Monday, April 25, 2011

Played out: REM

I know REM have a new album out and it's supposed to be good but for some unknown reason I can't bring myself to listen to it. To be honest, I haven't been able to listen to them in years. My good friend who is a big fan gave me a copy of their last proper album Accelerate and I couldn't get past five songs. I have absolutely no idea why this is as I used to be a big fan.

Now, when I say big fan, I was a fan in the most unorthodox sense. While I liked their early stuff and was a fan of the their commercial breakthroughs (Green, Out of Time, Automatic), the two albums I liked the most were the often reviled Monster and completely dismissed New Adventures in Hi Fi. I'm not saying this to be willfully contrary as I think there's a strong case that can be made for both these albums. While Monster is remembered as their big rock move, the album's underlying darkness and Peter Buck's wild use of tremolo makes for an exciting listen. Post Monster, REM signed some ludicrous record deal for millions and then released New Adventures which sold about ten copies worldwide. Actually, it sold ok but was a significant dip on their previous sales which isn't a problem although this is where people often pinpoint the beginning of REM's decline. Personally, I would argue that REM would still be the biggest band in the world if it wasn't for Patti Smith (who paradoxically was the reason why they became the biggest band in the world in the first place).

Michael Stipe has often spoke of the impact Patti Smith had on him as a young man and how it was the inspiration for him to become a musician - no Patti Smith, no REM. As such, I guess it's no surprise that New Adventures first single was E-Bow the Letter which featured Smith as guest vocalist. Too bad it was a terrible choice of first single. I would contend if they had released Bittersweet Me or the Wake Up Bomb (followed by the overlooked album highlight Be Mine), they would have kept the momentum that had been building since Out of Time going but one dud lead single choice stopped the engine dead. You may ask 'well, how do you know this?' Here's the reason: in 1996, I was walking past a building site and the roofing guy was singing along to Bittersweet Me at the top of his lungs and punching the air with unbridled joy - now that's a lead single.

Many people blamed the departure of drummer Bill Berry (post-Adventures release) as the reason REM lost the plot but I'm not sure that's true. The following Up (1998) was actually a pretty great record and Reveal (2001) had its moments too. But I really think E-Bow the Letter was where people fell out of love with REM, not because it's a bad song, it's just doesn't work as a single - at all. When you achieve a certain mass of fans beyond the core rabid listeners, the challenge is to keep them engaged (if you want them). E-Bow the Letter is like leaving a turd in a flaming bag on the doorstep of the casual fan.

Anyhow, the next album was Around the Sun which was an unlistenable piece of shit and for me was where I really lost interest in the band. The problem is that this falling out of love has affected the entire back catalogue and I can barely bring myself to listen to any of their albums much less listen to anything new. When they pop up in my life, I'm reminded of how great a song Drive is or the lush emotional rush of Strange Currencies or the sheer sonic presence that Losing My Religion commands, but it doesn't compel me back into their arms or inspire me to seek out their new music.

I'm not sure if this is because I have moved on musically, the timbre of Michael Stipe's voice or just the general REM sound but there seems to be nothing there for me now. To be honest, there's a sense of loss there because we (REM and I) had some great times together but my falling out of love of with them seems permanent.


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