I was never a big fan of REM. My tastes run louder or weirder or rap or just not REM. This summer I took a deep dive and was rewarded with a sort of spiritual renewal. REM’s central themes are the struggle of the individual and the quiet victories found in empathy. Curiosity leading to genuine care – that’s a golden formula. Which is tougher now than ever now, immersed as we are in the disconnected matrix. To care about stuff that’s not clicks or hot takes or consumerist clutter. What really matters?
Murmur – 1983
Sounds like the college chess club covering the Go-Go’s. Yes they were quite good out of the gate. But about this critically acclaimed debut – I’m unenthused. Bouncy rhythms, guitar arpeggios and mumbled vocals just make for pleasant wallpaper. “Catapult” might be about the pressures of adolescence or maybe nuclear war. These songs are puzzles that caught on with a generation of critics and listeners. But as rock music I can dig? Eh.
Reckoning – 1984
Much better. The band is well travelled, and their performances are less studied. “So. Central Rain” is a haunted little rock song about shame and uncertainty. “Camera” sounds like a swinging couple on the prowl for a threesome (“If I’m to be your camera then who will be your face?”) but it’s actually a somber tribute to a photographer friend who passed away. “(Don’t Go Back To)Rockville” has touches of Springsteen-y piano that makes it seem like a diss. You could read the lyrics as a rejection of boomer rock star conventions: “Don’t go back to Rockville/And waste another year.”
Fables Of The Reconstruction – 1985
Murky but great. This one feels like a collection of short stories. They’re personal, but not in terms of the wailing of self. “Wendell Gee” is the epitaph for a rural old man who tended to the trees in his backyard. “Maps And Legends” invokes a disaffected artist on the brink of a breakthrough. “Kohoutek” uses a comet metaphor for how jealousy ruined a pure relationship. And they could write a hit song (“Driver 8”). That’s kind of the key isn’t it? For relevance, and lasting musical impact, no matter the genre.
Life’s Rich Pageant – 1986
Bad. Martial rhythms, tepid sermonizing like a protest at a smoothie bar. They set out to make their version of a mainstream 80s rock album and they did it – one hit single (“Fall On Me”) and all filler. That may be unfair to some of these songs, but this album makes me want to stop listening to REM.
Dead Letter Office – 1987
B sides and outtakes, some throwaways and bad covers. “Ages Of You” and “All The Right Friends” are keepers. Also includes the debut EP Chronic Town which is not the Dr Dre type Chronic but still pretty cool. “Gardening At Night” is one of those evocative magic eye type songs. I hear it as an anthem for life sustaining hobbies – work all day, work on your garden at night.
Document – 1987
A stronger step toward the mainstream without compromise. “Welcome To The Occupation” is an eerily prescient song about a political takeover. “Disturbance At The Heron House” seems to call out the media’s culpability in social unrest (“try to tell us something we don’t know”). “The One I Love” is post-breakup shitposting. So yeah – this darkly political album now feels super relevant. Sometimes my cynical spirit rebels against REM’s earnest moralizing but you have to respect it. They were woke in the non-pejorative way – less ego more empathy.
Green – 1988
On the surface it’s the worst of REM – preachy but coy, either annoyingly hooky or drearily midtempo. And I don’t dig this late 80s college rock sound at all. Still there are some clever subversive ideas bubbling under the surface. “World Leader Pretend” from the title sounds typical topical and political. But it’s not – the lyrics are about an artist’s process and the immense pressures and releases therein. The sitcom theme “Stand” muses on the swift winds of ideological change, “Pop Song 89,” is a meta-commentary about “meaningful” rock songs.
Out Of Time – 1990
An unplugged reboot, like REM’s version of Beggar’s Banquet. Except this has none of the bluesy drugged out spirit of that Stones classic. This is mandolin NPR rock. Includes the worst song ever written by anyone (“Shiny Happy People”) and the second worst (“Radio Song”) featuring an undignified appearance by KRS-One. Though as we’ve noted this band could write hit songs deserving of their ubiquity. “Losing My Religion” is one of those. Another Rorschach song in which you can find your own meaning.
Automatic For The People – 1992
Somber maturity. This elegiac album is exquisitely produced, but it’s a dreary listen unless you’re in the mood for it. It reminds me of Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks with a sheen over its heartbreaks. My favorite is “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” with its melody like a jerky boardwalk ride and lyrics about some panic at a pay phone. At their best REM were so good at executing inventive ideas. This is one of their best in terms of songs, production, and performances – but it kind of puts me to sleep.
Monster – 1994
The used CD bin classic. I still like it a lot. Ego comes to the fore on this one. Michael Stipe could argue that he was deconstructing fame. I think he was getting a little drunk on it but that’s fine, he’s always an interesting artist. “What’s The Frequency Kenneth?” is a sharp study on generations of cool. The older narrator is not a square, but he can’t quite figure out what’s going on in youth culture. The falsetto chorus on “I Don’t Sleep I Dream” hints at two narrators on each side of a crush. “Star 69” is a great little paranoid rock song. “Circus Envy” zeroes in on jealousy. Despite the revved up guitars, I hear this as a murky album – like Fables II but instead of short stories it’s a stylized autobiography.
New Adventures In Hi-Fi – 1996
Their best album. Or just my favorite by a good margin. Recorded on a grueling world tour, this one has a White Album vibe, with the songs evoking personal destinations. And it almost broke up the band. Not in a drama sense, but there is a mood of finality here. “Electrolite” is REM’s epitaph for the 20th century with a pop bounce to mask the disillusion, like a clenched teeth smile. The narrator of “New Test Leper” is a guest on an exploitive daytime talk show. The sexually promiscuous self of “Binky The Doormat” broods on disconnection and shame. “E-Bow The Letter” feels like the gloomy stoned ruminations after some Hollywood party. This album is dope. I really believe that playing live is key fuel for inspired songwriting. After years as essentially a studio band, REM reconnects here.
Bill Berry leaves the band.
Drummer Bill Berry left after that tour for personal reasons. Besides his propulsive drumming, he was also a key songwriting voice. The decision was made to carry on. Moving forward we have the three-piece version of REM.
Up – 1998
Insular. And we’re right back in the bubble, the opposite of that good live energy. It’s an adventurous, eclectic set of songs. But is it good? Some of it. In “Sad Professor,” a hack of academe is mired in a midlife crisis of depression and drink. He reminds me of Grady Tripp from Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys. “Parakeet” tries to nudge the listener from inertia. But some of these tunes just don’t stick. Yes I get it that “At My Most Beautiful” is a Brian Wilson tribute and “Airportman” looks ahead to lo-fi dream pop and “Lotus” aims awkwardly for a retro rock vibe. But they just feel like exercises in eclecticism – which should have been the title of this album.
Reveal – 2001
The first inessential REM album? That was kind of the vibe at the time. Which perhaps is not quite fair – they could only reinvent themselves in so many ways. “Imitation Of Life” feels like a purposeful return to their classic sound, the first time REM were their own cover band. But let’s face it – REM always relied on critical acclaim. Many fans bought these albums based on five star reviews. By 2001 the old influencer guard was changing. So this album went under the radar and nothing here is worth a major reevaluation.
Around The Sun – 2004
Widely regarded as their nadir. Not that it’s so terrible, but just that it’s tough to endure. It’s a tedious album of airy coffeehouse rock. I hear “Electron Blue” and I’m so ready for my venti latte. Of course being REM it’s still smart and genuinely felt. But some of these songs betray a lack of inspiration. They sound like constructions with pieces that don’t quite belong.
Accelerate – 2008
Top 3 REM album. I love it. “Man-Sized Wreath” might be their last great single. It’s a roast of phony political pageantry with a chorus (“throw it in the fire/throw it in the air/kick it out on the dance floor like you just don’t care”) that reminds me of social media dumpster fires. “Horse To Water” musically draws from Nirvana for protection from media vilification. The shoegazey “Mr Richards” is a humane olive branch to a vile president, like Neil Young’s “Campaigner.” For the first time since New Adventures, these songs are vital and alive.
Collapse Into Now – 2011
The last REM album. Sometimes REM were too aware of their own artistic statements. So they’d set out to make a political album or a death album or some other reinvention and the REM machine cranks up to get the product out there. Right from the start they exuded professionalism. Which I appreciate, because it speaks to a certain respect for their audience. Here they set out to make their final statement and they did it and it’s fine. But their catalog was already too deep for it to make much of an impact.
Also: my recommendation for curious listeners is the Live At The Olympia set from 2007. It’s the sound of a band at a rare late career peak in live performance. They run through a vital 39 songs from the catalog. In that setting the songs sound lived in but not worn out – they still have something to say.