Friday, 30 September 2011

Radio Lifetime

It's been over a week now, but I thought I'd post a few thoughts on R.E.M., now that they've called it a day.

R.E.M. are a band who have been around for my whole life.  That in itself is comparatively unusual - there are plenty of bands who were playing in 1980 who are playing now, but many of them have broken up at least once during that period.

R.E.M. are unique in my record collection, though, in that their time together was, until last Wednesday, pretty much exactly as long as my time on this earth.  Michael Stipe first met Peter Buck whilst my mother and I were in hospital, either just before or just after I had crawled into the daylight.  They played their first gig when I was three months old; I couldn't have crawled to watch it even if it had been in Stewart Park rather than Athens, Georgia.  The first copies of Murmur were being shipped whilst I sat at nursery school, wondering how long it would be before I got my bottle of milk to drink (this being just before Thatcher had gotten round to stealing daily dairy produce from the mouths of children).

I was never really into music much as a child - I bought my first album at eighteen, and that was only because someone else had gotten me an album for my eighteenth birthday that I was so disappointed with I resolved that it would not be the only CD I possessed [1].  Even so, it was impossible not to notice the arrival of Automatic for the People .  Not its actual arrival, back in the summer of 1992, the last time in my life in which my brain functioned according to its intended parameters [2] but it's sudden pandemic-like outbreak amongst my teenage friends when, approaching fifteen, we made the leap from "lower" to "upper" school (which, if any foreigners are confused by such arcane terms, basically just meant we got more tasteful ties and access to the coke machine in the "upper school room").

At the time, the album's popularity baffled me.  I just wasn't ready to appreciate it, I guess.  It probably didn't help that at the time my friends - and therefore I - were mainly listening to ...And Out Come the Wolves and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (alongside other, stranger beasts), and amongst all that high-tempo bombast and melodrama "Drive" and "Try Not to Breathe" were never likely to leave much of an impression (in fairness, "Monty Got a Raw Deal" and "Star Me Kitten" are still exceptionally boring songs even today). Basically, Automatic... seemed then what Around the Sun unambiguously is today. Suggestions I try the rockier Monster hardly helped (I'm actually quite fond of that album these days, but there's certainly no doubt that only an idiot would spin that disc purely because rock was what they were in the mood for).

For years, then, I was pretty dismissive of R.E.M..  Indeed, even now, I'm not really much of a fan of "Shiny Happy People", "Losing My Religion" or "Everybody Hurts", which given those three song's dominance of the R.E.M. radio appearance probability distribution made them a band who were easy to claim to dislike.  Eventually, at age eighteen, I copied Automatic... from my first girlfriend, hoping to understand her obsession/gain easy Brownie points, and took it with me to university.

And then, one day, I got it.  I don't know exactly when - it might have ironically been whilst the aforementioned relationship was in its agonising death-throes - but R.E.M. suddenly made sense.  When I went out and bought Up (an under appreciated gem of an album, albeit with at least three songs that could be culled without a moment's hesitation), I was lost for good.

My late appreciation of the band means that they ultimately only released four albums which I experienced at the same time as everyone else, and only two after I'd finally acquired their full back catalogue (though I never did buy Around the Sun, because there's a difference between loving a woman and letting her steal money from you).  Perhaps that's why so much of my thinking on the band differs from the conventional wisdom. Certainly I continue to be baffled by the level of praise heaped upon Document, Green and (especially) Out of Time almost as much as the lack of love Up receives, and I wonder whether the idea that Accelerate or Collapse into Now are mere shadows of their former glory would be less common had people, say, heard Lifes Rich Pageant for the first time in 2003, rather than 1986.

Anyway, the spigot has been turned off, and we now have (assuming they don't reform) the complete work of R.E.M. to consider.  Some of it is excellent, some of it is disappointing, and some of it is gloriously, thrillingly messy.  In short, If I came to R.E.M. too late for them to soundtrack my life, I can at least say they've reminded me of my life, which is probably all one can ask for in any case.

"It's the End of the World..." would clearly be too obvious a choice for a video here, so let's go with "Nightswimming" instead.  I know that's only a shade less obvious, but I don't care.  It's the best song the band ever wrote, and well up in the highest echelons of the best songs ever put together throughout all of time and space.

[1] For the record (hah!), it was Radiohead's Pablo Honey, and over time my opinion of it has definitely improved.  It's no The Bends (I find all other Radiohead albums unlistenable, and I don't care what anyone else says - OK Computer, Kid A and Amnesiac - the point at which I gave up even borrowing their albums - is music written by people who spend their lives wishing they could be reborn as smug computers), but it gets the job done in a few places, and "Lurgee" is without question their most underrated song.

[2] I was presented with my first set of shiny happy pills a few months later. I actually remember hearing Shiny Happy People on the radio soon after that and thinking "Whoever these guys are, they can go fuck themselves".


Anonymous said...

Ah, night swimming... Automatic was pretty much the anthem of my 15th year (not that I didn't notice it come out, I did, but it was when I was babysitting a lot in '94 that I had complete access to my employers CD collection!

I was *really* dissappointed with Monster and not so fussed with New Adventures and that basically put me off paying attention. But by then I was a bing fan of Document, Out of Time and especially Automatic.

Nightswimming still sends chills down my spine.

SpaceSquid said...

After multiple spins I'm a big fan of about half of Monster. "Crush With Eyeliner", "King of Comedy", "Bang and Blame" and "Circus Envy" are all really good songs, just exceptionally difficult to view as being R.E.M. New Adventures... is at least three songs too long, and (like Around the Sun, though not to the same extent) a bit too monochromatic.

The only album I'd unhesitantly recommend post-Automatic... is Up, which is desperately underrated, but their early discs Murmur and Lifes Rich Pageant are also contenders for the title of "R.E.M. album no-one talks nearly enough about".

Tomsk said...

IMO Out of Time was a big step forward because they were prepared to prat about with instrumentation and effects rather than just endlessly polish their jangly guitar sound (great though it was). Not everything worked but I admire the attempt. And it's worth buying for "Country Feedback" alone.

Similarly Monster is a let down because it cleared all that away again, although I agree there are a number of great songs hiding on it.

Automatic is undoubtedly their best work, not only because they perfected the experimentation that started in earnest on Out of Time but also because they didn't let the dominant air of gloominess stand in the way of a bit of goofing around. It's by no means the best track but without Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite, Automatic wouldn't be half the album it is.

I think the rot set in around the time they got their multi-bazillion pound contract renewal and started taking themselves too seriously. I will always stick up for tracks like Sidewinder, Radio Song, Stand etc. etc. because they endearingly vary the mood of the albums they're in, which is something the later ones failed to do. I do like Up and especially Reveal (is there a better evocation of a hot summer?), but all of the later albums are to a greater or lesser extent one-mood wonders.

(Not that I'd want any more overt messing around on their albums - it would be unbecoming if they turned into the Bonzo Dog Band, but a little bit as seasoning is perfect).

For the record I like all of Shiny Happy People, Losing My Religion and (not so much) Everybody Hurts. The first can easily be dismissed as bubblegum (not that that's a good reason to dismiss it - see above) but to my ears has always had a fascinating note of anxiety running through it. The other two have simply been overplayed to death unfortunately.

I was baffled by the media reaction to Accelerate, supposedly 'a return to form'. To be more accurate, it was a half-hearted attempt to do another Monster. So I didn't even bother getting Collapse into Now. Is it any good?

SpaceSquid said...

I'm really not a fan of "Country Feedback", either, which continues to demonstrate that there is something wrong with me.

I think viewing Accelerate as another Monster is tempting, but maybe not too helpful. The latter is dense and claustrophobic for much of its run (though "Strange Currencies" and "Tongue" perform a similar job to the previous album's "Sidewinder...", which I agree with you is important to the disc's flow). Accelerate is a much lighter affair, and the rockiness is propulsive rather than suffocating.

I'd be nervous about suggesting Accelerate is better of the two albums, but it's definitely an easier and more enervating listen, despite it not really having anything in its set-list that particularly stands out.

I'm suprised you prefer Reveal to Up. Q gave the former five stars, which means that at least in certain quarters the media reaction to it was far more hyperbolic than to Accelerate. To my mind, Reveal is the point where R.E.M. really did start to have only two modes - rehashing the past and being very dull indeed.

Around the Sun came down on the latter side and remains unlistenable. Accelerate took the former approach, though as noted less as "Let's re-do Monster!" and more as "Let's rewrite the first half of Document twice!"

I once described Collapse into Now as best being seen as a game presented to us by the band, called "Guess which album this track could have been off?" If Stipe were to admit tomorrow that every single song on their 15th record had been written and rejected for an earlier album, I would believe him completely (apart from "That Someone Is You", which is the least R.E.M. song they've written since Up, and is also fucking excellent).

I stand by that assessment. Knowing that it will be their last album actually improves my feelings on it, since its combination of the influences of the past and contentment with the present works very well as a full stop to the band's trajectory. I'd say it was somewhere between Accelerate and Reveal in quality, which might mean you do too, albeit with the boundaries reversed.