...and if we don't exactly feel fine, we can sure be proud of everything R.E.M.
Yes, R.E.M., the outfit that discovered a way forward for guitar-rock in the synthesized '80s, is hanging up the six-strings. After a three-decade run marked by classic albums, sold-out worldwide tours, and even the occasional hit single -- "The One I Love," "Losing My Religion," "Everybody Hurts" -- the storied Athens, Georgia group is calling it quits.
The distinctive R.E.M. sound was one fashioned from old elements. Guitarist Peter Buck drew jangling inspiration from the Byrds and the Beatles' "Rubber Soul." Bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry imparted some of the swing of '60s AM-radio pop and the backline growl of garage rock. And singer Michael Stipe approached his simple folk melodies with the melancholy of James Taylor.
Yet the group, to paraphrase their friend Robyn Hitchcock, spelled a brand new world with the same old letters. With his swirling twelve-string arpeggios, the self-effacing Buck inverted the role of the guitar hero. Mills and Berry drove the songs into murky, kudzu-choked territory. And with his initial onstage shyness, his partially mumbled delivery and allusive lyrics, Stipe redefined what a rock and roll lead singer could do. In a sense, R.E.M. was the first truly egalitarian rock band to hit it big in America. There were no stars; no grandstanding; nobody was mixed any higher than anybody else.
On early records, the vocals were often buried behind Buck's deft guitar patterns and Mills' thick, swampy bass. Frequently Mills' backing vocals provided a countermelody as important to the song as the main tune. And Stipe's voice was treated as an instrument like any other -- one more thread in a tapestry of sound -- and the lead singer did not seem to object in the slightest. In so doing, Stipe became the unoffical (and somewhat reluctant) flagbearer for the entire college rock movement then providing an alternative to the endless parade of hair-metal acts on MTV. But upon further inspection, Michael Stipe had quite a lot to say.
"Murmur" (1983), the band's first full-length album, addresses difficulties in communication and being heard: which, as it turned out, accurately represented the frustrations of Generation X, forever drowned out by the voices of the Baby Boomers. "Could it be that one small voice doesn't count in the world?," asked Stipe on "Shaking Through," one of R.E.M.'s first great songs. Stipe was not a storyteller -- instead, fascinated by the sound of words, he painted with phrases, allowing repetition and alteration to carry the emotional weight of his poetry. Sometimes Stipe would change a single word in a sentence, or change a single syllable in a word, and in so doing, deepen the meaning of his verse. It was a technique copied by countless college rock lyricists.
By "Fables of the Reconstruction,
" (1985) the band's third album, the haze was lifting. R.E.M. became defenders and poets of the American south, incorporating elements of colloquial speech into its songs ("Good Advices," "Can't Get There From Here") . Stipe also became an ardent critic of the Reagan Administration. "Document," the band's most overtly political album, was also its commercial breakthrough. Released in the wake of the Iran-Contra scandal, "Welcome to the Occupation" assailed American intervention in Central America; "Exhuming McCarthy" drew a connection between the Red Scare and then-contemporary foreign policy; "Disturbance at the Heron House" poked fun at the arrogance of the establishment. "It's the End of the World As We Know It" was not an explicitly political song, but it shook the skeleton of Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues." Once again, R.E.M. had captured the tenor of the times in broken verse. "Document" would be the band's last album for an independent label: after its success, R.E.M. inked a lucrative deal with Warner Brothers. The college rock underground had grown up.
R.E.M.'s first steps as members of the major label establishment were tentative ones: despite spawning hit singles, "Green" (1988) and "Out of Time
" (1991) lacked both the focus and the fire of the band's earlier work. But with the elegaic "Automatic For the People
" (1992), R.E.M. composed a modern American masterpiece. The album, a series of profound meditations on mortality and perseverance, aches from the first winding riff of opener "Drive" to the final lingering notes of closer "Find the River." But "Automatic" is not depressing: It is a hard Georgia stare at an unbeatable foe who we all must someday face. The band came away from that encounter with their most straightforward song yet -- "Everybody Hurts," principally penned by drummer Berry, with words for a potential suicide so comforting that they could have been penned by a preacher. In one stroke, Stipe the Mysterious had become a Great Communicator.
On subsequent albums for Warner Brothers, R.E.M. chased -- and occasionally captured -- the thoughtful grandeur of "Automatic." But the band never truly recovered from the 1997 departure of Berry, who put away his drumsticks two years after collapsing onstage in Switzerland from the effects of what would later be diagnosed as a brain aneurysm. Stipe, Buck, and Mills never tried to replace Berry; in fact, for many years, they barely tried to rock at all. Yet R.E.M. had one punch left for those who'd counted them out -- "Collapse into Now," released earlier this year, recaptured some of the energy and expansiveness of the group's late-'80s work. At the time of its release, it seemed to be the sound of R.E.M. turning a corner. Now it'll be remembered as the epilogue to one of rock music's most rewarding -- and inspiring -- underdog stories.