On October 19, 2018, Craft Recordings will release the box set R.E.M. at the BBC, available in both 8-CD and 2-CD versions, each with one DVD. Most of the tracks are live versions of hits, which is always fun. But this collection is also a reminder that the band’s catalog of 15 studio albums is worth mining for unheralded gems.
The four-man band from Athens, GA, helped to invent the subgenre called alternative rock. They found themselves a brainy, broody fanbase — teens and college types who shrank from the hair metal and shiny synth bands of the ʼ80s. Their first single, “Radio Free Europe” (1981), appealed to that hungry market and helped their first album, Murmur (1983), to hit the U.S. top 40.
Their second album, Reckoning, did even better. Tucked away at the end of the LP’s Side 1 was the insistent “Time after Time (AnnElise),” showing influence from Indian music as drummer Bill Berry plays bongos in the style of tabla drums before switching to a march rhythm on his kit. Lead singer Michael Stipe sings typically baffling lyrics (“cryptic” is the number-one adjective critics use to describe R.E.M. songs), and he never does mention the woman from the title.
It’s been reported that “Time after Time” is Patti Smith’s favorite R.E.M. song. And speaking of punk, you can hear an echo of a group called Gang of Four in “Feeling Gravitys Pull” [sic] which opens the 1985 album Fables of the Reconstruction. R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, a Gang of Four fan, borrowed dissonances and harmonics from these U.K. punk pioneers.
But because it’s R.E.M., it features multiple styles that “shouldn’t” be together in one song. Stick around long enough, and you’ll hear a string quartet. “Feeling Gravitys Pull” is also a particularly good example of how Stipe’s voice is more of a band instrument than a vehicle for articulate meaning. He’s singing words, but “cryptic” doesn’t begin to cover it. It reminds me of the Renaissance poetic theory of piacevolezza, which claims that the sound of the words is as essential as their dictionary definition for their expressive power.
Despite appealing to introverts, R.E.M. has reached out many times to collaborate with fellow musicians. One fine example is found on the 1987 album Document. They turned to saxophonist Steve Berlin, from the band Los Lobos, to provide a wild jazz solo in the song “Fireplace.”
The track is immediately notable for Berry’s drum pattern against the triple time, smacking the third beat of every other bar. The lyrics seem ritualistic, about lifting chairs out of the way, clearing the floor to make room for dancing. But with that syncopated drum rhythm, it won’t be a smooth glide across the ballroom tiles.
Also in triple time, but with more of a standard waltz feel, is “Half a World Away” from the Out of Time album of 1991. Stipes’ missing-you lyrics (yes, you can almost tell what this one is about!) are set to a highly hummable melody interrupted at the end of each verse by a chromatic rise on some angsty word-association: “Go it alone, and hold it along, haul it along, and hold it.”
Another quirk of this track is its instrumentation vis-à-vis the personnel. It’s the usual band, but everyone’s playing something not-quite-usual: bassist Mike Mills is on organ and harpsichord, drummer Berry plays bass guitar, and guitarist Buck plucks a mandolin. The result is pleasantly folkish and twee:
The 1994 album Monster marks a return to more of a rock sound after a few years of contemplative music with complex arrangements. For Monster, they wanted to let loose. And the fans ate it up, taking the album to number one in the States. Besides hit singles like “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” and “Bang and Blame,” the album also includes “I Took Your Name,” which seems specifically designed to let Buck have a field day with the flanger and whammy bar.
The vocals have a punkish petulance that works well with the hard-rock instrumental backing. It’s difficult to believe this is the band that recorded “Half a World Away.” But again, it’s all about contrast with these guys.
Drummer Bill Berry left the band in 1997, causing a musical midlife crisis that’s reflected in Up (1998), their first album without him. Not wanting to hire another core bandmember, they went with session drummers and drum machines for their first heavily electronic offering. They also used a new producer, Pat McCarthy.
The album afforded them a few hits in the UK, including “Lotus” and “Suspicion.” But dig a little deeper for the plaintive “You’re in the Air.” There’s something appropriately uncomfortable about the band’s use of synthesized sound, which on this track is mixed with more traditional rock guitar. Despite the quietness and moderate beat, there’s an almost frantic busy-ness in the arrangement. But it works here, making an effective contrast with Stipe’s long-noted, soaring vocals.
Although they slowed their output after Berry’s departure, R.E.M. continued to produce albums every few years for the first decade of the 21st century. But much of the fanbase had grown up or moved on. Sales of Around the Sun (2004) were poor in the U.S.
On that album, the band seems to have grown more comfortable with its late-life identity. A story song called “The Worst Joke Ever” opens with a dissonant chord on the acoustic guitar. The waves of diffuse sound billowing under that constant guitar beat is reminiscent of Pink Floyd.
R.E.M. finally called it quits in 2011 with their album Collapse into Now. The farewell effort did not disappoint fans; it’s a fitting culmination of everything the band had created over the decades. As one critic put it, it’s their first album since Berry left in 1997 to “sound unmistakably like themselves.”
In “Walk It Back,” Stipe’s usual melancholy seems intensified by age and life experience. And there’s that fight between opposites: ease and unease simultaneously, a slow tempo and simple acoustic accompaniment crunched by the stress in Stipe’s voice. Rhythmic hiccups prevent the country-tinged melody from letting you sit back and tap your foot.
R.E.M. was the enigmatic band that never explained itself. And it turns out they were doing us a favor.