Music week continues on X&HT as I look at the new record by my favourite band, R.E.M. Mentioning this has led to responses as varied as “Oh, are they still going?” through to “…pukies”. I can see I’ve got my work cut out with this one.
Everyone’s got that one band or musician. The one they stay loyal to regardless of fashion, time or taste. The one they always go back to when times are tough, when times are good. The band that provided the music that has sunk into their bones, that rings in their skulls whenever they need a lift.
For me, that band has always been R.E.M. I’ve been a fan since 1984. They are a band that has helped me to celebrate and mourn. They were at my wedding, and it’s a given that they will be there at my funeral (not with the song you’re thinking of, though).
Their latest release, Collapse Into Now, has been met with a typically lukewarm reception, coming as it does in the midst of releases by Radiohead and Elbow, who have soaked up a lot of their audience. This is a shame, as it’s their strongest album in a while.
Did you see what I did there? Every new R.E.M. album has been heralded as “their best since…” for the last decade.
People have a very clear idea of R.E.M. They’re that woodsy, mandoliny, mid-tempo jingly-jangly bunch. Losing My Shiny Happy Religion Because Everybody Hurts Sometimes. That bunch. And the sad thing is that R.E.M. haven’t been that band for a very long time. The one that started in the college town of Athens, Georgia in 1980 has gone for good. They’ve not been the same band since Bill Berry left in 1996.
He had his reasons, lord knows. The Monster tour of 1995 did horrible things to R.E.M. as a whole, hospitalising three of the four members. Berry suffered the most, popping a brain aneurysm while on stage in Switzerland. Events like that tend to lead a man to re-evaluate what’s important. The guy who wrote the mandolin figure that’s R.E.M.’s defining moment quit to become a farmer, after making sure the band would continue without him. The dislocation and confusion that Mills, Buck and Stipe felt was best summed up by their singer and figurehead, in typical style:
“I guess a three-legged dog is still a dog. It just has to learn to run differently.”
It’s that change in gait that’s done for R.E.M. People expected one thing, and got another. Experiments in electronica, samples and keyboard have met with mixed results at best, although every album the three-piece have delivered has gems tucked away. But the Southern Gothic had gone for good, as they edged towards a harder, more electric, city-bound sound. It’s that sound we find on Collapse Into Now, as the band take their back-to-basics approach that worked so well on their previous album Accelerate (“their best since Lifes Rich Pageant!” – the Kaupeeksee Journal) with Peter Buck’s guitars blasting at the front of the mix. It’s recognisably R.E.M., but tough, smart and nimble, taking the best from their past and mixing it with everything they’ve learned from their thirty years of carving songs and building records.
The epic closing track Blue, for example, reunites Stipe with his heroine and muse Patti Smith, who croons as he intones the apocalyptic lyrics in his throaty alto. It’s a nod to E-Bow The Letter, but a solid ending to an expansive, wide-open album. Opening track Discoverer sets the scene and the scale, Cinemascope and Techicolor, a call to arms, a flag to gather under. A Finest Worksong for the 21st century.
They don’t just nail the big stuff. Oh My Heart and Uberlin are precise and jewel-like, showing that they can still track the minutae of life and love better than any other modern songwriters. Their political urgency remains undimmed, bright and sharp. There’s a clarity and purpose to their post berrybuckmillsstipe work that I always found attractive, although the tactility and mystery of the earlier work will always be closest to me. They’re still striving, still thinking, still pushing. The very fact that they can still blast out a punky rocker like
Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter in which Stipe spits out lyrics with Peaches, of all people, and make it sound vital says it all, really. The confident diversity at play here rewards repeated play. Unlike Build A Rocket Boys, this is no instant hit. But it’ll sink in, make it’s case, stake it’s claim.
If you’ve not tried R.E.M. for a while, this is a good place to reacquaint yourself. They’re on fire, on form and on point. Join the Discoverer.