said that, “There’s no disharmony here, no falling-outs, no lawyers squaring off,” and that’s exactly how it should be between friends. As for Stipe, he hopes “our fans realize this wasn’t an easy decision but all things must end, and we wanted to do it right, to do it our way.” Nobody would dare quibble and we hear his words loud and clear.