What other U.S. group was as good for as long?
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After R.E.M. announced its breakup on its website yesterday, some fans of the band jokingly started counting down to the inevitable reunion tour in 10 years. The cynicism isn't surprising, given the way R.E.M.'s image has decayed in the 21st century: One popular line of thinking says yes, R.E.M's legendary, but its members stuck around too long, put out too much mediocre music, and sullied their own legend. But the truth is that a decade of breathing room may be very kind to the band's legacy. It's indisputable that the last 14 years of R.E.M. don't compare to the first 16—remember, the lionized indie rockers Pavement released the quintessential R.E.M. tribute "The Unseen Power of the Picket Fence" way back in 1993, before Monster, New Adventures in Hi-Fi, and Up. But those first 16 years, so easily taken for granted now that the band is considered a past-its-prime institution, are more than enough to qualify R.E.M. as perhaps America's greatest band.
The stats: R.E.M. released 15 albums, an EP, and one early rarities collection (Dead Letter Office) between 1982 and 2012. Six of these went platinum. In terms of critical and eventual popular acclaim, R.E.M.'s run between 1982 (their debut EP Chronic Town) and 1998 (the chilly, buzzing Up) ranks with the peaks of any great American rock band. But R.E.M.'s success is unique. Try naming another rock group without a traditional sex symbol on its roster that released only very-good albums for its first 16 years of existence—albums that were willfully arty and seemingly uncommercial and yet continually built the band's following. That's a lot to do, for what amounts to an incredibly long time in the fickle world of pop music.
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On these terms, the contenders start falling away. The Beach Boys were very-good-to-great from 1962 to 1971, a run four years shorter than R.E.M.'s prime. The Grateful Dead's similar 30-year streak puts Jerry Garcia and co. in the conversation, but R.E.M.'s craftsmanship and musical impact outpace the Dead's improvisational skills and cultural legacy. Neither the Byrds, Creedence Clearwater Revival , the Velvet Underground, the Ramones, Talking Heads, the Replacements, Husker Du, or Guns 'n' Roses lasted long enough. Aerosmith has stuck around for a decade longer than R.E.M., but with only a handful of great tunes and a ton of second-run blues rock and drippy schlock. The E-Street Band is disqualified on technical counts: It's Springsteen's backing band, while R.E.M. was a much more democratic unit in terms of compositional input. Parliament between Chocolate City and Motor-Booty Affair had five strong albums in three years. Metallica was done with excellence after …And Justice for All. Sonic Youth has lasted as long, and stayed more relevant, but have nowhere near the following. The Roots? Wilco? TV on the Radio? The frighteningly consistent Spoon, which has released six consecutive great LPs since 1998? The jury's still out.
R.E.M.'s legend comes from the sense imparted by its music that its members seemed to know something about America—particularly the old, weird South—that their peers couldn't quite access. Of course, R.E.M. knew they couldn't quite reach these truths themselves, so they smudged the facts a bit—particularly through Michael Stipe's foggy lyricism—creating a rich mythology of their own that begged for headphone listening and attempts at lyrical translation. Chronic Town and Murmur, two parts of one of the most assured debuts in rock history, were impressionist paintings of communication breakdowns. That most human of urges, the desire to connect with others, was filtered through a dreamscape of weird characters and stories, marked by Peter Buck's chiming 12-string arpeggios and the rhythms of small-club power-pop. R.E.M.'s legendary run on tiny indie label I.R.S. Records was marked by the Georgia band grappling with the history of their surroundings—songs touched on railroad conductors, manual laborers, traveling carnivals, local eccentrics and folk artists—while simultaneously trying to make sense of human desires in the present. This all produced a slew of classic singles: "Talk About the Passion," "So. Central Rain," "Driver 8," "Fall on Me," "The One I Love" alone are enough to cement R.E.M. as the American independent band of the 1980s. Then there's "It's the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)," a rapid-fire series of dream-logic non sequiturs that amounts to rock's single most completely un-singable classic anthem.
In retrospect, "End of the World" was also the band's swan song in independent music, a torrent of spellbinding imagery seemingly meant as a cathartic credit-roll to the band's first phase. In barely over five years since their debut, R.E.M. had gone from being a college-radio mainstay associated with fellow Athenians the B-52s to an act getting compared with U2 for the title of World's Greatest Band. Like Bono, Stipe had always been a politically-minded singer, but with 1988's Green, the band set out to its largest audience yet with its most explicitly political (and hardest rocking) anthems: about war, the environment, and a general encouragement to "Get Up" and do something with one's life. The chorus of the hit single "Stand" (which would later provide the theme music for Fox's surrealist sitcom Get A Life) encapsulates R.E.M.'s longstanding focus on one's immediate surroundings, especially in the face of an increasingly globalized mindset: "Think about the place where you live, wonder why you haven't before."
This second phase of R.E.M.'s career—their commercial and artistic peak—saw the quartet bring their idiosyncrasies to the masses, on the band's own terms. 1991's Out of Time and 1992's Automatic for the People, released 19 months apart, solidified R.E.M. as America's most important band, capable of crafting universally themed, emotionally saturated works that suffered nothing for their inherent weirdness. "Losing My Religion" reached No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 partly on the strength of a Peter Buck lead riff played on a mandolin and a Tarsem-directed video comprising tableaux vivants of Caravaggio paintings. "Shiny Happy People" hit No. 10 at MTV's peak despite most closely resembling a hippy-dippy Turtles song from two decades prior. Largely regarded as the band's best work, if not one of the rock era's finest moments, Automatic for the People came late in 1992, sounding all the more classic amid the quickly fading fads of "grunge" and "alternative." The album turned R.E.M.'s old focus on quirky characters skyward: "Man on the Moon" and "Monty Got A Raw Deal" made weirdo comedic provocateur Andy Kaufman and gone-too-soon closeted '50s Hollywood star Montgomery Clift into aspirational figures. But it's Automatic's more straightforward numbers that will last longer. "Nightswimming" is a classic work of understated sentimentality based on a Mike Mills piano figure that sounds pulled from the Great American Songbook. The more straightforward "Everybody Hurts" (penned by drummer Bill Berry) flirts with over-the-top sentimentality, but is saved by one of Stipe's most elegant vocals. It's overplayed as a staple of sappy dramas (and parodies of sappy dramas), but it's also a simple statement of empathy.
By the time of Monster, the band's wildly underrated, glammed-out, noise-pop opus, R.E.M.'s members were viewed as survivors and elder statesmen by an entirely new generation of upstart rock bands. Like so many film directors, after a "classic" release, R.E.M. cashed in its capital and made its noisiest and most experimental work (listen again to "Circus Envy," for instance). Yet while many fans jumped ship at this point (Monster is more known for filling mid-'90s used-CD bins than home collections), this album is crucial to the band's narrative for Stipe's first public embrace of his queerness, as well as a more general, often stunning turn toward lust and unrequited passion. Released two years later and cobbled together from recordings done on the road, New Adventures in Hi-Fi was the first R.E.M. record that fans started calling "a return to form." It's an eclectic, darkly evocative album encompassing a stunning range of styles—the Patti Smith-assisted old Hollywood ode "E-Bow the Letter" shares space with the gleaming ARP synthesizer on "Leave"—that ranks among R.E.M.'s two or three finest albums, a rare achievement for a band 14 years into its career.
Drummer Bill Berry left the band in 1997, two years after suffering an aneurysm on stage during a concert in Switzerland. He retired to Georgia to become a farmer. R.E.M. soldiered on to its third and final stage, which without Berry's firm foundation led the band into a more ethereal, oft-electronic, and at times downright new-agey zone for their next three albums, Up, Reveal, and Around the Sun. There are plenty of wonderful moments across these records (Up is the best of them)—"At My Most Beautiful," "Daysleeper," "All the Way to Reno," "I've Been High," "I Wanted to Be Wrong"—but casual fans and even some hardcore acolytes left the band in droves. The three-year gap between 2001's Reveal and 2004's Around the Sun, it seemed, had somehow erased the memory of the two decades prior, creating a tunnelvision view of R.E.M. fitting the prevailing, mostly unfair popular narrative (crafted by boomers, ironically) that growing older and being a rock band are just incompatible.
Reveal and Around the Sun don't deserve to be ranked with R.E.M.'s peak releases, but at the very least, they maintained the band's commitment to making music on its own terms. And it's interesting to note how they highlighted the pervasive longing that rock fans had for R.E.M. to reassert its position among American rock royalty. A 2008 blog post by music critic and Atlantic contributor Bill Wyman pointed out that Rolling Stone's reviews of the band's albums from Up through 2008's pop-rock gem Accelerate each referred to the latest as a "comeback" or a "return to form." Critics, like fans, were showing their hand. They were pulling for R.E.M. They needed R.E.M., and through strategic phrasing, they tried to will the band back into existence.
It worked, but only slightly. Accelerate was followed earlier this year with Collapse into Now, another solid pop-rock confection that, as of yesterday, provides a fitting final bow for the band's unprecedented three-decade career. "With just the slightest bit of finesse, I might have made a little less mess," Stipe humbly reflects on the album-opener "Discoverer," before looking forward to an unclear post-R.E.M. future: "But it was what it was, let's all get on with it now." Yesterday, Mike Mills confessed on the band's website that for the first time in its storied career, there wasn't an answer to "what next?" question for R.E.M., and Stipe added that, in the end as in the rest of its career, "we wanted to do it right, to do it our way." It's important to separate R.E.M. from other American rock icons like Dylan, Simon, and Springsteen, because a group of musicians is much tougher to maintain over decades than a leader with a backup band. As creative individuals working together as a single public entity speaking for (and as) "the people," the rock band is the epitome in miniature of rock 'n' roll as the most democratic popular art form. Through their many successes and despite their all-too-human slip-ups, their embrace of place, travel, progressive politics, love in all its guises, and the greater importance of forging emotional connections with fellow humans, there remains little doubt that, after three decades together, R.E.M. stands as the quintessential American band.