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R.E.M. through Flint’s eyes, part 2

26/09/2011
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While their output has been high quality throughout their history, the 90s were R.E.M.’s golden age. And in this part, it’s time to tackle on most of that material.

GREEN (1988)

If Document brought back some summertime memories for me, it’s nothing compared to Green. For a long, long time it’s been my token summer album and in fact, I rarely play it outside that sunny season. Especially sunny summer evenings where you can still feel the warm summer light but the day is turning into dusk and all the fuss of the living and kicking day has started to fade away, with nary a breeze in the air. Those particular evenings where everything seems to stand still in the wonderful, hazy summer light are the perfect time for Green.

Green is a very multi-faceted album. On the other hand, you have the upbeat pop songs. “Get Up”, “Stand”, “Pop Song 89” et al are the most honest, unashamed pop songs the band has ever written. They’re silly, they’re fun, they’re bouncy and they’re extremely positive, particularly “Stand” that could have soundtracked any self-respecting kids show. On the complete flipside, you have the serious, politically tinged moments. During the late 80s the band’s politically active streak began to make more and more appearances and for a while Stipe was nearly a spokesperson, actively taking a hold on the time’s serious issues and trying to make a stand. Thus, the likes of “Orange Crush” and “World Leader Pretend” find their place here. And as a final counter to the riff-tastic rockers and bouncy poppers, there’s a newly-found subtle and tender side of the band. The band take several opportunities to sit down, remove the louder instruments and simply relish in understated beauty, often accompanied by the first appearance of Buck’s trusty mandolin. They’re the heart of Green’s bouncing body, the moments that leave the largest impression despite not making the largest noise. The pastoral beauty of “You Are the Everything” might even be the single greatest moment on the album. Even though the acceptingly defeated “World Leader Pretend” gives it a one hell of a run for its money.

Everything is bound together by the lushness. That is why Green is such a wonderful summer album. It has a lush, warm sound that suits the wonderful summer still perfectly. Even at its most rocking there’s something warm and soft to it. “You Are the Everything” even covers itself with the sound of crickets and other summertime nature sounds. There’s richness in sound everywhere as the band have abandoned relying on the core band get-up and now freely use organs, pianos, strings, mandolins and what have you to compliment the sound where needed.

It’s here where the band really moved from being a great group to being an all-time classic band. After Murmur, Green is the first special album in the R.E.M.’s catalogue, and overall the first album where you can genuinely hear and feel the magic of the band at their best throughout its length. I may mostly listen to it only at summers, but it’s always something I await for.


You Are the Everything (live)

OUT OF TIME (1991)

What an absolutely bizarre album to become the thing that turned the band into one of the biggest on Earth. For one, in its core Out of Time is an almost messy jumble of different styles and various kinds of experiments. It had two hit singles: one is a novelty bubblegum pop song and the other, the one that’s become one of the most legendary (and best) songs of the 90s is a bizarrely flowing confessional that has a chorus so subtle that it doesn’t really even exist, and which was never even thought to become anything more than a buzz single. Hardly anything else on the album could be called a likely single candidate either, which is a particularly odd characteristic for a hit album. Not that it didn’t stop the label from releasing more singles from it: a funk rock song that briefly guest features a rapper, and a saccharinely adorable pop number sung by the band’s bassist. In total, resulting in one of the more schizophrenic singles runs I’ve come across. Quite frankly, all the signs say that Out of Time should have been little more than a stepping stone between two iterations of the band.

But the stars aligned correctly and Out of Time is a solid gold classic. Its name suits it – there’s a timeless quality to the songs contained within, like they’ve been taken from throughout history and spruced up for a more modern era. The lush tones from Green continue to be around as well and taken even further, sometimes resulting into rather beautiful orchestral heavens. Another carryover from Green is the tone, or more accurately, the tenderness found in the calmest moments of Green is now found throughout Out of Time and not simply limited to the calmer moments. It’s hard to put it into words, but Out of Time’s material overall seems to have more honest emotional investment to it than any previous R.E.M. album: I don’t mean that the previous albums lacked in emotional investment, but on Out of Time that human element and connection is in the forefront. Where once Stipe mumbled and acted on an equal stage to the other sounds, he’s now more in the spotlight and pouring his heart out into the vocals. His lyrics, consisting largely of character studies and introspective outbursts, take a more audible role – on Out of Time, Stipe cements his role as one of rock’s best frontmen. Whether it’s the heartbreaking ache of “Country Feedback” and “Losing My Religion”, detached tones of “Low” or lively and vibrant like in “Belong” and “Me in Honey”, Stipe reaches out for a far greater connection to the listener than ever before. Where on Green he at times acted like a spokesperson for universal issues, he’s now acting like a spokesperson for your personal feelings.

Out of Time is also a good time to say a few things about Mike Mills, often hailed as R.E.M.’s secret weapon and already mentioned here and there in this little blurbs. His importance to the band has from the very beginning been two-fold. For one, the instrumental chops both in bass and on keyboards. I wouldn’t hesitate calling Mills my favourite bassist. He’s not the most technically impressive bassist there is, but he has a knack for an absolutely brilliant bassline that not only serves as a steady, important backbone for the songs but which, when wanted, becomes a strong hook element in its own right thanks to his keenness on vibrant, living basslines that bounce up and down the fretboard, equally pounding with necessary power and smoothly grooving. But then there’s also his vocal contributions: his backing harmonies have always been a strong part of R.E.M., his smooth and soft voice contrasting excellently with Stipe’s roughness and often leading to the two simultaneously singing completely differently hooks that perfectly blend together. He’s also got a fantastic ear on where to insert his harmonies, hitting at the right strategic spots but never becoming overpowering. I’m more than willing to point out Mills as one of the key factors as to why I’m such a backing harmony lover these days: he brings whole new elements to the songs. On Out of Time, he finally gets the chance to properly step into the lead vocal light. Would he have ever been able to front a band on his own? Most likely not, because no matter how sweet and lovely his voice is, it’s simply not a strong frontman voice. But his two lead vocal stints on Out of Time work perfectly: both songs are musically excellent and suit his voice perfectly, “Near Wild Heaven” with its lightweight and soft feel and “Texarkana” with the upbeat, perky rock groove. In addition, he and Stipe get to show that their voices work together perfectly even when the roles are reversed. Stipe is definitely R.E.M.’s true vocal frontman, but the two Mills-led songs here nonetheless make you wish Mills had had the courage to stand up to the lead mic a bit more often (although, to point it out, he does do so on a handful of covers they’ve done as b-sides).

Out of Time: the album that rationally could never have been a massive hit, but which somehow turned out to be one. And an absolutely amazing classic record to boot.


Belong (live)

AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE (1992)

I tend to list Automatic for the People as one of my personal favourite albums ever. The sort of album that gives you very strong chills whenever you listen to it, an album you know inside out and that you have an immaculate, deep contact with. I’ve got those chills and that contact. What makes it a weird one is that it’s the only album where there’s no super-specific tale behind my love for it, no humongous personal histories alongside it. It simply entered my life one day, I fell in love with it and that love blossomed into obsession.

What especially appeals to me is Automatic’s existential melancholy and how it’s portrayed. Automatic is a pretty dark album, constantly dealing with issues of mortality, preparing to die and one’s life legacy after he’s gone: not in a personal sense either, but instead through the character studies that Stipe has now mastered. In “Try Not to Breathe” the narrator is preparing himself to pass to the other side, “Find the River” paints a longingly nostalgic picture back to youth that’ll never return again, “Everybody Hurts” is an attempt to reach out during the darkest moment, in “Sweetness Follows” the narrator tries to cope with losing his beloveds. What makes Automatic’s grim nature special is the way it touches it. It’s never sad, often it’s even almost joyous. It’s delicate and touching without sounding sentimental or weak. It has a very rich and lush sound while simultaneously sounding sparse and intimate. Despite its themes of mortality and death, at the same time it celebrates life – the beautiful nostalgia of “Nightswimming”, hyper-happy jangle pop “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite”, Andy Kaufman tribute “Man on the Moon”, lullaby-like shag-request “Star Me Kitten”. There’s almost a hymnal quality to it: it sounds incredibly sad, but there’s universal beauty in it all that strikes you in the heart.

It’s a flawless album, really. Automatic is a triumph for the band in every sense you can imagine. The songs are marvellous, the acoustic backdrops are beautiful and warm, the orchestrations and instrumental details are perfect, lyrically it’s one of Stipe’s best, et cetera. While I normally disagree with people about the quality of canon classics, in the case of R.E.M. the common taste seems to agree with me bizarrely well when it comes to this. There’s a reason why Automatic is heralded as one of the best albums of the 90s. It’s one of my all-time favourites and it’s not because it happened to hit me in a personally important time or anything: it’s simply because of the strength of songwriting and the emotional resonance deeply weaved into the sounds and singing. Each cut on Automatic is a masterpiece, even the instrumental interlude.

Automatic is an album that nutshells life. I suppose that’s why it integrates deeply into my life.

And to think that this isn’t even their peak moment.


Find the River

MONSTER (1994)

On the surface, Monster is a bizarrely cocky and arrogant rock experiment situating somewhere between shoegaze and glam rock, with guitar fuzz turned up to eleven and Michael Stipe acting like a crazed sex kitten. The whole sexed up, pushy approach is just a disguise however because underneath Monster’s bold noise feature Stipe’s most fragile and wounded lyrical personae. Full of bravado on the surface but deep inside everyone’s a fractured, socially inept loner.

Monster is simultaneously a completely honest album about the shortcomings of broken people in search of someone else’s human touch as well as a tongue-in-cheek concept parody of the stereotypically sexed-up rock and roll lifestyle. In the musical aspect Monster might be the band’s most in-your-face effort but at the same time it’s musically the subtlest as all the melodies and details get drenched in Buck’s guitar electricity and Stipe disguises himself by being low in the mix or filtered. It’s also one of the key albums for the rhythm section of Mills & Berry as it’s Berry’s tight backbeat and Mills’ ever-wonderful groove that carry the backbone and base structure of each song.

You could go on and on about the hidden fragility of Monster and how it turns nearly each song into something far more emotionally engaging and sensitive than the cocky exterior would make you believe, but that’s mainly something that bubbles underneath the surface and acts as the final special ingredient in making a great album a special one. The truth is, the main reason Monster is such a great album is because it rocks like a motherfucker. Yes, it has its tender moments (power ballad “Strange Currencies”, midnight cuddler “Tongue”) but for most parts, Monster has rock swagger that is marvelously infectious. While we don’t normally see R.E.M. as the sort of rock band that moves its way through riff-blasters naturally and instead prefers a more subtler tone, Monster is a great reminder that there is this side to the band as well and they work it marvellously. It makes you want to bounce, it makes you want to groove, it makes you want to airguitar to Buck’s relentless walls of fuzz and delay.

And then there’s the gut-puncher. Right near the end of the album lies “Let Me In”, a farewell song to Kurt Kobain that drowns all the anguish of losing a close friend into walls and walls of shoegazey guitar noise that breaks one’s heart all over again every passing moment. It’s one of the band’s most relentlessly disarming moments, a haunting eulogy that’s an actual show-stopper. The album never really recovers from it – the two following tracks, the menacingly rocking “Circus Envy” and ever-so-slightly stalkerishly creepy “You”, are both highly adequate songs that have their own strong merits, but after “Let Me In” they feel oddly weak. It’s the album’s one single, and admittedly minor, flaw. And it’s all because one song is simply so arresting that nothing really lives up to it right afterwards.

An unjustly maligned album. Underneath all its macho guitar rock, Monster’s arguably one of the band’s more humane and emotionally bare even if it goes on about it bolder than the more acoustic fares. Underneath all that messy guitar are messed up tales of messed up people, performed by a band who at the time were functioning less than stellarly themselves (the band was under a lot of stress at the time for various reasons). I love Monster. I love the fact that it’s one gigantic masquerade. It offers a whole load of depth, hidden details and replay value for those who care to give the search a try. And I especially love the fact that it’s one hell of a great rocker.


Crush With Eyeliner

NEW ADVENTURES IN HI-FI (1996)

It’s not my favourite of theirs, but New Adventures comes closest to a quintessential R.E.M. album – the disc that defines them perfectly as a band. It’s more or less a summation of the band’s career until then with a few hints towards the future. Big stadium riff-rockers playing together with calmer, more intimate moments, atmospheric melancholy holding hands with quirky, smiley sidepaths. Stipe is in an immensely strong form lyrically while the musicians of the band show their best sides. In fourteen tracks, it arguably does the best job possible to sum up what exactly the band is all about.

That’s its charm in a nutshell. I’ve noticed that I tend to put on New Adventures whenever I have a desire to listen to R.E.M. but unsure which album or when I’m not in the mood for any of the more strictly styled choices. Maybe that’s the reason why it’s also started to gain ground as some sort of hidden classic among fan circles. It capsules a fantastic career inside a single cover in a far more elaborate, interesting way than any greatest hits compilation. And almost as if to drive the point even further, in “New Test Leper” you have the quintessential R.E.M. song that seems to define everything in them perfectly. It also houses the the haunting, ethereal, majestic “E-Bow the Letter” which to this day remains as one of the strongest candidates for the greatest song the band has signed its name under. The rest is fantastic as well, be it the stadium-sized rock diamonds (“Be Mine” in particular should have been every gig’s torchlight moment) or smaller off-the-cuff moments (the moderately oddball stroller “Electrolite” is perfection).

Of course, Adventures is notable for being Bill Berry’s final album with the band before his retirement. I’m by no means one of those people who think the band suddenly lost all their talent after Berry left, because that would be a very silly thing to say. But they did lose something in their rhythm section. Berry’s not the most distinguishable drummer: he’s not a show-off, he doesn’t have a unique style and he’s a drummer who plays only what the song requires, rather than crafting elaborate musical patterns with his kit. But he did have personality. It’s hard to explain, but it’s clear that there’s something amiss when you compare the rhythm section before and after Berry’s departure: they do not seem to have the same touch. It’s abstract as hell, but Berry’s drumming had a sense of personality and connection with the rest of the band that the session drummers since haven’t been able to replace. It’s nothing that would damage the later albums, but it goes to show that whilst Berry’s the least visible of the R.E.M. quartet, he was an important part of the band.

The more time I seem to spend with R.E.M.’s music the more I seem to appreciate what New Adventures has brought to the table. From an album that felt a bit overlong and off when I first got it to something that has strong chance to become one of my personal classics one day. It’s grown into an album which might not be my most loved R.E.M. album (although it’s easily in the top ranks) but which pinpoints perfectly why I fell in love with the band and why they mean so much to me as they do. Bloody fantastic, in other words.


New Test Leper

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In the final part, the underrated and misjudged last five albums. Including the greatest moment of their career.

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