rem

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In October 1997, a year and a month after the release of what would be R.E.M.’s last album as a quartet, Bill Berry, the band’s drummer of 17 years, announced that he was quitting. He had had an aneurysm onstage during the previous year’s massive (and massively profitable) Monster tour; he’d just signed what was then the most lucrative contract in music history, ensuring he’d never have to work again; he’d been a touring musician for almost 20 years, and felt that it was time he do something else. (Hay farming, it turns out.) He quit with one condition: the remaining three members of the group, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, and Michael Stipe, would remain together and continue to record and release music.

They did. And much of the music world never forgave them.

Had R.E.M. disbanded when Berry left, they would have left a pristine legacy: ten acclaimed albums that traced their evolution from mumble-and-chime pop obscurantists into arty hitmakers, and from darlings of college radio into one of the biggest bands of the planet; ten classic albums that proved it was possible for alternative bands to grow huge and still maintain a measure of integrity. While the signs of their commercial decline were there—New Adventures in Hi-Fi, Berry’s last album with the group, moved ‘only’ five million copies and failed to produce any hits—they would have ended their career basically on top.

They could have ended their career on an album that served as a graceful summation of their last half decade of music, an album whose lyrics and song titles—”Departure,” “Leave”— seemed to point to a definite ending; whose last, wistful song, “Electrolite,” finished on an a capella “I’m outta here.”

They could have (not incidentally for this line of thinking) fulfilled a few young boasts they’d made early in their career, among them that they would disband before the new millenium and that they would never play together without all four members of the band.

Instead Buck, Mills, and Stipe carried on, refusing to replace Berry with a permanent drummer, and releasing five records that were met widely with frustration, disappointment, and, finally, boredom.

And so when, earlier this year, after 31 years, five months, and 16 days, the remaining members of R.E.M. called it a day, the respectful obituaries and reappraisals that greeted the news carried with them an undercurrent of, well, finally. About time. This lumpy, unseemly epilogue had somehow metastasized into half of their career. While the classiness of the breakup—mutual, amicable, democratic in the classic spirit of R.E.M.—attracted good notices, obituaries mentioned the disappointment of their late years; album rankings routinely clustered their later works at the bottom; fans waxed nostalgic for their early, thrilling years.

For better or for worse, breakups are times that solidify public opinion about a band. But they are also a time for reevaluation. Time to appreciate, as this blog’s editor puts it, under-appreciated musical gems, to discover new angles to old favorites.

I came to R.E.M. long after their early, thrilling years, long even after their commercial peak. And yet they are an old favorite for me. They are my first favorite band, the band that was my favorite when having a favorite band was most important to me. And because, partly as a result of their uneasy legacy, R.E.M. have no agreed-upon point of entry for new fans, I came at their discography with a democracy that I wish more people had. I came into the world in the same month as one of their most enduring singles (birthday cake, cheesecake, jelly bean, boom); I wasn’t around to see R.E.M. grow and then seem to falter. To me as a twelve year old, Up (1998) seemed as much of an adventure, as likely to bring me to new musical worlds, as Murmur (1983) or any of their early, heralded work.

So, in the spirt of reappraisal, I will be looking this week at R.E.M.’s five post-Bill Berry albums as well as the singles and live records released around them. This music is worthwhile, adventurous, at times uncharted for the band, and I’ll make the case that it deserves to be considered not as a completist’s afterthought to the main R.E.M. canon but as a progression and even culmination of a lot of what made R.E.M., well, R.E.M. in the first place.

Who I am: Rafa García Febles, scribbler of things, consumer of music, person living at the Venn diagrammatic center of various New York Times trend pieces. Itinerantly Puerto Rican, erstwhile Midwesterner, lately Brooklyn-based and thus newly Nuyorican. I blog at bugalu, write copiously in less rebloggable media, and on occasion dress up in celebrity drag. My favorite R.E.M. record changes daily. I am less hypertext-happy than this post attests. 

I am thrilled to be writing for One Week // One Band, which I’ve been reading weekly since I stumbled on my favorite essay about one of my favorite songs. And I’m thrilled to participate, in a small way, in the critical reappraisal that post-Bill Berry R.E.M. deserves.

First up: R.E.M.’s most frustrating record. And one of its best. 

There’s a five album cycle theory that divides R.E.M. records into five sequential types, and it basically goes like this:

  1. The band releases a record that establishes a template for the band’s sound (Murmur, Green, Up);
  2. a more classicist follow-up that refines that sound while opening it to new influences (Reckoning, Out of Time, Reveal);
  3. a relatively darker, more orchestral variant on that sound with a long name (Fables of the Reconstruction, Automatic for the People, Around the Sun);
  4. a harder-rocking, arena-ready version of that sound (Lifes Rich Pageant, Monster, Accelerate);
  5. and a type that synthesizes types three and four (Document, New Adventures in Hi-Fi, Collapse into Now).

It’s not a very serious theory, and one with holes that are obvious to anyone who’s spent time with these records, but it does point to certain patterns and arcs across R.E.M.’s discography, and reinforces the idea that, just as there are singles bands and album bands, R.E.M. is best viewed at the scale of the discography.

New Adventures is distinct in its class in that, while it amplifies the somber chamber folk of Automatic for the People and synthesizes it with the arena rock (now no longer in quotation marks) of Monster, it also pushes R.E.M.’s music into new, weirder, and, yeah, more adventurous directions.

Nowhere is the album more adventurous than on its centerpiece, the colossal “Leave.” At 7:18, “Leave” is not only R.E.M.’s longest track, but among its most unorthodox: the insistent synthetic siren at its heart keeps pushing itself to the front of the mix as though throwing itself against the bars of a cell. Even the more familiar arena rock elements scrape against each other uneasily; Stipe’s voice struggles to make itself clear through the thick smog of guitar distortion, and when it finally clears the air in the chorus, its soar is cut short by the siren. On paper this is a mess; on record it’s tense and thrilling, a song in which at any moment the elation of escape can cave into the panic of being caught. It doesn’t hurt that “Leave” has one of the biggest choruses on the album.

“Leave” is one of Bill Berry’s last musical compositions for R.E.M., and a testament to his deftness as both arranger and performer. With Berry’s departure, R.E.M. lost not only a skilled drummer but an editor, songwriter, and singer, a core part of their core sound.

R.E.M. would go on to make great music without Berry, but there’s no denying that his exit was a heavy loss. The sense of incompleteness, of instability that follows is difficult material for art. R.E.M. took it and made one of the great records of its career.

You’re looking like an idiot, and you no longer care.

You really can't believe it and you hope it's getting better.

R.E.M. – Hope

Up is R.E.M.’s headphones album, a layered and texturally diverse record that rewards and at times demands close listening. With the notable exception of Murmur, Berry-era R.E.M. records are not headphone records: they’re straightforward productions, mixed to be heard loud, of arrangements that, allowing for overdubs and the occasional string section, closely track the band’s live playing. But Up is R.E.M. as studio rats, holing themselves up with an array of vintage synths and drum machines to produce what could be called, with some historical irony,* R.E.M.’s first synthpop record. Of course synthpop means pop, and it’s a (slight) stretch to call Up that. Downbeat and introspective, long on atmosphere and texture but low on hooks or beats, a rainy day record and an introvert’s best friend, Up is possibly the most book-like album in existence.

As though liberated, by the loss of their drummer, from all notions of what their band had to be, Buck and Mills seem intent on purging the record of anything conventionally R.E.M. Gone, save for a late reprise, is Buck’s chiming guitar; Mills’ vocals, formerly approaching co-lead status, are reduced to a sound effect. Rather than fill the space left by Berry’s go-ahead drumming, Buck and Mills let his absence be felt; only occasionally employing a real drummer, they largely punctuate tracks with lowkey loops and drum machines, at times forgoing percussion altogether. The dynamics of a rock band—verse/chorus, loud/soft—are, while present, toned down in favor of something more indebted to electronic, even ambient, music: a steady accretion of new sonic detail, the shifting of textures beneath a vocal line. 

Stipe, for his part, is more prominent than ever, his now solo voice the clearest link to the R.E.M. of old. But even as more of the melodic burden falls on him, Stipe’s melodic sensibility shifts; gone are the instantly hooky, hummable melodies of their radio hits, replaced with melody lines that are long, searching, sometimes hesitant, formally beautiful but un-poppy. While Green might be Stipe’s best record as a singer on technical merits, I think Up might be his best as an actor, as someone who employs the nuances of phrasing and delivery to create character. And his newly prominent lyrics (Up is the first R.E.M. album to feature a lyric booklet) reward the attention: allusively dense and narratively deft, fragrant with imagery, they’re also home to his most complex, and at time repellent, characters. 

Pristinely recorded and spaciously mixed by new producer Pat McCarthy (never better) with an assist from Radiohead knob-twiddler Nigel Godrich, Up sounds terrific, but it sounds little like R.E.M. as its fans had come to know it.**

Up is one of my four or five favorite R.E.M. albums, meaning one of my favorite albums period, and probably R.E.M.’s last masterpiece. It’s not perfect—it’s overlong, sometimes plodding, and, for many, emotionally remote—but its greatness rests not in its flawlessness (plenty of great records are flawed) but in its richness, its ambiance, its abundance of pleasures. For ears trained to hear an R.E.M. record in a certain way, these can be hard to hear; of all R.E.M. records, Up is the one most in need of critical reappraisal. I’ll be devoting an unusual amount of time and space to it. It’ll be a pleasure; I hope it becomes apparent how much there is to love about these songs.

*14 years earlier, R.E.M. had made their name with a mumbly, chimey live sound was at odds with the prevailing, pristine synthetic sound of the New Romantics. 

**While Up remains, 13 years later, distinct and idiosyncratic and pretty hard for many people to get into, its basic sound (or more properly the established sound from which it departed least) would become popular just a few years later


Bridging the stylistic gap between New Adventures and Up is this alternative version of “Leave,” a minimalist electronic take that showcases, in extreme form, the sounds and style R.E.M. would immerse themselves in over their next two records. Favoring mood and texture over rhythm, this version forms an eerie, abstract backdrop for Michael’s pained, prominent, slightly echoed vocal; not for nothing is this song often misattributed online to R.E.M. ft. Radiohead.* This “Leave” is at least as large of a departure from the established R.E.M. sound as the album arrangement, though a less successful one: lacking the original’s dynamism and urgency, this “Leave” is slightly anxious dinner music. (More claret?)

*Actually, the synth tones of this song remind me quite a bit of Venus in Furs’ “2HB,” an odd, gorgeous Roxy Music cover by a britpop supergroup featuring Thom Yorke doing his weirdest Bryan Ferry impression. The film it was recorded for, Velvet Goldmine, in turn features Jonathan Rhys Meyers lip syncing to Thom Yorke while in character as a David Bowie simulacrum. Velvet Goldmine, by the way, was produced by Michael Stipe.

You want to cross your DNA with something reptile.

R.E.M. – Hope

While many songs on Up move around melodies that wander, “Hope” holds steadily to its own, an adaptation of Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne" that seems to build and build without ever changing all that much. The arrangement locks into a pattern—the voice, a pitter-patter of drum programming, and a squelchy keyboard line that sounds a bit like a scanner humming to itself when it thinks no one’s listening—that grounds the song as a million little sonic explosions occur all around it: keyboards whizzing to life before suddenly nodding off, percussion bursts that last a measure or less, a sudden shift to a major key that carries the song to its unexpected crescendo. This mirrors the lyrics: the song’s protagonist, confronted with deadly illness, tries to ground himself as his life falls apart around him. Though he can find nothing more solid than hope to cling to, he still elicits awe from Stipe, who seems vivified watching his friend confront mortality. "Hope" is a ridiculously exciting, expertly made piece of music, whose every element seems timed to delight (I’m especially fond of the ghostly Mills vocals that enter toward the end), and one of the better arguments that Buck, Mills, and Stipe were right to go on as a trio.

The concrete broke your fall.

R.E.M. – Why Not Smile

Belying its title and upbeat album art, Up is downcast, a set of songs about depression and trauma that sounds like it was recorded in the aftermath of depression and trauma. Michael Stipe often sings from either the point of view of someone in crisis or of someone offering counsel and support to a friend in crisis.

"Why Not Smile" belongs to the second set, a category that Matthew Perpetua often terms Michael’s pep talk songs. Michael offers advice to a depressed friend on “Why Not Smile,” but his delivery—zonked out, fragile, carefully hushed, as though afraid of disturbing anything—makes it sound as though he could be trying to cheer himself up. The advice he’s offering is simple, even naive—smile, you’ve been sad for a while—but his understated, world-weary delivery makes it clear that Stipe understands that, when you’re depressed, something as simple as smiling (or leaving bed, or getting on the right subway) can seem basically impossible. 

Beginning with just a few tinkled bells under Stipe’s voice, “Why Not Smile” unfurls slowly around it, with an effect that J. Edward Keyes superbly compares to lights coming up slowly over an darkened stage. The song’s meticulous accretion of almost subliminal sonic detail—wind-up percussion, music box tinkles, harpischords, that sunlit howl of feedback—achieves a cumulative uplift. It’s like an arrangement of discrete objects blurring beautifully into a warm glow of light.

Great opportunity blinks.

R.E.M. – Airportman

Rarely have Stipe’s words evoked the song’s musical ambiance as well as they do on “Airportman.” The music—deep blue keyboard hums, flourescent chimes, blasts of static, a low purr of feedback—conjure up a bluelit, early A.M. airport, all conveyor belts and moving sidewalks, which Stipe, his voice low in the mix, peoples with sallow-skinned travelers, moving easily beyond security. The mood of the piece is numbed, but still somehow with a touch of cautious optimism, even excitement, as though the retro techno-futurism of the music imbues the airport with a faint glow, a memory of air travel’s golden age.

Up's boldest gesture is also its most subdued. “Airportman,” its opener, sounds unlike any R.E.M. song before it, resembling, of all things, a Kraftwerk-crafted lullaby. Its sound, all low keyboard drones and high bell chimes, saves itself from the label New Age* only through percussive bursts of rattling static. On the one hand, it's innocuous enough: low-key, gently cinematic, it eases listeners into the sounds and concerns of the new record. On the other hand, it's easily the most alienating opening to an R.E.M. record, jarring listeners out of any sense of familiarity, and, in conjunction with its oddball follow-up “Lotus,” probably the least welcoming introduction to Up possible.

Gestures like these are why Up, of all R.E.M. albums, most inspires people to play God. Ian McDuffie, responding to a post here, laments the fate of “Why Not Smile,” which despite being “one of the best album openers ever” is sequenced all the way back at track ten. 

That’s one of the frustrating things about Up. It’s obviously full of great songs, but there’s no way in to them, and every time you think you’ve found one, the next song either rushes too fast or slows too much to a crawl. But there is a way through the album. It’s just not the surface path. You gotta cut some brush away before you find it.

I agree, clearly, that “Why Not Smile” is an appealing introduction to Up. (So’s the similar “Hope.”) But I love “Airportman.” It’s one of my favorites on Up and in the running, against stiff competition, for my favorite R.E.M. opener. Ian loves it too, but he’s willing to remove it from the main sequence of Up in his (and Keyes’) ideal tracklisting, which I’m not. ”Airportman” is, as Perpetua puts it, “the sort of track that either goes at the start or nowhere at all.” If “Airportman” must be the opener to stay on Up, then so be it. While jarring, it’s a perfect introduction to what makes much of Up great: a self-contained sound world that’s both evocative and transporting.

*The song’s sole live performance pretty much was just that