Celebrate the Catalog: R.E.M.

Treble staff
R.E.M.

To this point, Treble’s Celebrate the Catalog has covered a range of musicians from those still making noise (Sonic Youth) to those long-gone but not forgotten (Miles Davis). For this installment we examine output from a band who just announced they were calling it quits, namely R.E.M. of Athens, Ga. Michael Stipe, Mike Mills, and Peter Buck looked at 31 years together and 16 studio releases and decided they’ve pretty much done everything they wanted to do, and said everything they needed to say. They announced an amicable, almost happy split in late September.

Along the way, R.E.M. broke some of the half-joking promises that helped define their independent spirit, namely that they would neither continue after losing a member nor beyond the turn of the century. Following a world tour that saw him survive a brain aneurysm, founding drummer Bill Berry left in 1997 to become a farmer. Five studio albums-four since 2000-have followed. Fans and critics debate whether Berry’s departure took the wind out of the band’s sails.

Still, the band also broke many unspoken rules, chief among them those related to simple vocals and lyrics in hit songs and those implying that “selling out” from indie to corporate meant a loss of independent thought, action, and vision. From the days of recording in stairwells and with Krautrock-inspired studio setups, to their groundbreaking videos, tours, and political involvement, R.E.M. toyed with what music actually meant to themselves and to their interpreters. Their stylistic shapeshifting and business acumen also inspired countless artists who followed-Athens remains a musical bellwether, and if Kurt Cobain alone was the world’s most prominent R.E.M. fan, what greatness was wrought in the band’s wake?

What might have happened to music had an army brat not started buying the LPs set aside by a record store clerk working near the University of Georgia? Where would we be had a pair of Macon high school rivals not set aside their differences over bass and drums? We can’t say for sure, but what we can do is survey their immediate legacy — the studio albums they left for us and future generations.

 

1982-1987: The I.R.S. Years


Chronic Town EP
(1982, I.R.S.)

R.E.M.’s longtime manager Jefferson Holt believed his charges weren’t quite ready to make a full-length follow-up to their curious 1981 debut, the single “Radio Free Europe.” Really, the world wasn’t quite ready to decode the R.E.M. mystique, and much more beyond this five-song EP spelled sensory overload. From the jump it was clear this release and this band hauled along far more than three chords and a cloud of dust. A repeated missive like “House in order” from “Wolves, Lower” could easily have been yelled on The Sex Pistols’ debut five years prior. Delivered instead as one of the few moments of lyrical clarity on the EP, we heard church-ready harmonies from Mills, Berry, and Stipe plunging through Buck’s arpeggiated guitar. Ranging from weird storytelling like “Gardening at Night” to mantras like “1,000,000,” Chronic Town synthesized punk urgency, post-punk murkiness, and folksy melody. It was raw, imperfect, confusing-and maybe that’s what grabbed the band’s first fans. – Adam Blyweiss

Rating: 8.8 out of 10


Murmur
(1983, I.R.S.)

If the Chronic Town EP hinted at R.E.M.’s potential for a long, illustrious career, their first full length sealed the deal by displaying the bold creativity and daring execution the band would grow to be known and loved for. After its 1983 release, Murmur turned the heads of critics and fans alike with its combination of precise poppy styling and dark, cryptic undertones. Clinging just loosely enough to standards of rock’n’roll present and prior, Stipe, Mills, Buck and Berry each brought their own preferences together to create a beautiful and inventive musical core. Berry’s precise and almost unfittingly orthodox drum styling tightly held together the mixture of Buck’s shiny guitar riffs and Mills’ popping, melodic basslines. Atop it all were Stipe’s mumbled lyrics, as easy to sing along to as they were impossible to decipher. Add to that an exceptional taste of song-composition, a knack for vocal harmonies, and the occasional focus on piano, and you have the full picture of Murmur.

However, the most interesting component of Murmur‘s sound might be the route the band took to discovering the sound. Initially, I.R.S. Records had set R.E.M. up with Stephen Hague, a higher-profile producer who relied primarily on professional and modern recording techniques. After a few sessions that left the band members emotionally dissatisfied, and a resulting master of “Catapult” to which Hague added piano without permission, R.E.M. eventually switched back to Mitch Easter (and recording partner Don Dixon), who worked with the band on Chronic Town. Thanks to the band’s discontent with modern recording methods and technical precision, R.E.M. neglected cliche aspects of rock, resulting in the album’s timeless aesthetic.

While the sound of Murmur would not define the band, as they continued to nurture their talents and expand into different directions, this LP continues to inspire new generations of fans, critics and performers alike. – A.T. Bossenger

Rating: 10 out of 10


Reckoning
(1984, I.R.S.)

R.E.M. consistently evolved, expanded their sound, toyed with other genres and challenged themselves throughout the majority of their career. This was a precedent set with Reckoning, the follow up to the colossal Murmur. After creating an album that practically defined a then-infant genre in “alternative” rock, R.E.M. set off to explore even more creative possibilities. The band’s sophomore effort successfully stretched out into a number of directions giving listeners a glimpse at just how versatile they could be. From the rollicking “Pretty Persuasion” to the wry, alt-country of “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville,” Reckoning sees the seeds of the band’s adventurous spirit already in full bloom. And then there’s the emergence of Stipe’s vulnerable side, which would end up being one of the band’s most potent weapons in later years. The emotional intonations he delivered in laments like “Camera” and “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)” are deeply affecting. – Chris Karman

Rating: 9.7 out of 10


Fables of the Reconstruction
(1985, I.R.S.)

Recorded two years after Murmur‘s release, and following an extensive tour schedule, Fables of the Reconstruction sealed the band’s habit of constantly changing their musical approach. From its distinctively dark opener, “Feeling Gravity’s Pull” to closer “Wendel Gee,” a banjo- and piano-driven ballad, the album carried the same recognizable feel of past R.E.M. efforts but introduced a wide variety of experimentation with regard to musical detail and lyrical content.

Largely based on the band’s experience growing up and touring in the South, Fables of the Reconstruction displayed a new writing style for Stipe, whose previous, cryptic lyrics were harder to pinpoint. Fables‘ songs, while not your typical ballads, showed a heavier focus on storytelling, and specific cultural elements are referenced throughout the album. And while the album is not as universally adored as previous efforts, the album showed R.E.M.’s ability to adapt their music and allow their tastes to grow with them, for better or worse. This skill set, which gave them a particular savvy for musical and lyrical diversity, would later contribute to the band’s mainstream success. – A.T. Bossenger

Rating: 8.9 out of 10


Life’s Rich Pageant
(1986, I.R.S.)

After a hot single, an EP, and three full albums, maybe it was a bit corny and misguided to just now make the full-throated lyrical proclamation, “I’m so goddamn young!” But so went Michael Stipe at the squealing end of “Just a Touch,” invoking Patti Smith before him-corny, and accurate. Spanning the hazy sentiment of the Fables of the Reconstruction track “Life and How to Live It” across an entire album, Life’s Rich Pageant is about as loud and punk as R.E.M. would get until they recontextualized grunge on Monster. It was one year and 180 degrees away from Fables: from the artwork on it was brighter in tone and clearer in purpose. Of course the band could still sweetly sway (“Swan Swan H,” “The Flowers of Guatemala”). They also proved funny (the Latin-flavored interlude “Underneath the Bunker,” the Mike Mills-led cover of The Clique’s “Superman”), political (the one-two punch of “Fall on Me” and “Cuyahoga”), and capable of letting Berry and Buck crash through anthems like “Begin the Begin” and “I Believe.” Celebratory and angry, Life’s Rich Pageant showed R.E.M. holding their own, kicking against the pricks. – Adam Blyweiss

Rating: 10 out of 10


Document
(1987, I.R.S.)

Document marked the end of R.E.M.’s debt to I.R.S., and for a pernickety portion of their longstanding fans the end of their allegiance to the band. Ironic, considering the album’s most famous song is “It’s The End of The World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”. But this particular document also serves as a sketch for the blueprint of future success, “The One I Love” delivering the band’s first real hit, a hint of things to come that doesn’t sound too removed from the harder edge that will characterize their sound in the mid 90s. Tellingly the album also saw the start of the band’s working relationship with producer Scott Litt, which would be a mainstay of the band’s major label transition through to New Adventures in Hi-Fi nearly a decade later. The album is also notable for more idiosyncratic experimentation like the wacky saxophone stylings of “Lightnin’ Hopkins,” as well as the emergence of Mandolin, which would play a large part in the formula that so struck a chord with the wider audience on ensuing efforts. – Chester Whelks

Rating: 8.8 out of 10

Next: 1989 to 2011 – Warner Bros.

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1989 to 2011: Warner Bros.


Green
(1989, Warner Bros.)

R.E.M.’s Warner Brothers debut, Green, symbolized a new era for the band in a variety of ways. Not only did it signify their literal departure from home-label I.R.S., but the album also functioned as an introduction to various musical styles that the band would expand upon in later projects. With a new focus on variation, R.E.M. added the mandolin to their repertoire of instruments and leaped in differing directions musically, with some tracks having the embellished feel of ’80s rock, and others having a scaled back, folksy quality to them.

The album’s singles, “Orange Crush” and “Stand” had an upbeat quality that seemed to mock popular rock tunes of the day, while “You Are The Everything,” “The Wrong Child” and “Hairshirt” referenced the mandolin-heavy sound that would later resurface on Out of Time. The other tracks on the album drew upon various components of R.E.M.’s past sound, but with a more mainstream sound to the production, and all around heavier attention to detail. However, while each song on Green is carefully crafted and could easily find its place in to someone’s heart as the best on the record, the overall fluidity of the album was surprisingly shaky when compared to R.E.M.’s past efforts.

While Green boasts eleven great songs, many of those eleven (particularly the two hit singles and the three mandolin driven tracks) stick out like sore thumbs, and the album doesn’t flow as well as various efforts in their career. Perhaps the excitement of several new concepts flooding the group caused them to force too many into one album. Thankfully, as R.E.M. continued their career with Warner, the quartet would go on to reconstruct the various moods and styles approached on this album with more patience. – A.T. Bossenger

Rating: 7.7 out of 10


Out of Time
(1991, Warner Bros.)

As the 1990s broke, R.E.M. encountered some of the highest of their creative highs and, for once, the lowest of lows. On the back of “Losing My Religion” (the song itself, an ode to impatience powered by Peter Buck’s plangent mandolin, as well as a video referencing the myth of Prometheus), Out of Time topped American and British charts and scored the band their first Grammy awards. Michael Stipe powered his way through “Me in Honey,” Mike Mills did the same through “Texarkana” and its potent string arrangements — at times like these, the album portrayed the band as country revivalists, The Byrds or Neil Young with pretty aftermarket parts. But Out of Time was also littered with failed experiments. “Radio Song” and KRS-One’s guest spot on it were hokey knocks on getting airplay; “Shiny Happy People” was an irritating pop caricature (and meant as such!); there are too many half-sung Stipe wannabe poems. As backroads as this album got, and that’s probably going back to the alt-folk days of Reckoning, even “Losing My Religion” with time earned quiet snickers in its direction. – Adam Blyweiss

Rating: 6.6 out of 10


Automatic For the People
(1992, Warner Bros.)

Coming off of the heels of the massive commercial success of Out of Time, R.E.M. quickly returned with what might have seemed like a bit of a retreat, Automatic for the People. Often seen as the band’s finest hour (Murmur being its greatest competition), Automatic was not nearly as accessible as their most recent albums. The album is fairly heavy in tone — and at times downright haunting — but it also holds some of the band’s most exquisitely beautiful work. It’s simultaneously weighty and consoling, containing plenty of brighter moments among a suite of bittersweet reflections. Topics of discussion, including suicide, loss and Andy Kaufman, are laid out in extensive folk arrangements. “Nightswimming” is one of the finest looks at nostalgia ever put to tape and “Find the River” works fantastically as a sweeping closer. Released just as grunge was taking over, Automatic felt at once completely out of time and timeless. It’s hard to imagine now that an album so refined would be so readily accepted given the musical climate. But R.E.M. was one of the greatest influences on the bevy of new alternative bands arising and was also one of the biggest bands in the world. As a result, it stands as the band’s second highest seller. Automatic further illustrated just how deserving of this success they were. – Chris Karman

Rating: 10 out of 10


Monster
(1994, Warner Bros.)

Automatic for the People‘s presence in Kurt Cobain’s suicide-scene CD changer touts it as a contender for the last album he listened to before taking his own life. Invitations and preparations had been extended and fiscally implemented for a collaboration between Stipe and Cobain in Athens — the flight you wish he’d made rather than the one after absconding from Rehab in Los Angeles back to Seattle, and a rendezvous with the shotgun he’d purchased a week earlier. Monster features the spikier influence of the sound Cobain injected into the mainstream, his Fender Jag-Stang and a frank account of their unfulfilled meeting in the form of “Let Me In.” In a move reminiscent of the lyrics to “Lithium” Stipe also notably unveiled the album from under a freshly shaven head in the video for “What’s The Frequency Kenneth?Monster, despite a few more notably tender moments like “Strange Currencies” and “Tongue,” lashes out against the unprecedented success of Automatic For The People. – Chester Whelks

Rating: 7.6 out of 10


New Adventures In Hi-Fi
(1996, Warner Bros.)

You’d be forgiven for thinking “How The West Was Won and Where it Got Us” was self-referential, since by this time R.E.M. were arguably the biggest band in the world, despite Monster‘s attempt at sidestepping the limelight. U2 were still engaged in the pompously overblown Zoo TV, their grotesque disco masquerading as art, but Automatic for the People‘s mandolin picking and Universally adored, maudlin country balladeering eased R.E.M. into the hearts and dashboard-mounted cassette decks of the Middle Aged and Middle Class. Monster‘s relative ferocity seemingly did little to dissuade, and New Adventures in Hi-Fi was largely written on the road during its Herculean stadium tour, whose patchwork assembly makes it the band’s Road Movie — a concept echoed by the documentary of the same name released the same year. After the aforementioned album opener, Stipe drops the Oppenheimer-invoking “Wake Up Bomb,” a still more insistent disavowal echoed through similarly angry tracks such as “Leave,” while “E-Bow the Letter” delivers not only what one suspects is a lifelong ambition of Michael Stipe (in its ‘featuring’ credit for Patti Smith), but also the most emotionally devastating recess of the R.E.M. songbook, as well as this album’s most lyrically and musically engrossing moment. “Electrolyte” plays the album out with the lyrics “I’m not scared…I’m outta here,” ironically marking the amicable departure of drummer Bill Berry. – Chester Whelks

Rating: 9.1 out of 10


Up
(1998, Warner Bros.)

If New Adventures in Hi-Fi represented somewhat of an encapsulation of R.E.M.’s Warner Bros output, almost as if to close out that chapter of the band’s existence, Up most certainly denoted the band’s next phase. With drummer Bill Berry’s departure prior to the album’s creation, changes to R.E.M.’s sound were inevitable. Rather than replace one of their founding members, the band opted to utilize drum machines and guest drummers to fill the role of percussionist (echoing a move pulled by Smashing Pumpkins earlier that year). Following the celebrated arrival of techno, in the mid to late 90’s several guitar-based alternative artists — ranging from U2, the aforementioned Smashing Pumpkins and even Bush — began adding electronic flourishes to their music to mixed results. Rather than boldly announce the band’s new direction, Up is a largely hushed, reflective work. Receiving mixed reviews upon its original release and largely ignored today, Up is easily among the most underrated albums in the R.E.M. catalogue. It may meander in places, but songs like “Why Not Smile,” “Walk Unafraid” and “Daysleeper” are stellar, achingly beautiful works. And there’s the Beach Boys-esque “At My Most Beautiful” which is one of the best songs released by anyone in 1998. – Chris Karman

Rating: 9.0 out of 10


Reveal
(2001, Warner Bros.)

Carrying on somewhat from the electronic inflected Up, opening as it does with what is said to be a prequel to that album’s beautiful “Daysleeper,” the sun-kissed Reveal brings R.E.M. into their third decade and a new Century with an ambitiously inflated production awash in the swirl of multi-layered studio hokum. This candy striped artifice however sits rather nicely amid the songs that seemingly touch on the vapidity of ‘all that glitters,’ such as “All the Way to Reno (You’re Gonna Be A Star)” and centerpiece “Imitation of Life.” Other high points include the Sunflower-era Beach Boys sounds of “Summer Turns to High” and “Beachball.” Hindsight however informs us that while Reveal shares a little heritage with Up, it’s also a premonition of the anesthetized Around The Sun to come. – Chester Whelks

Rating: 6.5 out of 10


Around the Sun
(2004, Warner Bros.)

No better critique of the band’s 13th studio album exists than this one from the band itself, namely guitarist Peter Buck, in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “The … record, for me, just wasn’t really listenable, because it sounds like what it is, a bunch of people that are so bored with the material that they can’t stand it anymore.” Everything about it, with the possible exception of the lilting chorus of “Leaving New York,” sounds overproduced and lifeless. Around the Sun is R.E.M.’s take on MOR radio rock; unable to rise even to that level, it’s the point where even longtime fans wondered out loud if the band had stayed on an album or two too long. – Adam Blyweiss

Rating: 2.0 out of 10


Accelerate
(2008, Warner Bros.)

After the tepid reaction to the prosaic Around the Sun, R.E.M. seemed aware that another round of reconfiguration was in order. For the first time in the band’s career, that meant looking backward for inspiration. Accelerate is the sound of a band attempting to get in touch with their past glories. Focusing on the more rocking side of their catalogue, the album is a lean, energized and, for the most part, successful look back in time. The record is bolstered by an abundance of contagious melodies. It may lack the originality of their former works, but the spirit of tracks like “Living Well is the Best Revenge” and “Supernatural Superserious” is undeniable. – Chris Karman

8.0 out of 10


Collapse Into Now
(2011, Warner Bros.)

Opening with one of Stipe’s only autobiographical pieces, “Discoverer,” the mood of Collapse Into Now is clearly positive. Featuring everything from ballads to drum-driven anthems, the effort is the band’s most well-rounded releases since Berry’s departure, but does not come across as overstated. Of course, that’s quite a surprise when considering Jackknife Lee’s heavy-layered production and cameo vocals by the alt-rock heroes like Patti Smith, Eddie Vedder and even Peaches (believe it or not).

While the album in no way rivals their highest musical successes, it serves fitting as a final statement. The songs are all strongly built, and bring back the variety that Accelerate lacked. And in many ways, Stipe’s lyrics are refreshing, representing the wisdom he has gained over 30 years as frontman for the highly influential ensemble. With universal lyrical themes and a well-rounded sound drawn from their adventurous past efforts, Collapse Into Now served as a safe, but fitting, conclusion to one of the strongest careers any alternative-rock band has seen thus far. If you love R.E.M., you can find something to enjoy on this album, and if you have an open mind, you might just learn to love it with time. – A.T. Bossenger

Rating: 8.0 out of 10

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