“Sometimes I feel like I can’t even sing (say, say, the light)/ I’m very scared for this world/ I’m very scared for me,” Michael Stipe emotes on the sumptuous downer “You Are the Everything”. After 31 years, REM are no more, abruptly signing off with “To anyone who ever felt touched by our music, our deepest thanks for listening.”
And for those of a certain age (my age) it stirred welcome memories of when Stipe’s alternative rockers were one of the most vital and exotic bands in the world, particularly for sullen suburban teenagers with suitably gloomy (The Smiths, Leonard Cohen, Joy Division) record collections. REM’s cryptic songs were always best digested late at night, just before sleep, when Stipe’s haunting, melancholy and non-sequitur-ridden lyrics (Example: “Divide your cultured pearls in haste/ I’m looking for to lay to waste/ Of all the things I cannot taste/ And this not the racy race/ They spoke loud” on “Turn You Inside Out”, Er, come again?) most hit the gloomy spot. At his best, Stipe’s songs captured the eerie, sad heart of America’s heartland – like David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, or Wim Wender’s Paris, Texas.
Fans, the “real fans”, may maintain that early albums Murmur (1983), Reckoning (1984) and Fables of the Reconstruction (1986) were REM’s finest moments, full of distortion and murky pastures. However, for the lightweights (me) Lifes Rich Pageant (1986), Document (1987), Green (their breakthrough in 1988), Out of Time (1991) and Automatic for the People (1992) were a giddy five-pronged attack/treat that they never really recaptured. After the heady, pungent Southern anthems (“Find the River”, Everybody Hurts”, “Nightswimming”) on Automatic, 1994’s Monster felt like a rock monstrosity, too brash, too confident, less like the outsiders they always felt like.
However, their next effort, the criminally underrated and underselling New Adventures in Hi-Fi, was a low-key return to form, featuring the splendid “E-Bow The Letter”: “I wore it like a badge of teenage film stars/ Hash bars, cherry mash and tinfoil tiaras/ Dreaming of Maria Callas/ Whoever she is.” The sort of album that will be “re-discovered” now they’ve gone.
REM, who formed in Athens, Georgia, in 1980, were the ultimate college radio rock band. They were: the spindly, detached-looking Stipe, who was born to be a frontman, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry. All were students at the University of Georgia who bonded over their love of punk rock. They quickly garnered success in George before scoring a hit on college radio with their first single “Radio Free Europe”, in 1981.
After seven years of low-level critical acclaim and continued underground kudos, REM conquered the mainstream with their deliriously catchy anthem “The One I Love” from their fifth album, Document. Their next record, Green, sent REM stratospheric, going double platinum in the US, and featuring hits “Orange Crush” and “Stand”, plus the exquisitely evocative “World Leader Pretend”, “You Are the Everything” and “Hairshirt”. Quite simply, in the late-Eighties, very few bands were releasing material this unusual, this different, no wonder Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain was a huge fan.
A few online “commentators” have griped that their demise has come three or four albums too late – and for many REM watchers that does feel about right – but then there were still some sensational tracks – the likes of “Imitation of Life” on Reveal (2001), and “Daysleeper” on Up. And when a great – and REM were a truly great band – finally perishes, this is not the time to stick the boot in. Many bands play on and on, outstaying their welcome, see Aerosmith, Bon Jovi, U2, Simple Minds, and even, sacrilegiously, the Rolling Stones. But REM never really felt like that.
They were good to have around, even if their songs were never going to quite capture the imagination like “Losing My Religion”, “Everybody Hurts” and “The One I Love”. Frankly, it’s a time for praise and to thank one of the greatest of all “outsider” bands…. “Pick up here and chase the ride/ The river empties to the tide/ All of this is coming your way” (“Find the River”, 1991). Farewell, REM.