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R.E.M. through Flint’s eyes, part 1

23/09/2011
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So, R.E.M. have quit.

R.E.M. have been one of the most personally important bands for me. They were one of the first bands I found out about all by myself and subsequently became obsessed with; their massive discography turned out to be a treasure trove that seemed to have something new to find in it constantly, with nearly each music shop visit resulting in yet another R.E.M. album being taken home. They’re one of the major reasons why I am a music fan today. And unlike a noticeably loud amount of people, I’ve found them to continue to be a brilliant band throughout their career. From the early 80s to the early 2010s, they were constantly releasing golden material.

So, needless to say, I’m slightly gutted.

So I’m going to do a retrospective. I want to to a retrospective. I’m going to go through the band’s entire career as viewed through my eyes, my history with the albums and the band, and my opinions. I cannot guarantee it’s going to be an interesting retrospective, but it’s going to be my retrospective in tribute to one of my deepest musical loves. And in three parts (conveniently split five albums each, thanks evenly-splitting discography) because WordPress throws a fit when I start making things any longer.

Not much intro here, everything general I have to say about the band will become expressed later in these articles. So, to begin the begin.

In this first part I’m going through the band’s years on the IRS record label. It’s slightly more lightweight in tales of personal experience and importance as the later parts. I acquired most of the IRS era albums later than the later material that was out at the time, meaning I was already a fan who had gone through most of the revelatory processes by the time early R.E.M. began making a noticeable presence in my collection, and while I do love these albums they’ve not soundtracked my life as intensely as the others nor can I really analyse them like I can some of the others. Sorry about that.

PROLOGUE: CHRONIC TOWN EP (1982)

It’s incredible how familiar the Chronic Town EP, the band’s first release (after the obscure Hib-Tone release of “Radio Free Europe”, anyway), feels when you view the band’s whole three-decade spanning career. There’s been countless stylistic changes during the band’s lifetime and the band has moved quite far away from the dreamy jangle-pop of this EP over the years, but Chronic Town still sounds exactly like you’d imagine R.E.M. to sound like even if you were only familiar with the later material. There’s something wonderfully quintessential R.E.M. spirit within its five tracks and the only major difference it has to the band’s later incarnations is how young and green it sounds. Not in an amateurish sense: there’s no beginner’s mistakes here or anything that would signal the band’s still wet behind the ears. It simply sounds as young as its members were at the time. It’s a brilliant start for the band. The existence of “Gardening at Night” already guarantees its success, and that song is accompanied by four other rather good songs: most notably the rather brilliant “Stumble” that showcases the brilliance of Mills’ bass style even this early on. I can’t say it’s a release I’m as intimately familiar with as I am with the band’s albums – most of the time when I’m a R.E.M. mood I tend to go for an album rather than a 20-minute EP – but every time I hear it it’s easy to understand why there was such a fuss from the band so early on. It’s pretty much an EP by a band that’s destined for greatness isn’t it? It’s actually one of the few debut EPs that actually have more value than just being a fan curiosity and that’s saying quite a bit.


Gardening at Night (live)

MURMUR (1983)

Much of what applies to Chronic Town applies to Murmur as well. R.E.M.’s personality and character were clearly defined from the very early on and while on the surface Murmur has little to do with the 9os-and-onwards version of the band, it’s still incredibly REM-esque in its heart and soul. That same spirit that’s been going on in the band’s music through all the years is just as prevalent here as it is later on, and it’s easy to trace everything they’ve done since back to this starting point. Hell, you could take “Talk About the Passion” or “Perfect Circle” and insert them into almost any other R.E.M. album and no one would be any the wiser.

The most astonishing thing is that it’s been nearly 30 years since Murmur was released and it still sounds fresh today. Not only fresh, but unique. R.E.M. managed to cook up an album that at the same time lays the basic foundations for so many future bands yet sounds like none of them. Unlike so many other older classic albums which either sound incredibly dated or simply weaker when compared to the artists that took their inspiration from them and expanded and developed on the ideas, Murmur has its own sound even today and stands the competition. The only thing that nibbles away its timelessness is the production but the music has no era (and even the production issues is fixed by the recent deluxe edition remaster, which sounds gorgeous). It’s one of the few classic albums where I agree about the reputation.

Murmur was one of the last 80s R.E.M. albums I acquired and it actually helped me understand why some would suggest it is their greatest album and what the special magic was in their 80s work. I really enjoyed their earlier work before it but Murmur is the epitome of all the youthful energy and fresh inspiration that’s all over their 80s works. I’d find it a bit nutty to call it their overall best album, but it’s definitely the best work of their starting decade: it never fails to awestruck with its brilliant blend of fantastic hooks, emotional moments, instrumental ingenuity and vibrant lifeforce.


Radio Free Europe (the band’s first ever television live appearance)

RECKONING (1984)

I’m going to be hanged and gutted from this aren’t I?

Reckoning is R.E.M.’s weakest album.

It’s a classic case of sophomore slump. A band has had years to fine-tune the material to their debut and when less than a year later it’s time to start recording the follow-up, the bulk of what little finished material there is are outtakes from the first album sessions, accompanied by half-crafted ideas conceived throughout the busy touring schedule. There’s a notable amount of good moments on Reckoning but none of them come close to what the band can do at their best. Coupled with the album being stylistically very much in line with Murmur, the comparisons become even more unfavourable. Here and there there’s an attempt at trying something new or introducing a new element to the band’s sound, but most of them are somewhat half-cooked and the best one out of them, the tongue-in-cheek country twang of “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville”, is ultimately a fun novelty song (which isn’t even in its best form on the album – it’s ultimately Mills’ song and it would only reach its true shape during later live renditions when Mills began to take over the lead vocals on it). A handful of tracks have brilliant parts but overall fall flat, like ideas that were hastily developed into full songs.

It’s not a bad album. It’s got “Harborcoat”. It’s got “So. Central Rain”. It’s got “Pretty Persuasion”. It’s got “Time After Time”. To a slightly lesser extent, it’s got “7 Chinese Bros.” and “Rockville”. But it’s also got completely forgettable filler like “Letter Never Sent” and “Little America”, only 2-3 songs that could genuinely be called essential and it doesn’t really stand up well for itself. It’s very much like Murmur: The B-Sides, and aptly enough R.E.M.’s always been a bit of a disappointing b-sides band (in a way; more on this later).

Reckoning’s the only album in the R.E.M. catalogue that’s never really properly worked for me. It’s a grey spot in the discography, the only name in that big list that doesn’t jump out in any interesting or special way. It’s mainly just there. It’s not a bad album, but most of the time it never really gives a reason why you should listen to it instead of any of the other albums either.


Harborcoat (live)

FABLES OF THE RECONSTRUCTION (1985)

A very different tone here. Fables is one of the few albums the band has criticised in public (preferring to most of the time keep their opinions to themselves), although the reason behind it is less about the actual songs (several of which have been performed live throughout the years) and more about the memories related to them. The recording sessions were nightmarishly difficult and almost saw the band splitting up under all the stress. All the bad feeling storming behind the recording undoubtedly affected the material: while the songwriting on Fables takes a new step in itself – focusing a lot more on mood and texture rather than instant hooks and trying out new things in terms of structure and instrumentation – the overall murkiness and slight gloom that hangs all over the album can easily be credited to the band’s terrible time behind the scenes. Fables is not a dark album and the material on it isn’t inherently melancholy at all (instead, Stipe starts to explore the character study lyricism he’d go on to make one of his writing trademarks), but the gloomy production combined with the band who seem to have turned completely inwards lends the album a characteristically murky, introspective feel.

Fables seems to be a slow burner for everyone – for a lot of the fans, for the band (who began to talk about it more positively in the more recent years), for myself. There was a time when I found it to be one of my least favourite R.E.M. albums, now I hold it far higher. It’s not a stand-out discography highlight album, but there’s a lot of wonderful material to it. The newly-found focus on subtler, somewhat calmer material takes them a step closer to the definitive R.E.M. sound and opens up a whole new world of sounds: “Feeling Gravity’s Pull”, the opener, greets the listener instantly with a jagged, jarring guitar riff before launching into a darkly pounding dirge, introducing the listener to a whole new side of R.E.M. right from the get-go. I might even go on record to say that whilst it’s not my favourite IRS era R.E.M. album, its highlights are some of my very favourites on the whole early five-album period: the jangly “Maps and Legends”, wistful “Driver 8”, aforementioned Feeling Gravity’s Pull and the heartbreaking goodbye and final farewell of “Wendell Gee” that contains one of the band’s most beautifully vulnerable choruses.

It’s just as easy to see why people love Fables as is it to see why people find it one of the band’s weakest. It’s a murky grower.


Feeling Gravity’s Pull

LIFES RICH PAGEANT (1986)

Time to ROCK! To escape the gloomy waters of Fables, Lifes Rich Pageant makes its goal to up the energy and increase the volume. Mostly. The tempos are higher, the rhythm section is more in-your-face and even Buck’s jangles have a tougher edge to them. And it’s all relaxed and rather happy: after the downer tones of Fables, the band sound like they’re smiling and having fun again on Pageant. The element of fun runs throughout its veins, not just in the more upbeat rockers but also by having a fairly visible light-hearted side, as evidenced by a minute and a half salsa interlude and a goofy bubblegum pop cover of The Clique’s “Superman”, sung by Mills to make it sound even more innocent and carefree. To compliment all this, you have the calmer, more serious moments which work as rest stops between the high-energy stormers: plus, the bittersweetly beautiful duo of “Fall on Me” (apparently one of Stipe’s very favourite R.E.M. songs) and “Cuyahoga” are quite frankly absolutely perfect songs that any band would kill to have.

Lifes Rich Pageant was the first IRS era R.E.M. album I owned and for a long time it was my favourite from that period as well. While it’s surpassed by Murmur these days, it’s still the album I have most nostalgic feelings about out of the first five. Back when I bought it, as a guy who only knew the band by their works from 90s onwards, I was initially slightly daunted by it, not really knowing what lies ahead thanks to people going on about the difference in style between the 80s and later R.E.M. and how it’s always a bit of a leap to look into the early days of bands with long careers as natural stylistic evolution and age can create massive differences between the band at different phases. I mean it’s silly to be a bit wary about these things but you know how sometimes you get silly situations with music when you’re a music nerd and everything… In any case, Pageant nicely assured me that yes, there was fantastic material even in the band’s first decade.

It’s not an all-around excellent album as it does have some filler issues, but I continue to hold it as one of my favourite early R.E.M. works. Despite its somber moments, I find it to be one their more uplifting albums and thus it’s the token go-to album whenever in mood for upbeatly rocking R.E.M.. My love for it isn’t tied in its lyrics, themes or anything analytical – it simply feels great.


Begin the Begin (live)

INTERLUDE: DEAD LETTER OFFICE (1987)

Here’s the thing: R.E.M. have one big flaw. Basically, they suck at b-sides, which is rather annoying for a b-side nutter like myself. Sure, there’s a plethora of studio outtakes ranging from staggeringly different demos to fully fletched songs they’ve done that never ended up on the albums, but the sods didn’t like releaseing them. A few got through every now and then either legally or illegally, but mainly all their singles were filled with countless live versions of the same damn songs. And 99% of the time when they actually did release an original studio recording, it was a pointless throwaway instrumental jam. They had riches in their treasure holds, but they rarely gave any glimpse at them. That’s mainly the Warner days though: on the surface, the IRS days fared a bit better. As Dead Letter Office, a b-side compilation for their first four albums, demonstrates there’s certainly a fair amount of material on their 80s b-sides, ranging from all-new properly thought-out songs to covers. Aaaaaand it’s all mostly really forgettable.

Okay, so it’s a somewhat amusing to hear R.E.M. go hair metal (“Burning Hell”) or hear the band cover a song (“King of the Road”) in a toxicated enough state for Stipe to slur his way through the lyrics and Mills and Buck shouting chord changes to eachother. And here and there you’ve got actual successes, such as the fun cover of “Crazy” that charms just with the weird vocals of the song, muttered, sighed and haphazardly shouted through the song, and the bastard sibling pair “Ages of You”/”Burning Down” which are more or less the exact same rather swell song with very minor differences, with some lovely Mills backing vocals and an almost stereotypically 80s-R.E.M. feel. But then you have the thoroughly alright covers identical to the originals, the introduction of the ever-pointless throwaway instrumentals, the outtakes which are listenable but so obviously taken from the discard pile and the insider fun that never really opens to anyone who isn’t Berry, Buck, Mills or Stipe.

The greatest thing with Dead Letter Office is that the edition you’ll most likely find in the stores also has the Chronic Town EP inserted at the end of the album, which actually becomes the reason why Dead Letter Office is a pseudo-essential release. The actual b-sides… well, they’re not terrible. It’s a thoroughly listenable compilation. “Disappointing” is the more apt adjective, in case you were thinking of unearthing some hidden treasures.

And to be honest it was worth getting just to read Buck’s liner notes.

DOCUMENT (1987)

The stadium rock album. Amusing, because it was only after this album that the band could even begin to dream about playing in a stadium of any size. The sound that takes cue from the call-to-arms anthem tendencies of “Begin the Begin”, the pristine (for the time) big-scale production, punchier sound with more prominent electric guitar, larger ambitions… Document sounds like it was born for the stadiums despite the band still being minor league. Appropriately, this is where they started to get big too as the first hits, “The One I Love” and “It’s the End of the World As We Know It” can be found here. It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But yes, this is where R.E.M. abandon their small-time indie fare. Amusingly this actually sounds like a bigger album than any of the actual humongous hit albums that followed afterwards, all of which stayed fairly grounded and acoustic whereas this thunders and booms. And I’m cool with that, obviously. It sounds like natural progression rather than anything forced and if anything, the sudden burst of ambition once again broadens their scopes: toying around with new instruments, the dulcimers and what-have-you, here pretty much lead a direct path to the enriched instrumentation of the next few albums and closer to the band’s future sound. If you view the IRS era albums as a continuous path from the humble beginnings to what would eventually become the band’s signature sound and style, Document is the final link bridging the two gaps – it’s not a clear ancestor as there’s nothing else on the band’s catalogue with such an honest stadium rock sound, but it’s where all the elements the band would utilise as their everyday methods finally click into place.

Despite my current love for Murmur and nostalgic feelings for Pageant, Documents has the strongest memories for me. It’s entirely coincidental as well: I heard the album for the first time during a summer evening and whenever Document plays, my mind throws me back to that sunshiney evening. It’s actually Document’s strongest thing going for me – I enjoy it as an album but that flashback feeling gives it an extra amount of resonance. It helps to overcome the album’s occasionally occurring flaws, namely the somewhat pointless cover of Wire’s “Strange” and the occasional growing pain of trying out something but not quite hitting the bullseye with them. It’s probably not as well realised as a lot of the other IRS era albums but it’s a milestone for the band, a sign that they wanted to do something more and develop their sound. After Document, the band signed onto a major label and proceeded to do exactly that, thus starting their long-lasting golden age.


Finest Worksong

——————————————–

In the next part, it’s time to tackle the next five albums: not only brilliant albums in their own right, but each one loaded with a lot of personal importance.

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