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R.E.M. through Flint’s eyes, part 3

29/09/2011
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The retrospective continues with the last three albums, and miscallenous important tracks around them.

UP (1998)

Sometimes the best things grow from hardships.

Up was R.E.M.’s first album after Berry’s retirement due to increased stress and dissatisfaction on the music business. As one might guess, it’s an album haunted by Berry’s absence. It’s the band’s most melancholy album, equal amounts thanks to the big change in recording thanks to Berry’s absence as well as the band’s general dislike towards everything (including themselves) during the studio time. It’s also the band’s biggest change in sound in their history as they stripped down the traditional rock instruments and relied more on synthesizers, keyboards and drum machines. The band claims, truthfully most likely as well, that this was a direction they were already heading with Berry before he left but one can’t help but think that the drummer leaving caused the band to rely more on electronic rhythms than they had planned to.

It’s up for debate how much of it was influenced by the general melancholy in the band during the time, but Up hatched into an introspective moodpiece. Much of it is the same, mid-to-low tempo. The soundscape is full of detailed textures, soft keyboard walls and electronic fuzz. Peter Buck’s guitar takes a backseat and instead of his traditional jangly riffs, it’s subjected to heavy e-bow treatment or being left out all together in favour of keyboards. Michael Stipe sounds fragile, worn and frustrated yet given up throughout the album and the narrator characters of his lyrics are all a bunch of depressed losers – people who have been beaten by the world and are too tired to rise up again, who succumb to accusing everyone else but themselves or simply giving up, or just feel eternally confused and out of place in the world. Up’s 14 (15 if you count the unlisted “I’m Not Over You” hidden in the middle of the album) songs carry Stipe’s greatest lyrics set on paper, full of strength and amazing lines.

Up opens with what is possibly my favourite self-complimenting double act ever. “Airportman” starts the album in the most un-R.E.M.-like fashion: a tiny electronic percussion pecks at the background while a strong, distorted bass appears and disappears randomly amidst a sea of all sorts of ambient noise. A tiny piano melody seems to go its own way in the background. Stipe whispers and mutters his words almost incomprehensibly. This goes on for four minutes until the song ends into total silence. And then everything crashes. The following “Lotus” starts out with a couple of banging drums and begins the dangerously seductive and oddly funky big rock act. The mood is completely tossed topsy-turvy from the start, the ambient drone switched into a highly energetic monster rocker. But Lotus keeps a mysterious atmosphere to it – Stipe’s lyrics border on nonsense in their extremely abstract obliqueness, his vocals are doubletracked throughout the song to play the part of a soft singer and a vicious crooner, and the song’s instrumentation has something very beautifully unsettling to it with its nauseatingly swooping synth-strings and constantly buzzing synth lines in the background.

From then on Up lowers the tempo once again and focuses on the instrospective both musically and lyrically. The songs can be divided on two categories. On the other hand we have the more frantic, beat-heavier pieces which are equal parts hypnotic in their crooked drive and harmonic. “The Apologist” swivels between self-loathing and endless apologising, “Hope” pushes onward like a train in its electro-acoustic glory, “Walk Unafraid” ups the tempo to create something that resembles a traditional rock track although in a twisted, masquaraded form. Each song utilises a wonderful percussion beat as its main rhythm, devoid of traditional rock beats and focusing on the deeper, softer drum sounds and random percussion, or simply drum machines like the frenetic Hope. Then we have the more stripped-down, melody heavy moment pieces which offer their melancholy mixed with hopeless beauty. The dreamy “Suspicion”, gorgeously swirling “You’re in the Air” with its amazingly pastoral instrumentation, the ethereal and sleepy “Daysleeper”; one of the greatest moments perhaps being the clear and simple, deceivingly pretty “Why Not Smile” charms the listener with an immensely beautiful and downstated melody before drowning itself into guitar feedback.

But one moment in the middle stands out in a special way. Whilst the vast majority of Up is filled with worn melancholy, not even of the sad kind but simply tired of all the crap, there’s one song that stops all the sorrow for a little over three minutes and replaces it with honest happiness. After “Hope”‘ dissolves in a chaotic pile of feedback and electronic noise, a quick stop and a moment of silence is followed by a singular piano, shinily ringing with beautiful clarity before joined by a downstated and serene backing. “At My Most Beautiful” is R.E.M.’s most uncomplicated love song. A tribute to Beach Boys musically and vocally (as the majestic backing vocals can tell), the song is a simple and heart-in-sleeve confession of pure love and infatuation, a celebration to all the silly little things you do when hopelessly in love. It’s the only moment on the album where the narrator isn’t mentally lost or confused in any way. It’s one of the greatest lovesongs ever written.

As gloriously as it started, Up ends with an amazing closer that deserves its own paragraph. After the long journey of the album, “Falls to Climb” offers the final confessional. Built entirely around an organ sound and Stipe’s tortured-waiting-on-release singing, Falls to Climb is the final self-defeat: the narrator throws himself into the wolves with a martyr act (“someone has to take the fall/so why not me”). The music gradually builds, sometimes with bogus steps – the acoustic guitar that only appears for a moment before disappearing forever again – and finally climaxing into a march beat as Stipe yells his final lines of the album before the music dies down and leaves the listener in silence. There are very few album closers that so well not only nutshell the album but offer such a perfect finale to it.

One of the greatest albums ever made. Often, it sounds like the very greatest.


Parakeet (live)

INTERLUDE: MAN ON THE MOON OST / THE GREAT BEYOND (2000)

Man on the Moon, a brilliant film starring Jim Carrey, had its incidental score composed by R.E.M.. It’s not a soundtrack album I’ve actually heard so I can’t say much about it (and despite seeing the film several times, I always forget to pay attention to the score because I get so immersed to the film), but it did produce one very notable thing. “The Great Beyond”, the theme song for the film and the promotional single for it, is notable for two things. One, it’s one of the few genuine big hits for the band in the 00s. Two, it was the first R.E.M. song I remember being captured by and, because of that, in a way my introduction to the group. I was visiting relatives at the time and one of my few sources of entertainment there was that they had Music Television (back when it played music, etc etc etc). The Great Beyond was strong enough to stay in my head after the very first time its video randomly made an appearance in the channel, and soon after I started to watch the channel more and more on the off-change I might hear it again and again. You know that feeling when a song you’ve never heard simply seizes you? That’s what I was going through, and that was the first sign pointing me towards the band.

It’s still one of my favourite songs by them. It’s an anthem without ever actually sounding like one. Its lyrics, abstractly, celebrate the life and ideology of Andy Kaufman and the music follows suite. From the calm drops to the larger-than-life chorus that keeps on growing and growing until it’s one of the most joyous things the band has ever done, without ever actually underlining its optimistic nature. The music has a similar slightly mystic and surreal tone as the seemingly randomly tangental lyrics (which are more about capturing the sense and mood of the inspiration, rather than directly explaining it) do: a sense of wonder and imagination lurking behind every line and melody. And it’s paired with a classic R.E.M. video to boot, which also happens to be one of those film soundtrack music videos that do a rather fun job out of incorporating film footage to it.

After the introspection and melancholy of Up, The Great Beyond gave the band an opportunity to reflect their love for life again. In retrospect, it’s easy to see how The Great Beyond gave the band a glimmer of inspiration on how they would continue: that same joy would reflect all over to the band’s next release.

REVEAL (2002)

Reveal was my first album. To this day, I think it’s one of their very greatest. Do these two things correlate? Probably, but it’s not an entirely nostalgia-fueled album. I usually understand when people dismiss albums I like or love because, should they explain their point of view, I can get why they feel like they feel even if I do not agree with it. Reveal is one of the few albums where I’m simply baffled, no matter how rationally people explain their views. To my ears it’s a classic R.E.M. album with a classic R.E.M. sound.

Reveal has been a steady part of my musical diet from the beginning of my music-obsessive days to the present day. In the process, it effectively soundtracked through a fair chunk of my teenage years. Now, it acts as a musical flashback of all that time. Reveal is a summer album, through and through – the cover, the release date and the constant lyrical references to matters related to the topic make it abundantly clear, and the sound itself is appropriately lush, warm and inviting. Because it felt like such a perfect album for summer days, it’s come to feel exactly like summer for me, and more specifically the idle days of summer when you had time off school for several weeks. It’s the audio representation of the warmth of the sunshine and the warm breeze on a tranquil summer’s day day,  of the lush natural life blooming everywhere around in full green while insects buzz around, of the picturesque sunset of a peaceful evening and the comforting feeling of everything being perfect and carefree in life, quietly hoping the vacation would last forever. It’s an album that’s walked through countless summer holidays with me and a part of the season as much as any of the natural parts of it. An association that’s left it even warmer and more inviting than it was to begin with.

The lushness and warmth of the album is Reveal’s striking feature. Stylistically it serves as a meeting point between the textured electronic density of Up and the organic band sound the group had going on before that album, fusing into a gentle mixture of warm acoustic tones and fluttering little electronics with rich keyboard textures. The concoction is further enhanced through the detailed production that acts as a sonic blanket, wrapping around the listener and surprising from each direction. And it’s peaceful: even when the album trades the feeling of relaxed tranquility and positive tones to something more melancholy, it still sounds like it is at peace with what is happening. To reiterate an adjective, it’s an inviting album: a warm smile and a nod of an old friend. In many ways it’s Up’s flipside. Where that album was pained and melancholy in mood while musically in its own muddled world where it didn’t care if anyone else came through, Reveal embodies the feeling of the first smile after a long period of being in the low, the feel that it’s okay to start enjoying life again and as such resonates with an openly warm and positive tone.

Unsurprisingly, the songs that call Reveal home are all dear musical friends to me and each one has a place of its own somewhere in my musical consciousness. “The Lifting” and “Beachball” belong to my lists of great openers and closers: the former’s breezy, energetic rush is the perfect invitation to the album (including the opening line that goes “Good morning! How are you? The weather’s fine…”) while the soft drum machine float of the latter sounds like what watching a summer sunset looks like, peacefully closing the album as “you’ll do fine” repeats through the speakers. “Imitation of Life” and “All the Way to Reno” are classic R.E.M. singles with a classic R.E.M. sound, and the memories of seeing the videos for them in music programs all the time that the two bring forth is an additional plus. “I’ve Been High” is one of the band’s most downright beautiful songs and “I’ll Take the Rain” one of the most heartbreaking. “Beat a Drum” is one of those shamefully rarely mentioned diamonds, a song that arguably nails down the essence of the whole album perfectly. Even the one bugbear that is arguably the only reason this album might never get the full rating is something that feels comfortable to have around in its own bizarre way. “Chorus and the Ring” is a bit of an oddball of a song and my appreciation of it has zigzagged through the spectrum over the years madly, and to this day I can’t really put my finger on what exactly I think of it. But at the same time, it’s an oddball song I’ve now been listening to for ten years and as such it feels like a part of the whole thing even if it’s a bit of a bump to have around: like that ugly decoration piece in your home that is less than pleasing on the eye and you can’t think of a reason why you keep it around, but it’s been there so long that it’s hard to imagine your home without it.

As a sidenote, the Reveal era was also the best era for b-sides that this band has had. I’ve explained my rather less-than-overjoyed feelings about the general quality of R.E.M. b-sides in the previous retrospective articles: the Reveal era is one of those rare glimpses of quality. Amusingly, it’s got nothing to do with the original songs as the two R.E.M. originals released this period were, surprise surprise, instrumentals (although more enjoyable than the usual stuff). Instead, it’s all in the alternative versions: the demo of “Beat a Drum” and the original version of “The Lifting” are fascinating glimpses at what could have been, especially the latter which is in practice a completely different song with a completely different musical backing. There’s also a marvellous alternative version of Up highlight “Why Not Smile”. Furthermore, if you go into the territory of unreleased material, there’s the famous Reveal 1.0 material: the songs that originally formed a part of Reveal, but which were later shelved or re-recorded when the band returned to studio after a break… and which have managed to leak into the wider world. Of particular note: the longer, slightly slower-tempo version of “Imitation of Life”, another alternative version of “Beat a Drum” and, as the cherry on top, “Fascinating”. A fully realised studio cut that has never seen the light of day officially, and which is a grand shame as its space-sized beautiful drama is wonderful to hear. Who knows how many treasures the band have in their vaults that no one has ever heard or seen – it makes you wish they’d cash in on the band’s end by releasing a proper rarities/unreleased things boxset.


Beat a Drum (unplugged live)

INTERLUDE: IN TIME / BAD DAY, ANIMAL (2003)

The band’s IRS days had had compilations before already, but the first Warner-era compilation is the first notable one. For one, if you get the right edition there’s a bonus disc full of b-sides, rarities and other nice goodies which is a rather great little bonus disc. Two, it’s once again got Peter Buck’s ever-wonderfully laconic liner notes. Three, there’s two brand new songs.

At this point, the band was ready to return to their rock n roll gear. They had started to unearth unrecorded songs from their past and give them new life (“All the Right Friends” on the Vanilla Sky OST, “Permanent Vacation” during tours, etc) while generally feeling ready to amp up the guitars again. The two new songs on In Time reflected that. “Bad Day”, originally an early version of “It’s the End of the World As We Know It”, was dug up, given a facelift and released as a promotional single for the compilation. It became another sizeable hit, one with a rather great video to boot, and not for no reason: it’s an energetic and fun rock-out that sounds like the band is having great fun together. “Animal” on the other hand was an all-new song: a mysterious hotpot of snarling guitars, groweling Stipe, cryptic lyrics and vocal harmonies. Both songs wonderfully kick against the common idea that new songs on greatest hits compilations are always half-arsed throwaways cynically thrown in to make money on the fans; not that that doesn’t happen, but the quality of the ones here is far from half-arsed).

All signs were pointing to a rock-out album in the horizon. That was the plan, even. And then something completely different happened.


Bad Day

AROUND THE SUN (2004)

The point K between points A and B. The progression between the In Time period and upcoming Accelerate era is a logical transition, but somehow Around the Sun got in the way. It’s one of the band’s bigger mysteries: apparently despite being all charged-up to rock again, the band quickly changed plans in the studio and instead began to write and create slower, calmer songs. No actual explanation for this has ever been brought up, as far as I know – it simply happened and despite how some of the band have lashed back against it afterwards, it apparently still genuinely felt like what they wanted to do at the time. The common consensus among the band for Around the Sun seems to be that the songs were fine (as evidenced by their frequent appearance during live sets) but they died in the studio. And while I disagree with that, there is some element of truth to it.

This is probably the most controversial thing I’m going to say in this retrospect filled with FALSE OPINIONS, but I really like Around the Sun. It’s not a great album, but I get quite a lot of enjoyment over it. The songs are fine, really good even and some are downright great: “Leaving New York”, “Electron Blue”, “The Outsiders” and “Aftermath” are all brilliant material and there’s plenty of good moments alongside them, particularly the closing trio. There’s a small handful of weaker songs but they never come across as intrusive as the weakest points on some of the previous albums in the band’s history. It’s a subtle album and in many ways quite lovely and would make an excellent continuation of the band’s triumphant run so far, even if not as high in greatness as the previous ones were, if it wasn’t for one thing: sometimes it drifts into a territory a bit too… flaccid, mainly because of the production. I’m not going to shout the “overproduced” swearword as there’s nothing wrong with the production style in itself: it’s simply not the best choice for some of the material involved. Around the Sun has a very soft, subtle and clean style of production which suits some of the songs excellently… and others not so excellently. The best example being “Wanderlust”, a bouncy three-minute pop moment that’s probably the album’s most energetic song. Or it could be, if the production worked in its favour. Instead, it feels a bit too soft and it loses its energy, coming across as slightly awkward. Like something that tries its hardest but never fully succeeds. Some of the other songs on the other hand come across as even somewhat sterile: had “Boy in the Well” or “High Speed Train” given a production style more in line with Reveal’s lushness, their inate quality could have probably popped out more than it has now.

And yet I still enjoy Around the Sun as a whole. It has an element of serenity and peace to it: it’s calm and sometimes a bit ploddingly mid-tempo, but it also acts like a sonic feather pillow to sink into for a little while. I prefer to put it on during early and sunny winter or summer mornings, just listening to the calm pace and watching the morning haze through the window. At those times the flaws are almost fully forgiven and the album sounds like a worthy addition to the discography in every way. It’s a funny album in the sense that it’s the R.E.M. album my opinion has swung back and forth the most: sometimes it’s really great, sometimes it feels a bit jarring, the next time I can see the good again, etc etc. It’s definitely not an album for every mood. Whenever I’m asked to list R.E.M. albums in an order of excellence (a habit we all music fans both love and hate to do all the time), Around the Sun is the only album which makes me stop and think for ages about its placement. It varies, a lot.

I can see why this is held as a career nadir by some (well, most?) but I find it hard to agree. It’s a good album, at best even really great. But that statement always comes with a few notable “but…”‘s attached to it.


Aftermath

ACCELERATE (2008)

After the sidetrack, the rock album finally arrives. Accelerate packs 11 punchy numbers into 33 minutes and the band sound completely rejuvenated. Even a person like me who, as you’ve seen, loves the band’s later works immensely, has to admit the band sound like they’ve found a completely new lease on life. It’s most audible in Mills: his backing vocals and bass riffs are livelier than they had been in years, answering Stipe’s calls, singing actual lyrics rather than just harmonies and the bass bouncing up and down like it used to. Accelerate is by no means a return to the band’s past as some at the time assumed it would be and some still lazily call it as such, it has nothing to do with the jangly styles they adorned back in the 80s. Accelerate sounds very much like the product of the band as they were in 2008 but far, far more energetic than they have in the past several albums. By golly, they sound like they’re having a party in the studio. The arrangements are simple and focus more on quick one-two punches rather than elaborate and intricate craftsmanship, and it works.

There’s a lot to love in Accelerate. The rock show is obviously the main display and thus it’s great that the band have that under control, be it somewhat softer and janglier like the nostalgic “Supernatural Superserious” or more aggressive in tone such as “Living Well Is the Best Revenge”. A great deal of if not humour then at least an element joviality is at display as well: the marvellously over-the-top groove swagger of “Man-Sized Wreath” is an instant smile-enducer and “I’m Gonna DJ” is the band’s most openly fluffy song since the early nineties, only replacing the soft jangle pop with a crunchy rock bravado filled with party attitude. On the slower side of things, of particular note is the teasingly short “Houston” which replaces guitar riffs with a distorted organ that rips through the beautiful lament.

Accelerate was originally released on the verge of spring and I can’t think of a time that could’ve better suited its release. The emerging life that was once again starting to grow after the dark winter and the joy of days getting longer and warmer once again matched perfectly with the hi-speed fun-riot of the album. The half an hour length made it perfect for the length of my then commute as well, meaning I spent most mornings listening to Accelerate as I walked through a waking city bathing in sunlight. Great times.

In a way Accelerate feels like an end of an era, not just for the band but for the music business in general. For the past two decades the band had used the promotional aspect of the music business to a great effect, from creating a stream of excellent, memorable videos to making each single release like a mini-event surrounding the grand fanfare of the album release. In Accelerate, they began to shed all that extra faff and instead focused solely on the music. In some ways this was a return to their 80s code of operation: release lead single, release album, tour, don’t faff about with anything else. When contrasted with the previous eras where you had a genuine campaign for each album, the Accelerate era was very back to basics and unconcerned with anything but the music. Even the videos had a DIY nature and the band rarely appeared in them, much like their early days. You could probably blame the marketing focus on the digital side of music trade about this, at least partly, and the impact it has had in the way album and single releases do not feel like such grand events anymore; it’s especially easy to notice this when you look at a band with a long career and  observe the changes. In some ways it’s disappointing, but in the end it’s the music that matters the most and not all the extra faff around it.

Return to form? No, because they never lost the form. But it’s back to a more lively, humoured feel and it sounds immensely fun.


Living Well Is the Best Revenge (live)

COLLAPSE INTO NOW (2011)

The circle closes.

I wrote about Collapse Into Now earlier this year around when it was released and not much has changed from that, if we’re honest. Maybe tone down the hyperbole of the initial ramble but keep opinions more or less the same. It has its weaker spots, it has its much stronger spots and it all balances out to a good album. Perhaps not among the greatest offers in the R.E.M. discography (although the bar there is admittedly high) but still a very good album that feels like a positive enough note to finish a career on.

Because that’s what Collapse Into Now will forever from now on be will known as. The last album of a glorious career that lasted three decades. If you wanted to, you could probably find a reasonable amount of subtext in the album. You have things like “All the Best” that sounds vaguely like a goodbye, you could imagine “Walk It Back” almost be like a premeditated reply to all the queries and fan chaos surrounding the future announcement, “It Happened Today” seems like a celebratory bow-out, et cetera. “Blue”, the closing number, sounds like a song that was always meant to act as a full stop. The decision to make the album into one that spans several styles familiar from the band’s history sounds like an intentional attempt at wrapping things up, like the meeting of everything that had come before. If you really wanted, you could even speculate about the lack of tour and general promotion the era’s had. I’m sure you could find countless hints wrapped within the album, whether or not they’re actually there or simply as a result of an over-analytic mind.

I’m not really bothered about any of that. It doesn’t really change anything. I was vaguely hoping it would as I ended my R.E.M. binge of listening to all the albums in chronological order after hearing the news; hoping that all of a sudden some hidden resonance within Collapse Into Now would unveil itself now that I know everything. It… doesn’t, really. Arguably Blue carries some additional emotional weight to it now, but otherwise nothing has really changed in the way I perceive Collapse Into Now. Maybe if Stipe’s lyrical pen had been to his usual standards the album’s lyrics might seem more ripe for analysis but as it is, they’re still Collapse’s largest flaw and I’m not massively interested in trying to find out if he’s cryptically implying something that probably isn’t there in the first place. If anything is going to change my opinion on Collapse, it’s time. As evidenced by this retrospective, a lot of the albums and my opinions on them have been shaped by time: living with the music, growing with the music and letting it tie to life. At the moment, Collapse is barely half a year old. What I’m stating here will by no means be my final opinion on it, and perhaps one day in the future it’ll hit me with some massive “oh god this really is their last isn’t it?” resonance. But right now, there’s no bigger engagement between the album and I – we’ve barely just met.

Collapse Into Now sounds like a good, solid late-period addition to the discography: the sort of thing people often expect artists three decades into the game to put out to please the fans, happy in its own world and good by all accounts but not a major gamechanger in general standards anymore. But what makes it a bit more special is that every now and then, or fairly frequently actually, you can hear a moment that sounds downright fantastic and which captures that same magic that have made the band come this far in the first place. The rock n roll joy of “Discoverer”. The spellbinding chorus and flow of “Überlin”. The ever-growing horde of vocal harmonies singing in joyous unison in “It Happened Today”. The way the strings swell and flow on “Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I”. The sudden reprise of “Discoverer” that raises like a phoenix from the static ashes of the end of “Blue”. Et cetera. It’s those specific moments that make you realise what a great band R.E.M. are. Were.


It Happened Today

EPILOGUE

The story hasn’t quite finished yet. In a few months an all-career encompassing compilation will come out, as a sort of final wrapping up of things. It’s not a flawless tracklist (some questionable song choices, only one song from Up, Monster, Reveal and Around the Sun, and complete lack of E-Bow the Letter are all rather wonky things) but the most important for a person like me who already loves the band is that there’s three new songs there, all finished after the Collapse Into Now sessions. Those will act as the band’s official final statements, a thought which no doubt had crossed their minds during the process and hence making it very interesting to see what they’ll contain. I’m sure they’ll be a bunch of good songs, judging by the previous track record. Just hoping the one called “Hallelujah” isn’t a cover of that one bloody well-covered song.

I’m going to miss this band. A lot. Hope they have a great time doing whatever it is they will do now. It’s been an amazing ride. I feel a bit sad, but at the end of the day you have to realise they left an amazing streak of whopping fifteen albums behind them. It’s a magnificent legacy, worth diving into time and time again. I look forward to that.

Thanks for everything.

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