So, R.E.M. broke up.
I have to be honest: I didn’t exactly know they were together. I’m an R.E.M. fan, but I still tend to think of 1994’s Monster as their “new” album, because I’m pretty sure that’s the last of their albums I bought. However, lately, in part because I’ve been around a lot of mandolins recently, I’ve been revisiting their earlier albums and remembering how much I loved this band, and why.
They’re good. Really good. They make me raise my head up and sing along and sometimes even jump up and down. They clearly know way more about music — structure, harmony, all that academic stuff — than many of their contemporaries. They send me back to times and places far from here. They last.
In fact, they often get better over time: Automatic for the People and Monster were almost dirty secrets for me at the time of their releases, because R.E.M. was by that time firmly a popular band and grunge was happening and they weren’t “hard” or “loud”; I joined in with other alternative posers in whispering that R.E.M. were “sellouts” while at night I still listened to Drive over and over until I could fall asleep. Now, without such a time-based pop culture context (and partially because compared to a lot of popular rock bands now, R.E.M. is so obviously cool and dark and different), those “mainstream” albums of theirs play even better.
R.E.M.’s songs consisted of rock structures, harmonic vocals, and fine-tuned songwriting — with countryish suggestions via fingerpicking and a bit of twang in Michael Stipe’s voice. They were not a country band, but they were a rock band from Georgia. They wrote about some of the same things punk and grunge bands wrote about, but they felt… quieter. And they were good. Bill Berry, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, Michael Stipe: all in their own rights deft and skilled musicians who were so self-possessed they didn’t showboat with their sound, but instead were a group. This was a band, not a lead singer and some backing musicians (I’m speaking about their music and sound here, not about their cultural/celebrity image, which was decidedly and increasingly Stipe-centric). They even all sang harmony.
At the time, people thought this band was political, in the way that at the time a sixth grade me wearing a “save the rainforests” sweatshirt on the first day of school was considered political. In other words: not exactly activism, but earnest and concerned, especially in the face of most pop music of the 80s.
Party to their political earnestness and their emergence from an independent record label, was R.E.M.’s status as the poster band for “college radio”: alternative, indie, whatever you want to call it. I had heard about this when my friends got me into them in high school, but I was a decade too late to understand what college radio in the 80s meant to people who were actually in college in the 80s. I was a child in the 80s; by the time I got into R.E.M., I didn’t know about radio and the way it could build alternative cultures in the face of pop destruction and Reagan-era conformity. I didn’t know about the unique sounds this band was creating or that they were truly unique sounds– or how big their influence was on most of the other bands I loved in the 90s.
Here’s a fun exercise: put on “Old Man Kensey,” from Fables of the Reconstruction. The slow bass intro, the strength of single, dark plucked guitar notes. A droning repetition to the rhythm and the voice. Speed this up a tiny bit, put a little more angst and raw pain in the voice, make it louder and switch out the chorus pedal for a fuzzy distortion and let the song explode at the chorus … and it’s a Nirvana song. Something in the way. Repeat.
For me and my friends, who worshipped Nirvana and Pearl Jam and Madonna and Pavement equally, R.E.M. was about mix tapes and poetic phrasings, long sessions spent driving and singing along in bad harmony, a romanticized image of southern America, and hints at the political wrapped in the eternal emotions of rock and roll. But mostly, despite their cohesiveness as a group, R.E.M. was about the words.
Stipe is a poet. Let’s just be honest here. In the video for “fall on me”, one of my possibly favorite songs of all time, we see only the lyrics, in all caps, sans punctuation, running over upside-down images of humanity’s earthly follies:
Did you notice the lyrics?
A melody and a counter melody. The sky and the sky. There’s a problem feathers iron. Lifting and falling and there was a moment somewhere – my dad’s backyard, a bootleg live R.E.M. mix tape copied over and over via friend and friend, in the hammock, discovering the most immediate way for me to feel grounded: to lie on my back and look at the sky, through overhead leaves if possible, and pray — and ask — that it not fall on me.
Also something about the way humans think we can own things we can’t own.
This was poetry. This was a musical era in rock in which a lyricist could ramble free-associatively in semi-linked metaphors and imagistic expressions of emotion, and still mean something. The best lyricists of a certain kind still do this – Cobain, Malkmus, Jeff Tweedy? Thom Yorke almost gets there but doesn’t let go enough — but it is becoming increasingly rare in rock music, as hooks and guest-spots and statements take over our sonic media like so many status updates.
So I’ll throw on this record and be in the backyard, still years too late to know anything about context, and I’ll be only in poems, in finger-picked poems, under the sky, beginning to fall all over again.