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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On the Record: The Replacements – Don’t Tell a Soul

When The Replacement jumped to Sire with the release of Tim in 1985, they had the hopes and critical praise to make them superstars, though it never materialized. 1987’s Pleased to Meet Me was met with the same hope, yet success never found the band. So for their third major label outing, the band pulled out all the stops. On first listen, 1989’s Don’t Tell a Soul is far cry from the band that released classic albums like Tim or Let it Be. Gone is the sharp and often times silly sense of humour. Gone are the sloppy punk outbursts like “Tommy Get’s His Tonsils Out.” Don’t Tell a Soul is sharply crafted, polished, and the sound of a band desperately trying to sell out.

Seeing other college rock acts like R.E.M. find success in the mainstream, coupled with the band members’ sobriety led to Don’t Tell a Soul‘s creation. This is college rock at its most calculated and commercial, but coming from one of the genre’s pioneers, it still feels a little more authentic. Taking the place of the ragged punk of earlier albums, there’s a new-found sense of maturity in Paul Westerberg’s songwriting (and for better or worse points toward his solo material). Tracks like “Talent Show,” “Asking Me Lies,” and “We’ll Inherit the Earth” show an awareness – be it of self, political, or environmental – previously not seen.

But make no mistake, the album sounds forced, though it it works the majority of the time. Driven by the want – no, sheer need – for success finds the band pushing harder to develop fully realized songs than ever before. In lieu of tossed-off covers like Kiss’ “Black Diamond” from Let it Be, there’s the delicate, almost waltz-like ballad “They’re Blind,” one of the album’s strongest tracks. You can hear the desperation and sadness in Westerberg’s voice on “Anywhere’s Better Than Here,” “I’ll Be You,” and “Darlin’ One,” as if the album is the band’s last chance at some semblance of success. Indeed, Don’t Tell a Soul was the last full-band effort; 1990’s All Shook Down was recorded primarily by Westerberg and studio musicians, and is The Replacements in name only.

Although, the album is not entirely successful. Songs like “Back to Back” and “I Won’t” are pretty weak and fairly unmemorable. Yet, the album marks an important chapter in the band’s history that would eventually lead to the band’s demise. It may still divide critics and fans 20 years on, but it does have a handful of great tracks (I’ll also mention the single “Achin’ to Be”) and is worthy of being acknowledged in the band’s stellar discography.