As you’re almost certainly aware by now, earlier today R.E.M. announced that they have broken up.
It’s hard even for me to remember now just how important R.E.M. was to me. They were without question my favorite band for at least ten years (from about 1983 to 1993). I still know Murmur‘s every last nook and cranny, and find the album almost impossible to simply listen to without singing along. That album, in particular, probably held putative “Favorite Album Ever” status for longer than any other (I’m still not sure what, really, might replace it in that status).
And of course, the band practically invented not only a certain variety of American indie rock (not yet called that) but the support system, the touring and labels, to nurture it. And a slow steady rise in sales and visibility, which up through the end of the IRS years was unimpeachable in its integrity.
Sure, there were problems. If I’m honest, I’ll acknowledge that every album (except Murmur and possibly Document) had at least one or two tracks of filler…enjoyable filler, usually, but songs that I’m pretty sure even Stephen Malkmus forgot when thinking of his “least favorite song” by R.E.M. And near the peak of their popularity, both Green and Out of Time had songs that were felt blocky, chunky, unfinished or just not very good ideas. (Guest rapper on an R.E.M. album? Bad idea in 1991…utterly inane idea in 2004 – but we’ll get to that.) But those moments were more than made up for by excellent, thrilling songs, so they were easy to overlook.
I know, I know…the doubters are going to say they should have hung it up when Bill Berry left, that they’ve been completely irrelevant ever since. Since music is neither a popularity contest nor a current-events quiz, I really don’t give a damn about that. I think Up is a very fine album, and its rough or questionable moments a byproduct of an admirable urge to move on and not stick in a rut. While Reveal showed the weakness of that approach (way too many songs in the same key and tempo in a row…and not enough of them good), and Around the Sun was unquestionably the band’s nadir (yep – that guest rapper surely didn’t help), Accelerate really was a return to form—maybe not top form, but as good as Reckoning, or Monster, or Green? Sure, why not? And while Collapse into Now repeated a recurring pattern of second-similar-album-not-as-good-as-its predecessor, it’s a much better ending than (god forbid) Around the Sun would have been. And Live at the Olympia was a damned fine live retrospective, showing that several of the band’s latterday songs stood up just fine next to their classics.
Sure, those later records could never have the influence or significance of the earlier ones, and inarguably the second half of the band’s career is not as strong as its first.
But I’ll still miss them. And I’m still very thankful they were able to make all the music they did. I cannot overstate how important the band’s music has been to me, and will remain.
Thank you, R.E.M.