And that’s it.
I’d like to give many thanks to Hendrik, who generously accepted my proposal and let me blog all over One Week // One Band this week. He was a cheerful and helpful presence over email and I’m incredibly pleased to have contributed to this blog.
I’d like to acknowledge all the work done by previous writers for this site, particularly Jeremy Gordon, whose posts on The Replacements introduced me to the site; Ian McDuffie, for giving me the idea to focus on the least popular period of a popular artist’s body of work; Dave Bloom, for giving a great example of how to complicate an artist (or a period of work) too often oversimplified; and of course Lisa Ann Cassidy for her terrific work on the years when R.E.M. became R.E.M. I’ve tried to make my week here a worthwhile complement to hers.
I made use of the following resources for these posts: Murmurs, REMHQ, REMHQ’s Youtube Channel (even though they won’t let me view their videos from Puerto Rico), R.E.M. Lyrics Annotations FAQ, Pop Songs 07-08, Metacritic, and Spotify.
Big ups to Tim Delman for technical support. To H, all the gratitude in the world.
Lastly, I’d like to thank everyone who read, reblogged, commented, or otherwise contributed to this blog over the last week. Your comments and insights were a delight.
If you liked my writing, you should keep reading it at bugalu, which I am going to revamp and expand to include fiction, journalism, and random bits of Tumblr errata as well as music writing along the lines of what you see here.
And I’m happy to announce that starting next week I’ll be blogging at Square and Aware, my new site with Nick Coyle where we’ll be writing about every Smiths song in order of release. We’ll be focusing on each band member’s contribution, what makes the songs tick, and what makes them great. I’m excited to work with Nick, an astute and hilarious writer and the first person besides Stephen Malkmus to decode the secret of Unseen Power of the Picket Fence.You can read Nick’s first two posts at the site now, but please excuse the decor, we’ve only just moved in.
I am Rafa García Febles, and this is what I do.
Much love in the new year,
PS: In case all of this R.E.M. somehow wasn’t enough for you, here are some bonus tracks: Walk Unafraid/You’re In The Air; Sad Professor/The Apologist; I’m Not Over You; Falls to Climb; Playing God: Reveal. You’ll note that with one exception these are all songs from Up, because why don’t I marry it already.
R.E.M. – We All Go Back To Where We Belong
R.E.M.’s last single is a gentle, sentimental goodbye that barely pretends to be about anything other than the dissolution of the band. Harking back to, of all things, the Burt Bacharach-informed beach pop of parts of Reveal, it’s a sweet, uncompromised song that makes no concessions to either the radio or to legacy-minded notions of how The Last R.E.M. Single should sound. It’s just a band enjoying what they do, going at things their own way. As they always did.
Recorded for the band’s final, career-spanning compilation, Part Lies Part Heart Part Truth Part Garbage, “We All Go Back” is joined by two other new songs. ”A Month of Saturdays,” the shortest R.E.M. song, is an oddly deadpan garage pop number, “Chance” with a catchier riff. It’s a mildly charming throwaway, a b-side at best. “Hallelujah,” though, is something else.
R.E.M. – Hallelujah
Not, thank God, a Leonard Cohen cover, “Hallelujah” is instead a dark, difficult to classify original composition that takes some of the Bacharach-ian tonality of “We All Go Back To Where We Belong” but sets it to a mood of blank dread. Michael Stipe speaks calmly, over steady guitar strums and lo-fi, sampled jazz drums, about a suicide drummer. The song explodes when he does, the last minute a muted, three note wail repeated over and over. And then it stops. “Hallelujah” is one of their most audacious closers, and a hell of a way to end a career.
“It’s weird how daunting it can be to write about your favorite band,” Jeremy Gordon observed here in the first One Week // One Band. Doubly daunting if you’ve got something to prove; if you feel that your band is maligned or overlooked for no good reason at all.
R.E.M. finished their career two months and three days ago. They leave behind fifteen albums, varied in tone but largely consistent in quality, a discography that deserves to be heard by anyone who loves rock music. They also leave behind a tarnished legacy, one tied up in the fact that R.E.M. decided, fourteen years ago, to continue making music without one of their founding members.
That music is still largely ignored, but there are promising signs that that could change. That some are reconsidering their legacy. That their influence seems to be on the rise—this year saw the release of at least three other R.E.M. albums. Not that any of those is R.E.M.’s fault.
Bands shouldn’t be held responsible for their legacies, really; bands are responsible for their music. It’s the rest of us who shape their legacies, and legacies are important because they shape who will listen to the music.
The music of R.E.M.’s post-Bill Berry years is often dismissed out of hand as drab and inessential. I have tried to make the case that R.E.M.’s post-Berry work is vital and worth hearing. But ultimately the case rests on the work itself, the five post-Berry albums.
R.E.M. is still uncool, and uncool for many of the things that make them great. Because they were not afraid to be goofy. Or sentimental. Or weird. Or out of style. Or poppy, or experimental, or conventional, or un-. Or a little nuts. Or uncertain. Or themselves.
Goodbye to the greatest American band.
R.E.M. – Blue
I described “Blue” in my introduction to Collapse into Now as a “strange, beautifully textured mess of acoustic strumming, electric feedback, blue moaning and distorted ranting,” and I have little to add to that description. Through a fog of bluesy chords that recall “Country Feedback,” Michael Stipe delivers rapid fire, early A.M. poetry, not bothering with meter or melody, sounding as though he’s speaking through a bad connection off the top of his head into someone’s voicemail. Some of it, when you can make it out, is quite beautiful:
I like you, love you, every coast of you.
I’ve seen your eddies and tides and hurricanes and cyclones.
Low ebb tide and high, full moon.
Up close and distant.
I read you.
Even more so than “Discoverer,” “Blue” is Michael Stipe’s most nakedly autobiographical song. It’s a free form ramble, the sound of Stipe getting everything off his chest before the curtain falls. It’s a mission statement and it’s a statement of pride in his band’s work. It’s a list of acknowledgments and influences and desires. It’s a reunion with the person who started it all for him. It’s Stipe giving up all pretense of pop for a moment, and just acknowledging, as a person, what all this has meant for him. And as soon as he commands the 20th Century to collapse into now, his old idol and mentor appears to tell him that his coach awaits. The ball’s over.
Except it’s not: as “Blue” fades to a low hum, the guitar line that opened the album reappears, and the band engages in another chant of “Discoverer.” It’s a structure that recalls, as Stipe notes, the circular title printed on the vinyl of R.E.M.’s third record: Fables of the Reconstruction of the Fables of the Reconstruction of the Fables… And so Collapse finishes, and R.E.M.’s career with it, with a return to the beginning.
R.E.M. – Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter
For a pop star, seeming to take yourself too seriously is pretty much death. It’s letting people know that they don’t ever have to take you seriously. I’d give examples but I think this point is pretty well understood. Even Bono, self-serious, sanctimonious St. Bono, knows to throw in an “uno dos tres catorce” once in a while. (Or a video about feet.)
Michael Stipe, to his credit, has seldom seemed to take himself all that seriously. As discussed, for a hot-shit rockstar Michael Stipe can be a complete goofball. Even on serious, somber songs he’ll throw in lyrics that are pure nonsense. (And somehow the songs, or that song anyway, will seem the better for it.)
“Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter,” one of R.E.M.’s finest rockers, belongs to the song subcategory of serious music + silly lyrics. But rather than ruin a perfectly good track, Michael’s lines about alligators climbing up escalators give it an infectious sense of fun. Invaluable assists from Peaches, playing Peaches, and Lenny Kaye, fixing Peter Buck’s bridge problem just by being Lenny effing Kaye, elevate the song until it’s not just the best rocker on Collapse into Now, but among the best in R.E.M.’s discography.
R.E.M. – That Someone Is You
In and out in under two minutes, “That Someone Is You” is a throwback way back to the earliest R.E.M. days, when they were sweaty kids in churches and basements playing loose and loud through countless covers and one or two brainless rave-ups of their own devising. Collapse is too late in R.E.M.’s career for the band to do brainless, but “That Someone Is You” is a bubblegum rave-up of the highest order, the sort of hooky simple single that a bar band would rip through if it needed to very quickly get all asses on the floor. And once again to his credit Michael Stipe doesn’t sweat the lyrics, filling the verses with whatever joyful noise sounds good at this velocity: Sharon Stone casino, Scarface Al Pacino, ‘74 Torino. It should’ve been a single.
R.E.M. – Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando And I
Pretty much since the release of Automatic for the People, fans of R.E.M. have been asking why they don’t make more albums like Automatic for the People. And nearly every time over the next 19 years that the band released a new record, someone, a critic or a promoter or a member of the band itself, would promise that the new release contained at least one song that recalled the glory that was Automatic. “Me, Marlon Brandon, Marlon Brando And I” is the rare song that both demands and deserves the comparison, a somber, spare mandolin and piano number with a beautiful melody.
Stipe’s long fascination with Hollywood actors culminates here, as he identifies Brando’s uneasy relationship to fame with his own. Neil Young reference aside, Stipe’s selection of Brando reflects his continued fascination with the way fame figuratively or literally disfigures people.
Subdued and imbued with gravitas, “Marlon Brando” would have made for a fine, reverent finale to Collapse into Now. Instead, characteristically, the band went with something far stranger.
R.E.M. – Every Day Is Yours To Win
Lyrically “EDIYTW” is just the latest, and last, instance of the Michael Stip pep talk. But musically the song is R.E.M. trying something slightly new, which makes it a bit of a standout on Collapse into Now, a record otherwise defined by its embrace of all things classically R.E.M. While not straying too far from the chamber pop sound of Automatic for the People, “Every Day Is Yours To Win“‘s warm lullaby arpeggios and xylophone punctuation push the band into Richard Hawley territory. (Though, really, the fact that Michael sounds like he just smoked four packs of cigarettes puts this firmly in Eels’ backyard.) The band could simply have relaxed in this sonic space for the track’s duration and still have had four highly listenable minutes, but, for once, Buck and Mills have got a bridge for you: a massive, wordless hook that sounds like a more triumphant take on the middle part of ”I Wanted To Be Wrong.” It sounds just a little grafted on, as though Buck and Mills had this great bridge lying around and didn’t want it to go to waste, but that’s a quibble with a section that adds dynamism to a song already as well-crafted and lovely as this one.
Look: the verse is only okay, the “mine smell like honey” section is pretty bad, the bridge is one of the worse examples of Peter Buck Solo Syndrome in existence, and it’s impossible to shake the suspicion that Michael Stipe is singing about farts.
But. That chorus. That golden chorus. That is why these guys are greats. That is one of the best choruses of their career.
The rest of the song I can take or leave, but that chorus I cannot deny.
R.E.M. – Discoverer
More than any other record, Collapse into Now is the story of Michael Stipe. It’s the culmination of an evolution in his songwriting away from suggestive mumbling to a more declarative, emotionally direct style. From shy, mealy-mouthed art kid to politically outspoken celebrity who regularly posts gratuitous pictures of his wang on Tumblr.
“Discoverer” is the first R.E.M. song where Michael Stipe is addressing us directly, unambiguously as himself. At the very start of his last record, he transports himself and us to a “night of discovery” in 1980s Manhattan, floating above Houston St., the skyscrapers and sidewalks making him feel alive with “opportunities and possibilities.” It’s a song about reclaiming, in middle age, that sense of adventure that life had for him as young man; it’s about defining the theme of his life’s journey, and of his band’s career, as one of constant discovery.
It’s interesting that Stipe chooses to open the record with a story set in New York City rather than in Athens. Maybe this is trite, and maybe it’s projection on my part, but I have to imagine that for Stipe, growing up in St. Louis and various rural parts of the country and getting his mind blown by records from the likes of Television and his hero Patti Smith, New York was where the cool things came from; a city of danger and ferment and dizzying artistic possibility. New York’s a useful point of comparison, too, between the Stipe who sings “Discoverer” and the Stipe who’s sung about. New York used to be possibility; now it’s home. Patti Smith used to be his idol; now she’s his friend.
Musically “Discoverer” explores no terra incognita, instead resurrecting the big, metallic drums and vaguely exotic riffs of their late 80s arena tours. Aside from an old riff turned inside out, it’s explicitly an almost-remake of “Finest Worksong,” the Document opener’s factory floor sonics here standing in for Manhattan. Aside from connecting Collapse into Now to R.E.M.’s glory years, the sound creates an appropriately grand scale for Stipe’s story, and the band’s last act.