When R.E.M. called it quits in September 2011, the reaction was as big as “Stand” was popular. And, like “Stand,” the reaction was filled with love and hate. Six months later, the dust has settled, and we can breath some fresh air while we took at why R.E.M. matters.
I could go on for days, like the rest of the country did, about how much R.E.M. meant to me. But, there’s no point in restating the virtues of a band that touched at least 2 generations when there are just as many people who hated them.
Personally, I’ll never understand how in the span of a 31 year career you can’t find something to like, but everyone is entitled to an opinion.
I happen to like all of their music, with their mid-career stuff topping my list. But, this is a statement that will get some R.E.M. fans up in arms…”What do you mean you like ‘Losing My Religion’ more than ‘Radio Free Europe’? You don’t know what you’re talking about!” And, this is my point. The music is what matters, not that album it came from.
Each song means something different to everyone, and while I might find some albums stronger than others, there are people who think that if you can’t name the first track from “Fables of the Reconstruction” you’re not a fan.
That’s BS. I remember an instance at a party where a guy insisted that he knew more about music than anyone because he could list the tracks on Murmur. I argued that R.E.M. was a great band to the day and he wasn’t some musical prodigy for being able to list tracks on an album. Music, I argued, is the only thing that everyone on this earth can say that they enjoy. So, if I love “The One I Love,” I’m not a loser who doesn’t appreciate R.E.M.’s “real music.”
I went on to call this guy a word that rhymes with “tick,” and the party broke up soon after. But, I’d made my point–everyone interprets music differently, and it means something special to everyone. To say that someone can’t appreciate a song because it’s from an album that came past what you consider to be the truest state of the band makes you a d*ck.
That being said, my favorite R.E.M. period was their early 90′s revolution. They had already proven to be a successful with “The One I Love”–a song so commercially successful that some people thought it was an actual love song. Then, they kept the candy coming with “Stand,” a song that a lot of people hated. But, just as many people loved it. That’s the point. The music affects everyone differently.
In 1991, R.E.M. punched popular music in the face with “Losing My Religion” from their album Out of Time. They could have easily done “Stand” part 2, but they grew as a band and said, “we’re not going to conform, we’re going to try new things…this mandolin sounds really cool.” The album was full of amazing songs, including “Texarkana” in which bass player Mike Mills belts out the lead vocals. It didn’t even matter that Stipe wasn’t singing–the music was that good. Wait, so they had a song that heavily featured a mandolin AND a song that sounded like a country rocket ship taking off on the same album? F*ck yeah.
They followed with what could be considered one of the greatest albums of all time, Automatic for the People. It was right on so many levels. But, these were new levels. If Document had been their arrival, Out of Time was R.E.M.’s first step on the escalator. With Automatic, they’d reached the top…or so we thought.
Monster followed. And as the guitar riff on “What’s the Frequency Kenneth?” ripped open the album, you realized, “Wow, they’ve climbed the ladder, and now they’re jumping onto another ladder. It’s like Donkey Kong up in this mofo.”
R.E.M. kept surprising me with every album, and it was always a surprise I looked forward to. To know that there won’t be a new album in a few years is bittersweet. But they left us a lot, and we each take what we want from it.