R.E.M. – Introductory Page



R.E.M., by virtue of making it as far as they did—immeasurably further than any of the bands that might’ve been considered their peers in the early 80’s, save, perhaps, U2—are simultaneously one of the most maligned and celebrated rock bands of all time. Actually, now that I think about it, the U2 comparison is pretty apt – both bands started out in the early post-punk era and showcased guitar players with distinctive yet monochromatic styles, and by the 90’s both had morphed into arena rock whores with iconic frontmen who displayed annoying physical traits (Michael Stipe – baldness; Bono – stupid sunglasses). The difference is, of course, that U2 fucking blow—always have and always will—and no matter how pretentious Stipey may have become with his monkeyboy dance moves and substandard lyrics, he will never, ever be even a tiny fraction as annoying as that Egomanical Fuckhead from Ireland, for whom the word “douchebag” doesn’t even begin to suffice. Unless you’ve been using him to clean out your vagina, in which case, ew.
But if we can move one from my white-hot hatred of Bono for now, then we can begin to talk about these four artsy boys from the sleepy college town of Athens, Georgia. How the duality of their public standing originated is obvious – not only did they practically write the book on what was once considered “indie” or “alt” rock (before legions of hipsters discovered that if you make bloopy sounds on your laptop and douse them in enough reverb, then Pitchfork will miraculously give you a good review, thus ensuring that much of what is now considered “indie rock” has barely anything to do with actual rock music at all), but also invented the major label leap when they signed with Warner Bros. in 1988. Which is a bummer, since just because these guys made a bunch of classic records when they were signed to IRS, an indie label, and then churned out a bunch of slick commercial hits with Warner Bros., every rock fan just assumes that every time an indie band signs to a major label they will automatically turn into mindless corporate automatons, collaborate with Britney Spears, and never create a listenable song again. Well, that’s goddamned stereotyping! That never happens! Well, OK, it has happened. But not every time, I promise.
The high quality of the band’s output on IRS from 1981-87 is not in question by anyone with any kind of decent taste in music, except my girlfriend, which naturally bugs me to no end. Thus, ultimately, the esteem to which you hold R.E.M. is likely tied to where you draw the sell out line. Only the most dew-eyed Stipe worshipper (the kind that take him seriously when he says he feels “more like the band’s art director than its singer” and bullshit like that) can commend them for being anything better than “inconsistent” during the Warner Bros. era, and most would be far harsher than that, so just about everyone’s got that line somewhere. There are those who put it all the way back on their third record, Fables Of The Reconstruction, which is baffling to me, but I suppose being able to make out the words Mumbles Stipe is singing is a red flag for some people. Green and “Stand,” their first LP and single, respectively, for WB, is a popular choice, though some may prefer to go back a year to Document, the album that spawned their first mega hits, “The One I Love” and “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It.” Others skip ahead to glam-pastiche dud Monster in 1994, and those generous enough to forgive that one have a convenient out not long afterwards – the departure of original drummer Bill Berry in 1997, after he had a brain aneurysm onstage during the Monster tour. And not to be callous, but “brain aneurysm” is a pretty good metaphor for most of the work they shat out between then and their semi-resurgence in 2008.
As for me, I guess I fall into the final category. It’ll be a cold day in post-climate change Texas that I defend historically lame turds like Reveal or Around The Sun, but I can honestly say that, despite a few missteps, the majority of major label R.E.M. records provide some level of enjoyment for me. Sure, “Everybody Hurts” sucks, but come on, aren’t “It’s The End Of The World” or “Losing My Religion” or “Man On The Moon” veritable light years ahead of I dunno, New Kids On The Block or whatever else was on the radio back in the early 90’s? Maybe that’s not exactly the most robust of praise, but anytime I hear a hint of Peter Buck jangle on the radio in between so much dreck, it’s a joyful breath of fresh air.
However, I’m willing to entertain the idea that my enjoyment of later R.E.M. is simply residual affection shored up from their absolutely quintessential IRS records. They were like a machine on the early records, able to produce track after track of effortlessly catchy mid-60’s influenced folk/pop rock murkily updated for a post-punk era. And they built them all out of the same components! On top of Mike Mills’ melodic basslines lay Peter Buck’s simple yet somehow inimitable arpeggiated riffs for which I wish I could come up with a descriptor other than the severely overused “jangly,” but if Peter Buck ain’t jangly, then who is? Then there’s the vocals, both Stipe’s mumbled gibberish and the crucial harmonies and counter melodies by Mills and Berry, which they used—and mixed—like melody instruments rather than the center of attention. They were a perfectly balanced unit, dependent on synergy more than anything else for their success. Though it was because of this near machinated level of formula reliance that, in my opinion, they never made that unassailable A+ record – you can predict how 90% of R.E.M. songs are going to go before they even start (a couple of verses, a chorus, a brief instrumental break that does not involve a traditional wanky guitar solo, lather, rinse, repeat). But I sure don’t care – I’ll take consistently great over inconsistently brilliant any day.
Of course, as time went on, the screws on the machine got looser, the vocals got louder and the record sales boomed. Of course they did – mediocrity sells. At least they did some good stuff during their commercial heyday. And besides, they set a standard for virtually all rock music that came after long before they became pop stars.

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