As news of the R.E.M. breakup traveled around the web yesterday, one recurring comment I read on Facebook and Twitter went something like this: “About time! Should have happened twenty years ago!”
I’m no big admirer of the later studio recordings of the band from Athens – I’ve argued that the “rock” leaning efforts since Monster (1994) are plagued by an abundance of calculation and, at times, a troubling absence of the loose renegade spirit that drove the early works.
But as one who covered just about every album and tour (starting sometime in 1984), I object to those posts and the glib dismissal of a long career. First because fans and critics don’t – and shouldn’t – get a say in the “calling it quits” decision. Had R.E.M. actually hung up the spikes twenty years ago, the band would not have issued Out of Time or Automatic For the People – two of its most cohesive full-album listening experiences.
There’s also this: Given the particular complementary talents of Michael Stipe, Peter Buck and Mike Mills, and the catalog they’ve created together, it’s completely unfair to judge them as “finished” – no matter how uninspired the last effort might have been. Most music critics, even ones known for their quick-trigger appraisals, try to approach every release with an open mind; the majority of them would invest time in listening to a new R.E.M. project. Not because the band was a commercial powerhouse and remains a viable “name act,” but because over and over again, for a really long time, R.E.M. offered up provocative, ear-stretching and often deeply moving music. Do that once and you’re an act to watch. Do that over and over, and you’ve got some mojo working. Mojo that commands at least an hour’s worth of respect.
Still, people slept on R.E.M. Some in the band’s fervent following bailed out when “Losing My Religion” became a huge hit. Some jumped even before that. It’s safe to say that even some of the diehards missed what I consider the last great R.E.M. effort – Up! from 1998.
The first record without original drummer Bill Berry, Up! is R.E.M. at its most lush and orchestral, with hints of Pet Sounds in the gilded vocal harmonies and a touch of Lou Reed (a recurring influence on Stipe) in the wonderfully maladjusted lyrics about loners, apologists and sad professors. Mid-tempo and often downcast, it’s a leap into an unknown sound-world – a place where half-crazed characters reveal themselves not in overt declarations, but in contrast to the mysterious, flat-out breathtaking accompaniment rising up around them. It’s also a clear evolutionary step from what the band had done before. It’s the great lost R.E.M. record; many listeners, critics and fans alike, had harsh words for it because it wasn’t in the style of Automatic For the People. Which is a shame. Nowadays, that intolerance is much more prevalent: Anyone with a twitter feed can pop off about any band. To those folks, I say this: Check out “Suspicion” or “You’re in the Air” and then explain to me why anyone other than the individuals who created this music should say when it’s time to stop.