This weekend Becky was out of town at a conference, so I was left to entertain myself. You can only sit around in your underwear eating beef jerky for so long, though, so eventually I found myself playing a lot of Diablo 2 and listening exclusively to R.E.M.. Against the advice of my physician, lawyer, and sensei, I loaded all 253 R.E.M. tracks in my winamp and let ’em fly randomly. As a result, I have some observations about this band. (Anna, here’s an elsewhere you can go.)
R.E.M. first grabbed me back in 1985 (yeah, I started late) when I first heard “So. Central Rain” on a mixtape of a friend’s. On my prom night in 1986, when I was not going to the prom, my prom-avoiding group hit the record store instead and I got Fables of the Reconstruction on tape. But I wasn’t quite getting into it, as at that point I was still pretty much ignoring anything that didn’t have keyboards. It wasn’t until 1987’s Document that I was in a place to really appreciate them. And I did. Not only did I love that album and the next two, but I also went back and discovered what I’d overlooked before.
Some people say that Monster was the album where they started to go downhill. It’s true that it took that album some time to grow on me, and still hasn’t completely done so. For me, though, the change comes at Automatic for the People, an album that many people regard as their best. Truth be told, I’m just not as interested in stuff on that album and later as I am in the earlier stuff. There are certainly a few individual tracks on the later albums that grab me, but by and large, I could get rid of everything after Out of Time and not really notice it was gone. (The one possible exception after that point is New Adventures in Hi-Fi.)
During my marathon listening session, since I had all the tracks loaded and was listening at random, I was essentially comparing and contrasting, and here’s the differences I found:
1) The production after that point gets really pompous. We go from being an efficient, driving band to suddenly hauling in pianos and strings and all this overblown orchestration that’s completely unnecessary. The songs just collapse under their own weight. Compare “So. Central Rain” with any of the later stuff and tell me that anything else carries the same emotional weight. It doesn’t, yet it’s been made to sound pseudo-important with all this “real” music behind it.
2) As Michael Stipe’s lyrics became more audible and visible, he sang about less that was interesting. Oh, another song about a failing relationship. How fascinating. Listening to tracks from the latest album, Around the Sun, I could only wonder, “How could the same band that did ‘Orange Crush’ and ‘Ignoreland’ and ‘Begin the Begin’ be singing, right now, in this America, about all this sappy-dappy romance crap?” I know the band has taken a lot of flak for wearing its political heart on its sleeve in the past, but jeez, you’d think this would be the time for them to jump up and wave that flag proudly. Which wouldn’t be a problem if most of these love songs and character studies were interesting, but they’re all very dull.
3) The R.E.M.-ness is gone. R.E.M. have a distinct sound — not just Stipe’s voice and Buck’s guitar — that is missing after a point. Even when trying to sound like a generic rock band this quality stood out. But the later albums lack that. In fact, many of the tracks on Around the Sun have only Stipe’s voice to mark them as R.E.M. songs.
Combine all three and you get the current incarnation of R.E.M.: generic, bland, adult rock.
I don’t want bands to do the same thing over and over. I don’t mind them changing, as long as they’re not changing from “good” to “sucking”. I realize how hard it must be to keep putting out good music for 20+ years. I realize many bands would kill to have done even the “bad” R.E.M. songs. But it’s just sad for me to not care about a new R.E.M. album. I only have the latest one because someone downloaded and burned it for me, and I didn’t even listen to it for a while because of how dull the last one, Reveal, was. My fears were totally justified. And again, once you force yourself to get past the unnecessary gloss, there are some good songs here, but they’re so buried under blah it’s hard to make them out. I have to wonder if acoustic versions of them would be better.
I’m begging you, guys. Either hang it up, pay Bill Berry whatever he asks, score some heroin, whatever it takes to get you all fired up again. U2 found their feet again, maybe you can too.