When you consider that they lasted three decades, it’s not surprising that reactions to R.E.M.‘s split tend to reflect wildly different perceptions of the band. By now they’ve become ingrained in the public mind as a stadium act, in the same bracket as U2, Springsteen et al; a band for the common man; socially aware, cultural figureheads, etc. Even those of us who preferred their more mysterious early ’80s phase have difficulty thinking of them as anything other than the globe-straddling concern they’ve been for some time now. Hell, a quick glance at Spotify’s ‘related artists’ lists the Cranberries first. However, the period from the early ’90s onward was just the next phase for a band who had already released a succession of superb records during the ’80s, the earliest of which were so far removed from their massive-selling later work that it’s tempting to call them the work of a completely different band.
While R.E.M. would continue to make excellent music after they broke into the mainstream, those early releases had an incomparable sense of mystery and magic about them. Combining a distinctive folk-rock sound – anchored by Peter Buck’s Byrdsian guitar jangle – with enigmatic, dream-state atmospherics and a southern aesthetic that reflected their roots in the state of Georgia, the Chronic Town EP (1982) and full-length debut Murmur (1983) showcased a sense of identity rare in a band so young. The latter is regarded as one of the all-time great debut albums; its murky, evasive production so integral to its brilliance that attempts to remaster it for a recent re-issue were met with collective bafflement. Singer Michael Stipe’s lyrics, meanwhile, ranged from seemingly significant turns-of-phrase to cryptic streams-of-consciousness to incomprehensible mutterings.
Second album Reckoning (1984) was somewhat more direct, songs like ‘Harborcoat’ and ‘Pretty Persuasion’ emphasising the band’s rhythmic propulsiveness (their live shows around this time were electrifying by all accounts). The follow-up, Fables of the Reconstruction (1985), was a misunderstood masterpiece, a strange, otherwordly album characterised by southern gothic imagery and a vision of old, weird America that toyed with myth. The band weren’t entirely happy with the album or the fraught recording sessions that led to it, and Life’s Rich Pageant (1986) seemed like a reaction in many ways: upbeat and playful in tone, it nonetheless displayed an increasing tendency towards socially aware subject matter on elegiac, mournful tracks like ‘Cuyahoga’ and ‘Fall On Me’.
That tendency became even more explicit on Document (1987): lyrically at least, it was their angriest record yet, with politicised tracks like ‘Exhuming McCarthy’ and ‘Welcome to the Occupation’ backed up by a sound that was now moving away from jangle and into more muscular territory. Bitter anti-love-song ‘The One I Love’ became their first big hit. After years of paying dues, the band were growing in popularity, and signed to Warner Brothers in 1988. Their first release on the label, 1988’s Green, was a mixture of styles, ranging from the tongue-in-cheek bubblegum pop of ‘Stand’ and ‘Pop Song 89’ to captivating mandolin-led tracks like ‘You Are the Everything’ and ‘The Wrong Child’ to the raw anger of ‘Orange Crush’. As the album title indicated, R.E.M. were by now very sympathetic towards the environmental movement, lending their support to Greenpeace and animal rights. From here on in the band (Stipe in particular) resolved to use their increasing fame to turn the spotlight on social issues.
Musically speaking, Buck was growing less interested in his guitar, with mandolin frequently his weapon of choice. ‘Losing My Religion’ was written as he was still learning the instrument, but its distinctive mandolin riff contributed to a somewhat-unlikely massive international hit. Its success was bolstered by extensive video play from MTV, for whom R.E.M. were something of a flagship band in terms of the ‘alternative’ music that they liked to support. ‘Losing My Religion’s parent album Out of Time (1991) went on to sell millions of copies, its eclectic sound taking in gorgeous folk ballads (‘Belong’), outrageous twee-pop (‘Shiny Happy People’) and a KRS-One cameo (‘Radio Song’).
The phenomenally successful Automatic For The People (1992) took things to a whole other level sales-wise: despite the fact it was fixated with death, loss and mortality, six hit singles were taken from the album, which was hailed widely as a masterpiece. Its follow-up, 1994’s Monster, was more divisive, with a glammed-up, lyrically detached sound that occasionally veered into darkness (‘Let Me In’ was a tribute to Kurt Cobain, a close friend of Stipe’s who had remarked on R.E.M.’s dignified response to fame before his death). A series of health problems plagued the subsequent tour – culminating in drummer Bill Berry collapsing with a brain aneurysm.
The four-piece returned with 1996’s sprawling New Adventures In Hi-Fi, initially regarded as a difficult album but by now increasingly hailed as one of their best: the haunted, extraordinary ‘E-Bow The Letter’ was an uncompromising lead single, featuring a beguiling vocal turn from Patti Smith. The next year, however, Bill Berry would leave the band, nonetheless insisting that they carry on without him. Many commentators see Berry’s departure as a crucial blow to the band’s chemistry, but succeeding albums Up (1998) and Reveal (2001) are underrated releases, adding new, unusual textures to R.E.M.’s palette.
By 2004’s Around The Sun, unfortunately, the group were starting to tread water, and Accelerate‘s (2008) reputation as a ‘return to form’ didn’t mask the fact it was essentially a second-rate Document. This year’s Collapse Into Now was arguably their most low-key release yet, and there’s no mistaking the feeling that this split was somewhat inevitable.
Still, what a mighty legacy. R.E.M.’s influence on bands such as Radiohead and Pavement is clear, while during their more populist phase they unquestionably served as a gateway band to impressionable music fans: the ‘acceptable edge of the unacceptable stuff’, to paraphrase Peter Buck. Sublime albums like Murmur, Reckoning and Fables… created a world of their own that you could live inside, an aesthetic wholeness that – in terms of guitar bands – has arguably only been matched by The Smiths. Their response to mainstream success, meanwhile, provided a wonderful example of how to deal with fame while maintaining artistic independence and quality control. R.E.M. leave behind a formidable back catalogue that traverses numerous styles and phases, and in these times of music industry flux it’s perhaps not too melodramatic to wonder if bands with this kind of longevity are a dying breed.