I've dug back into R.E.M. after years of having a few of their early albums and honestly just neglecting them. As a fan of 8o's post-punk and indie guitar rock, it's very easy to overlook R.E.M. as one of the defining American bands of the 8o's for one simple reason: they're enormously popular. They started indie, went major, got huge, got bloated and got boring. But they've always at least remained interesting (most recently because of the circumstances and not the music; which is always unfortunate). After a conversation recently with a friend, I realized, I should say something about one of the best bands to ever do it. I will try to keep this somewhat contained to within a reasonable length, but I make no promises. Sticking to official albums and stopping where I feel like they really did lose it, here's R.E.M. in a nutshell. . .
Chronic Town (1981)
As good as they were later on, I still find that this five song EP is the most enduring and just downright best thing they've ever done. It's like a post-punk band trying to play like the Byrds. Too nervous and jittery to be able to sound so polished, but with enough (alluringly simple) melodic ideas to pull it off. All Music has famously remarked that R.E.M. marked the point where post-punk officially became 'alternative rock' and while I would agree, for this EP and its follow up, they were still playing firmly in the post-punk mindset. The guitars may jangle more than their other post-punk peers, but Mitch Easter's stark production and Bill Berry's bare bones drumming makes them sound essentially like a slightly more polished garage band. Highlight: 'Carnival of Sorts (Box Cars)' wherein Michael Stipe's mumbly jumbly vocals seem fully formed already as he babbles on about "Chronic town, poster torn, weeping wheel" and then all of a sudden explodes into, "BOX CARS ARE TURNING OUT OF TOWN. BOX CARS." Still one of the band's definitive songs.
Where Chronic Town's presentation was sparse and no-nonsense, Murmur's production is still clear and jangly, but it sounds like maybe there is extra reverb on everything. Also, the songs are a bit more obtuse in their structure. Besides the big riff and glorious chorus of 'Radio Free Europe', most of the songs avoid traditional structure altogether. A song like 'Laughing' is just flat out sparse brilliance, as its lyrics mean absolutely nothing, but its riff is undeniable. In the end, the band never made another album quite like how Murmur sounds. It's almost ambient jangle at some points. Totally unique sound and vision. Highlight: 'We Walk' probably because it has one of the only coherent sets of lyrics on the album.
I wouldn't have used the word 'artsy' to describe Murmur in its own review because it only seems like it is when you consider what came immediately before it and immediately after it. Because when an album like Reckoning comes along and still sounds revolutionary despite its staunchly conservative and classicist sound, everything comes into focus. There are some days I'd call this my favorite R.E.M. album. Just based on pure songwriting, this one knocks it out of the park within the first four tracks. Peter Buck famously remarked later on that he thinks side one of this album is the best single side of a record that the band ever did. I can't say I blame him. The riffs throughout are layered and evolving, the choruses are simple and effective as hell and the sequencing and consistency of the whole thing is just tops. Truly, this sounds less like a band forcing themselves into something and more like a band trying to keep up with the creativity that was obviously bubbling over. One of the most definitive jangle albums of all time. Highlight: Still 'So. Central Rain', despite maybe slight overplayage throughout the years. It's just one of those warm, fuzzy pop singles that became popular on sheer quality. The song's stature —and the rest of the album's, for that matter— has only grown with time.
Fables of the Reconstruction (1985)
You know something's wrong when Peter Buck labors away at that nearly mathematical riff right off the bat on 'Feeling Gravity's Pull.' And make no bones about it: that song (the album's opener, no less) was the darkest and just downright bleakest thing the band had done at the time. Produced by Joe Boyd, recorded in England and bringing in some dreary string augmentations, this is R.E.M.'s slowest, darkest and just all around best album in my ears. Always has been, in fact. I like the sludgy riffs. I like the gloom. I love the slowness of the whole thing. At this point, the band could probably have farted in unison and it would've come out as a melodic idea for a glorious riff. But, when I say this album is dark and gloomy, recontextualize that for an R.E.M. setting. While you still get some pretty bleak-sounding stuff like 'Maps and Legends' and 'Kohoutek' (an extremely underrated song), it's all filtered through the band's modern folk rock slant, so it's not like the thing is competing with Joy Division or anything (well, maybe if PB had played that riff on 'Feeling Gravity's Pull' a little more sloppily and with some feedback — you get the idea). 'Driver 8' is just one of those magnificent R.E.M. jangle pop gems that sounds incredible every time I hear it. Just top stuff, man. Joe Boyd's production is a match made in heaven for this material because it's longing and melancholy, while not forgetting the bigger picture fact that this is still a guitar band trying to make a pop record. Really wonderful stuff. I often go back to it and marvel at just how damn good it is. Because it's that good. Highlight: 'Feeling Gravity's Pull' with its labyrinthine riff and weird —even for Michael Stipe at this point— surreal lyrics. Stone cold is how classic it is.
Lifes Rich Pageant (1986)
In which, the formula for the R.E.M. album, as we now know it, is formed. It rocks out a little ('Begin the Begin'), it gets folky ('Swan Swan H') and, most of all, it's got a few downright resonatingly great jangle pop tunes ('Fall on Me' and the greatly underrated political track 'Cuyahoga'). It's fine enough, I suppose. But I guess it's the first album where I find that they got a bit complacent and comfortable for the first time. A comfortable R.E.M. is not necessarily a bad thing, but it's also not very interesting most of the time. Don't get me wrong, a three-and-a-half for an 80's R.E.M. album is like a twelve hundred for any other band. But it just feels for the first time like they didn't give it their all. And the album suffers because of that. Highlight: 'Cuyahoga' because of the g'damm chorus vocals. Just heaven, they are.
Different approach to production, different sounds, generally strong results. 'Finest Worksong' is an awesome, and quite brilliant, opening song. I'm almost positive I'd hate it if it were anywhere else in the album sequence. But it just opens things up, rocking out, big dated mid-80's drum sound; great stuff. And then it just awesomely jangles away like it's trying to be Reckoning or something. Can I just say that, removed from overplayage and all the cultural baggage bullshit that it picked up, I think 'It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)' is really a rather fantastic song? Would that make me a bad person at this point? Because structurally, melodically, rhythmically, it's pretty fucking sharp. The harmonies, the riffs. Sheesh. I can only imagine what it was like being a teenager in 1987 and hearing that for the first time. I was only six, so as much as I would like to pretend I was that hip, all I have is a hindsight appreciation. Call it overplayed and old by this point, but what a fucking monument, in the bigger picture. I nominate it for the esteemed title of "The indie rock 'Free Bird'." And then, just guess what the next fucking song is. I dare you. Fucking guess, man. Only 'The One I Love.' One of the greatest pop singles in history followed by it's little brother. The rest of the album is good and it ends with the awesome fan favorite 'Oddfellows Local 151' but what else can you say, honestly? It's got no less than two of the best songs ever written on it. What else do you want? Highlight: 'The One I Love.' Just because.
I know this is a line in the sand for just about everyone familiar with the band. R.E.M. got really popular off of Document and its two incredible singles, so off to a major record label they went and all hell broke loose. As it usually does, the hype surrounding the ethics of such a thing overshadowed the actual music. And, in this case, they just maintained. Didn't get better, didn't get worse; just made the same old class act, left field pop that they had been doing for a while. If anything, it was actually a step towards a little more willfully inaccessible music. 'Pop Song 89' is a silly goof, but catchy as heck. 'Get Up' is slow and sludgy. 'You Are Everything' is quiet and folky. 'Stand' is another amazing pop single whose popularity overshadows its actual quality. And then, the next three songs are arguably the best hat trick that the band ever pulled off. 'World Leader Pretend' is an incredible political allegory set to a dark, lush folk rock backing. It's one of the best things the band ever did (and there's a reason that it's the only song that had its lyrics printed on the album sleeve). 'The Wrong Child' is just about the most convincing thing they ever did to sound like a real folk band (and it's surprisingly affecting). And then 'Orange Crush' is just a textbook example of an anthemic single gone completely right. One of the defining albums of "alternative" rock for a reason. Maybe not their overall best, but I think I may go back to it more than just about anything else in their catalogue. Highlight: 'World Leader Pretend' because it's simultaneously pompous and catchy. Just excellent music.
Out of Time (1991)
God, I hate 'Radio Song.' I like the message, but the actual execution is pee-pee poor. Overproduced, contrived funk rock schlock. And, as a whole, this album is overproduced in the classic sense. Keyboards where they don't need to be, big boombastic drum sounds and just that all around stock early 90's big budget sheen. But the songs are good, for the most part. I like 'Shiny Happy People' just because I probably have a secret crush on Kate Pierson that I haven't fully addressed yet — but I do understand why somebody wouldn't like it. 'Losing My Religion' is, again, one of those great jangly R.E.M. singles that just ballooned out of control and got too popular for its own good. Elsewhere, 'Near Wild Heaven' is one of the rare non-Michael Stipe sung R.E.M. songs that is genuinely good. 'Belong' is a strangely catchy half-spoken thing and 'Texarcana' sounds straight out off the Reckoning demo reel (and, again, isn't sung by Stipe). Overall, a bit more folky and "weird" than you'd expect if you only knew the singles, but a darn solid effort, especially amongst the sometimes hindering production. Highlight: (surprisingly?) the two numbers where Mike Mills takes lead vocals ('Near Wild Heaven' and 'Texarcana').
Automatic for the People (1992)
I really like that the band's biggest album —the one that is, at once, their most acoustic-based, most pleasing to both their old fans and their new fans and probably the darkest of their major label albums— starts off with Michael Stipe, nearly whispering atop a Peter Buck acoustic strum, "Hey kids, rock and roll. Nobody tells you where to go." Fuggin' brilliant, buddy. Sure, 'Everybody Hurts' was so popular that even your grandparents probably know it, but take away the popularity and, again, you get a really affecting and genuine pop single. I could go without ever hearing it again, but to my eleven year old brain, seeing the video on MTV and —especially considering that I wasn't even into that sort of music— actually feeling something was pretty relevant. It's a first for R.E.M. because they had never done anything close to a power ballad at all before this, so I guess consider it significant just because of that. The rest of the album, like I said, is pretty dark and melancholy. And Michael Stipe swears a lot for some reason (seriously, what's up with that?). The other single, 'Man on the Moon,' is one of my favorite R.E.M. songs just because it captures that amazingly resonating classic pop single mood so well. The whole album is great, honestly. But don't judge it by the singles. Because you're totally wrong (even though the singles are pretty good), if you're doing that. Highlight: the sludgy rocker 'Ignoreland' that recalls Document, or maybe even Fables. It sounds like nothing else on the album and is all the more awesome for it.
Does this album suck? Or is it just R.E.M. finally lightening up and having fun, therefore making a genuinely good album? I don't know. Sure, a third of the songs are actually pretty stupid and contrived, but am I a bad person because. . . I. . . uhm. . . kind of like it? Whatever the case may be, I can now hear this as what I've shaped it to be in my own little twisted musical world: it's R.E.M.'s glam album. With all these crunchy guitar tones and catchy hooks, how could I hear it as anything else? Disposable as hell, but does it sound awesome when it's playing? You betcha. And besides, starting an album with 'What's the Frequency, Kenneth?' and 'Crush With Eyeliner' does not hurt at all. I remember reading an interview with Michael Stipe (around 2003/2004) where he described this album as "a big fat, wah-wah pedal that we needed to get out of our system." And that makes sense, I guess. R.E.M. had never really "rocked out" for an entire album before; just in short bursts. So, why not, right? Highlight: the album closer 'You' which is actually a point where they get genuinely psychedelic. God bless the 90's, right?
New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996)
Motherfruggit, I don't care: this album kicks butts with no prejudice. A boxer or your grandma get the same treatment: a swift kick in the hiney by some of the band's most original material ever. The problem is: everybody hates on the darn thing because it's rumoured to be the album that made Bill Berry have an aneurism and say, "Hey dudes, I'm a farmer now." But, as a final sendoff for the band's original lineup, they basically made an update of Document or Green. It rocks a little, it folks a little, but mostly, it entertains a lot. Go ahead and deny it, like everybody else in the world. Call it too long, call it boring or whathaveyou. I call it a creative rebirth. The more rockin' Monster sound hasn't gone away, but with the sonic chances they took on that album, they must have picked up a new flair for studio knob-twiddling because the dynamics and layers achieved on this album sound like no other R.E.M. album before it. Honestly, this is the first R.E.M. album that doesn't sound like every song was just recorded live in the studio — irony supreme, as it was notoriously recorded in pieces amongst makeshift studios and soundchecks during the Monster tour. They've finally gotten a handle on how to properly overproduce an album. It's a weird one, too. I mean, seriously, the single was 'E-Bow the Letter.' Good song, sure. But that's one weird thing to try and get into the top 40 (even though, wow at the balls it took to release that as an a-side; the hook is "Aluminum tastes like fear" ferrchrissakes!). Highlight: 'Leave.' Only the longest and best song they ever did. Yeah, it's that good.
Anutha muthafrugga because, sheesh, I luh this one too. It's infamously the band's first album without Bill Berry. And without one-fourth of their previous being present, they get all produced and smarty pants-sounding. Kind of like "pop art" before Kanye West was a pretentious a-hole about the whole labeling it that thing. 'Airportman' will blow you away. And then somebody will tell you it's an R.E.M. song and you'll need a clean pair of undergarments. And then the next song is 'Lotus.' Due apologies to the fanboys out there, but I'm sorry. Any album that starts with that one-two punch is better than Lifes Rich Pageant. It just is. Deal with it. Sure, the single was the somewhat MOR-minded 'Daysleeper' but even that is a good song within the album's running order. And, really, look at the first six songs. What an awesome bunch of super artsy pop songs. I love this album. And it has a great, uplifting 'overcoming the odds' tone to it that is just refreshing to hear, especially at this point. Highlight: 'Walk Unafraid.' You don't even remember what it sounds like, do you? For shame.
Overproduced as all get out, but it sounds fine while it's playing, I suppose. At times, it almost sounds like they are consciously saying to themselves, "Hey, all those cool, interesting subtle guitar and keyboard layer sounds we awesomely snuck into the last album need to go, but let's keep all the stupid, cheesy guitars and keyboards." As much as I love the fact that they said the name of my hometown on the single, I still can't deny that it's blatantly overproduced. The dynamics from New Adventures and Up are completely gone, in favor of volume compression and that's just disappointing. 'Disappear' is a good song, I guess. I just hear layers and layers of unnecessities. Imagine that song on Fables and you see my point. Again, it's fine while it's playing, but there's very little substance. Highlight: 'I'll Take the Rain' because it sounds as depressed by this album's underwhelming quality as I am. At least it sounds genuine next to everything else here — all of which ends up sounding very cartoony. In a bad way.
And then, Around the Sun was even worse and, after that, I cared no longer. I guess they've gotten "better" in recent years, but I just can't bring myself to listen to another R.E.M. album that's as compressed and lifeless sounding as their last few. Up, as maligned as it became, at least sounded interesting from a production standpoint. Like the songs or not, at least they sounded cool on headphones in a dark room.
And I guess that's what I will always love about R.E.M. (at their best) in the end: they always make you feel like you're not alone. No matter how bad you feel, you can pick up Reckoning or Green and forget about your troubles for fourty minutes or so and just immerse yourself in some heartfelt expression that may be emotional, but in a completely true way that —and this is the whole point— is entirely life-affirming.