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.