Until recently, I’d avoided thinking about the recent break-up of R.E.M. I didn’t bother reading the tributes that littered the web in the wake of the September announcement. I didn’t pay tribute to the band myself by listening with devout appreciation to Fables of the Reconstruction or Reckoning alone in my room. I didn’t mark the occasion at all.
You could say R.E.M. and I grew apart over the past 10 years. It started when they released their first thoroughly rotten album, Reveal, in 2001. By the time they finally got around to releasing its follow-up — the tepid, uninspired, and utterly superfluous Around the Sun — in 2004, I was finished paying attention. I reckoned 1998’s Up would be the last worthwhile album the band would ever release (and even it wasn’t without considerable flaws), so I turned my attention to better music by younger bands.
What I’m saying is, although R.E.M. broke up two months ago, I broke up with them almost 10 years ago. And it wasn’t me – it was them. Or so I thought.
But a confluence of recent events has encouraged me to re-open the book on the band that, in the magical first two years of our romance, convinced me that when done properly, rock ‘n’ roll is on par with the highest of the arts in its power to transform, instruct, and aid in the pursuit of some vague sort of transcendental glory.
It started earlier this year when R.E.M. messed around and finally released a legitimately good album, Collapse Into Now. And more recently still, the band released its first full-career retrospective, the I.R.S. Records/Warner Bros.-spanning Part Lies, Part Truth, Part Heart, Part Garbage.
The unprepossessing title of the compilation is indicative of the band’s waning artistic judgment over the years. But when it comes to the songs included, the remaining members’ acumen holds up surprisingly well. In addition to obvious hits like “The One I Love,” and “Losing My Religion,” it includes deep cuts like “Sitting Still,” “Life and How to Live It,” and “Country Feedback.” Michael Stipe recently described the band’s intention with the album to Salon:
I wanted kind of the same experience I had when I bought “Changes One” by David Bowie… It provided me with a snapshot of who he was and why he was so significant to all these other people – why Talking Heads or Television would care about this British guy who dressed funny.
This brings me to the final reason I’ve been reconsidering R.E.M. lately: Tonic Ball – an annual Indianapolis charity concert that holds a special place in my heart because several of my close friends help put it together – is happening tonight in Fountain Square. When Tonic Ball started 10 years ago, it featured many of Indianapolis’ best bands covering the songs of an iconic band or artist. This year, due to its growing popularity, Tonic Ball is paying tribute to three artists: Michael Jackson, David Bowie, and R.E.M.
During a recent conversation with a friend who helps organize Tonic Ball, I casually mentioned I was more excited to hear R.E.M. songs than Bowie’s songs. The conversation quickly became a debate about the relative merits of the two. Obviously, David Bowie towers over R.E.M. in terms of influence and fame. He’s an international fashion icon, an accomplished actor, and possibly the most exquisitely cool individual in the history of rock ‘n’ roll.
But then there’s the issue of songs. Save for a generous handful of Bowie’s (“Suffragette City,” “Sound and Vision,” “Golden Years,” “Let’s Dance” — yes, “Let’s Dance”), they’re more style than substance, with songcraft often taking a backseat to conceptual theatrics. Bowie’s genius lay in his ideas about music rather than his skill as a songwriter. He was (and is) a brilliant idea man, an unparalleled performance artist, and a gender-bending rule-breaker. But here’s the thing: he never wrote a song that could make me cry.
As I was driving home later that night, I listened to the first disc of Part Lies, Part Truth, Part Heart, Part Garbage. Song after song, I found myself singing along with unmitigated pleasure – “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville,” “Driver 8,” “Life and How to Live It,” “Begin the Begin,” “Fall On Me” – and I was amazed all over again at the mystery, drama, raw emotional power, and technical virtuosity contained in those songs. Moreover, I was reminded of the heady days when I first fell head over heels for R.E.M., and everything their music spoke to me about back then: political rebellion, the inevitability of death, the allure of the unknown, the fleeting nature of time, the pure joy of the present moment – and on and on and on.
Michael Stipe is a self-professed blowhard, but he said something recently that I think helps explain why I feel so strongly about his band – and why other people feel so strongly about music by bands whose appeal I don’t altogether understand. He said, “The thing that I think is hardest for me as a public figure is people not realizing the degree to which music and art is a reflection of yourself, not me.”
In other words, the way I feel about R.E.M. isn’t so much about R.E.M., but about me at ages 16, 17, and 18. About who I was then, and (more important, probably) who I was trying to be. Much like, in the naivete of youth, we choose our lovers because of the way they make us feel about ourselves, I chose R.E.M. because of the way they made me feel about me.
When I fell for R.E.M., they had just released the then much-reviled Out of Time. Talk about some embarrassingly uncool timing on my part. The good thing, though, was that there were six amazing prior R.E.M. albums (and one EP and a collection of B-sides) yet to be discovered. I eagerly bought them up on cassette and listened to each of them with a religious fervor, reveling in Michael Stipe’s alien tenor and cryptic lyrics, Peter Buck’s angular guitar jangle, Mike Mills’ pitch-perfect backing vocals, and Bill Berry’s workmanlike time-keeping.
Jesus, I loved that band. And make no mistake: Love is the right word – the only word. If you don’t love them, I won’t hold it against you. But if you have the time and inclination, and you want to explore their immensely rich and rewarding back catalog – or if you’re already sold, and are up for a pleasure cruise down memory lane – here’s an album-by-album YouTube guide for appreciating the lesser-known songs not included on their (really pretty excellent) new retrospective.
Hope to see you tonight.
Chronic Town, “Stumble”
The band’s scrappy debut EP is best known for “Gardening at Night” and “Wolves, Lower,” but “Stumble” does as good as job as those at showing off young R.E.M.’s precocious melodic instincts.
Murmur, “Shaking Through”
A gloriously simple song, it captures the feeling of being young as well any song I’ve ever heard.
Reckoning, “Little America”
After Stipe yelps the opening line, “I can’t see myself at 30,” it hardly matter what comes next.
Fables of the Reconstruction, “Green Grow the Rushes”
You know that new Real Estate album that everyone’s been gushing about? It has a great sound. More than fifteen ago, R.E.M. invented it.
Life’s Rich Pageant, “The Flowers of Guatemala”
I once read a Michael Stipe interview where he said he didn’t realize how big R.E.M. was until he saw people at concerts crying while he sang this song.
Document, “King of Birds”
One of Stipe’s finest moments lyrically, here’s the band performing it on the excellent “Tour Film” concert documentary.
Green, “You Are the Everything”
Jesus, this song is gorgeous. More “Tour Film” footage here.
Out of Time, “Belong”
One of the band’s most underrated songs, with a devastating wordless chorus.
Monster, “Let Me In”
A song about Kurt Cobain’s death featuring Mike Mills on guitar.
New Adventures in Hi-Fi, “Be Mine”
The finest love song R.E.M. ever wrote.
Up, “Falls to Climb”
Had they broken up after Up, this closing track would have been a most fitting swan song.