Tuesday, October 29, 2013

R.E.M.: Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage (1982-2011)

We can take as a given that there are a lot of great songs on R.E.M’s two-disc retrospective, which has seen considerable airplay on my iPod since I picked up a copy late last year. They were around for 29 years, frequently touted as one of the best and most popular alt-rock bands for no less than a decade of that, and cranked out a series of singles from 1987 through the mid-90’s that reads like a murderer’s row: “It’s The End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine.)” “The One I Love.” “Stand.” “Orange Crush.” “Losing My Religion.” “Everybody Hurts.” “Man on the Moon.” I don’t have to sell these songs to you, or expound about their qualities. If you know them, you know whether you like them. They comprise an amazing, individualistic, diverse discography of singles in and of themselves. Their fifth album, Document, came out the same year I was born; these songs have literally been in the background of my entire life. I have a strange affection for “Shiny Happy People,” as much as certain parties hate it (even within the group, I hear.) This goes back to when I was in grade 5, and I heard it on an episode of “Beavis & Butt-head,” and I then taught it to my friends as simply going “Shiny happy people / Shiny happy people, baby / Shiny happy people / Shiny happy people, baby...” endlessly. I wasn’t even that far off. My version might be better. My point is that R.E.M., when the spotlight was on them for that certain period, between Document and the departure of Bill Berry due to health issues in 1997, took the opportunity to lob some of the most incredible singles to hit the Top 40, which endure today. So for that reason alone, getting all these songs gathered together in one place, this album is probably already worth your time and money. (Hint: You can buy it for only ten bucks at the store where I work.)

The set is also a great opportunity for casual listeners like me to delve deeper into the back catalogue, with a significant portion of Disc 1 devoted to the pre-Document years, where the band first became college darlings. What I kind of expected was a slow ramp-up in quality, an attempt to find the template that netted them success, a band emerging from obscurity to distinguish themselves. But really, it’s pretty damn great from the word “Go.” Sure, the early ones carry a different weight to them. Michael Stipe’s vocals are shyly mumbled and obscured, awash in jangling, cascading guitars and propulsive pop rhythm, with a shadowy, nervy mood cast over the whole thing... but right from “Gardening at Night,” they are a great band, and a damn unique one whose songs don’t seem to have lost any lustre in age. Hearing them pretty much all for the first time in the 2010s, I hadn’t quite heard anything like them before. It was a “Holy shit, they sure don’t make ‘em like this anymore” moment for me. They didn’t need to come of age: they were maybe even just a little ahead of their time. They have a great measure of “down to earth” and “sweeping grandeur” that just marks them in their early form as a great thing apart from other things. My particular favourites are “Radio Free Europe,” “Driver 8” and “Life and How to Live It.” A lot of what made those later singles great is present here, but it’s in embryonic, uncultivated form. Undiluted, even. If there’s only subtle developments between tracks at this early stage, it sets off a great deal of diversity in those later songs, where they made sure to pursue some new idea or angle with each major song.

The part of the set that examines their major label hit years also treats us to a great few tracks I had not had the fortune to encounter before. The wry “Pop Song 89,” the fun “Get Up” and “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite,” and the deadly yearning of “Country Feedback.” Hell, this era is so prolific for the band that they had to leave out a few notable charting singles, like “Drive” and “Bang & Blame,” which I think is fair game. The particular ones I know to be left out have not been worn by time as well as most of what’s included.

Here’s where it gets interesting. The “hits” peter out somewhat early on the second disc (I would say the last bona fide was “What’s The Frequency Kenneth?” also the last representation of the band as hard-rocking for a while.) This allots a great deal of real estate to a period that the band might be tempted to disregard altogether. Instead of merely concentrating hard on the boom years, the set goes an extra mile and cherry picks fairly evenly from the band’s later years, doing a good deal of rehabilitation on a series of albums that never had much public traction. “New Test Leper” and “Electrolite,” both from the last Bill Berry album, are both mature, contemplative, downtempo tracks. They may not be there to get the party started, but it sees R.E.M. leaning into their reputation for sensitivity and intelligence, and coming up with winning results. “The Great Beyond,” from the Man on the Moon soundtrack, is a mini-masterpiece of wonderment at the universe, and “Imitation of Life” nearly rivals it. The band shows off their gift for inventive sonic textures and poetic lyrics. On “Leaving New York,” their particular brand of shy, self-effacing, circular atmospherics proves useful in evoking the tragedy of 9/11 without ever explicitly memorializing it. Considering the album that contains it, Around the Sun, is considered the band’s worst, this is a shockingly great song. Disc 2 also treats us to “Bad Day,” a fleshing-out of an 80’s outtake that later became, in a roundabout way, “End of the World.” Just like that, the juice is back: the venomous "Living Well Is The Best Revenge," the playful "Supernatural Superserious," the utterly airborne "Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter." The latter is one of three tracks bestowed from their final full album, Collapse into Now, which seems to indicate a partiality. Also included are the melancholic "Oh My Heart" and the tense "Uberlin," all latter-day highlights. Three previously unreleased songs round out the set. "A Month of Saturdays," I think, shows their dry sense of humour again, and you would be hard pressed to engineer a better closing bookend than the mesmerizing "Hallelujah" or the absolutely 100% stunning "We All Go Back To Where We Belong."

Fans will like it for the way it captures the narrative of the band's beginning, middle and end. New or casual fans will be attracted to the depth and breadth of songwriting quality that rings throughout. People who are, for whatever reason, opposed to the willfully difficult nature of the band, will probably just have to go on with their lives, although I have to believe there is something on this album that will resonate with them. They are that good.

I don't have any great insight as to what this band really was, or what spurred them to create all these amazing songs. I'm just as baffled by what they were capable of now as when I only knew 9 or 10 of them. They just seem like a restlessly creative band of smart, sensitive dreamers who loved music and wanted to make the best possible versions of it that they were capable. They were exceptional when they were underground, they were working on their own level when they were pop icons, and they continued to push themselves when they had faded. That last era is of the most interest to me, because it seems like they struggle, sometimes, with understanding who they were supposed to be, as a lot of great bands do. Surely there were missteps, and if the wide net cast over their final 15 years is an indication, a lot of them, but there are those diamonds in the rough, especially at the end of the set. From beginning to end, they were onto something, something all their own. I can't understand the mindset that creates "Gardening at Night," "Orange Crush" or "Uberlin," all these songs when I examine them seem to have come from another universe. But they've been so deeply ingrained in ours, just by lasting this long, that we take for granted that this is just what music sounds like sometimes. Sometimes we know the songs, but we forget to listen to them. Putting it all together, you really see what a body of work it is. "Definitive" is really the word for this one.

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