Sweetness Follows: R.E.M. Call it a Day.

In an announcement on their website, R.E.M. has decided to hang up their hats after 31 years of being one of the most influential American bands. The news of R.E.M.’s break-up saddened me in a way I hadn’t expected. I mean, there was no horrific accident, no one died. And then I came to a sort of realization: perhaps more than any other band – more than The Beatles, more than The Clash – R.E.M. really defined my formative years.

In 1987, when I was seven or so, my family got our first CD player. It was this big behemoth machine (that looked like this), and with it we had only a handful CDs: a couple of film soundtrack compilations (Star Tracks and Time Warp, specifically), U2’s The Joshua Tree, and R.E.M.’s Document. Document is probably the album that got the least amount of play from me, though my young ears loved the unbridled enthusiasm of “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” but it would take me a few years to really sink my teeth into deep cuts like “Exhuming McCarthy” and “King of Birds.” Like many, I started to really get into the band through 1991’s Out of Time, an album that found massive success from the single “Losing My Religion.”

However, eight years prior to Out of Time‘s crossover success, R.E.M. made waves with their debut Murmur, an album so enigmatic and striking, it ranks as not only one of the band’s (many) crowning achievements, but one of the best albums of the 1980s. From there, the band had an incredible run, putting out one great album per year from 1983 to 1987 – Reckoning, Fables of the Reconstruction, Lifes Rich Pageant, Document – before jumping to the majors with 1988’s Green; with each album, their sound got bigger, bolder, and more dynamic. Never a band to rest on their laurels, R.E.M. challenged themselves to explore new musical territories throughout the 1990s on Out of TimeAutomatic for the People, Monster, and New Adventures in H-Fi.

The 1990s is where R.E.M. really took hold of me. Automatic, Monster, and New Adventures are three albums I never wanted to be without. While other bands I loved came and went, or fell out of favour with me, R.E.M. were always there, always on. Though other bands like The Beatles, The Clash, U2, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and The Smiths had a profound effect on my life, it was R.E.M.’s albums I looked forward to the most. Michael Stipe’s obtuse and oddly personal lyrics spoke to me in ways I can’t really explain, and the result was empowering. I felt like R.E.M.’s music was mine. Their music consoled me, gave me hope. It’s as if Stipe’s words could say more about me than I could myself.

Between releases I would go back and get acquainted with their earlier albums, which soon I would obsess over too. I discovered brilliance of Murmur, the murky, quirky folk-rock of Fables of the Reconstruction, and the sheer brilliance of the timeless-sounding Reckoning (probably my favourite R.E.M. record). I wanted to hear it all. I could barely contain my excitement when they performed “The Wake-Up Bomb” on the MTV video awards before New Adventures came out. I spent much of my time and hard earned money tracking down singles so I could hear those B sides I read about in rock magazines (I scored big when I found the single for “Bittersweet Me” with a cover of “Wichita Lineman”). Even my one R.E.M. t-shirt was my absolute favourite. (this one actually, and I wish I still had it.)

After the drummer Bill Berry left the band in 1997 (he had an aneurysm on the Monster tour), the band carried on as a trio, trying to reinvent themselves time and again on subsequent albums Up, Reveal, and Around the Sun. At this point, R.E.M. and I drifted apart; I enjoyed much of Up, but I was left disappointed. And to be honest, I never gave Reveal or Around the Sun a fair shake. Yet, the band proved it was still capable of surprising, turning out a very good record with 2008’s Accelerate and reaching near-greatness with this year’s Collapse Into Now. It was with Collapse Into Now that I rekindled my love of R.E.M. (just ask the missus, I’ve been listening to them non-stop all summer). A flood of memories came back while listening to “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville,” as if I had forgotten exactly how much R.E.M. meant to me for so many years (I almost felt bad neglecting the band in recent years). Indeed, it is sad day to see one of the greatest bands bow out of the spotlight, but their incredible legacy will be remembered for generations to come.

[by the way, this is my favourite R.E.M. song]

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About James Hrivnak
Child of commerce! Bastard of art!

2 Responses to Sweetness Follows: R.E.M. Call it a Day.

  1. You’ve made me want to revisit some of my old favourites (Fables of the Reconstruction and Document were the ones I had on cassette and received non-stop play in my father’s car; I’m also very fond of Automatic for the People and New Adventures in Hi-Fi) and check out the records I’ve never heard.

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