R.I.P. R.E.M., Masters of a Beautiful, Eclectic Rock 'n' Roll
In case you still needed to know the difference between R.E.M. and U2, R.E.M. just broke up and U2 dies only when Bono is put in the ground.
Whatever today's (honestly shocking) announcement means about R.E.M.'s 31-year-career, well, what did anything ever mean with this band? It'll be remembered for making a lot of the most beautiful guitar music of the rock era -- but R.E.M. will really go down in history for making meaninglessness a virtue that ended up selling millions of records.
The band's name, for one thing, could've been Cans of Piss or Negro Eyes. But those weren't meaningless enough. Four guys equally influenced by the Sex Pistols and the Byrds (and decidedly more by "Yummy Yummy Yummy" than the Beatles) realized they didn't want to be offensive because that pegged them too easily. Naming themselves R.E.M., mumbling lyrics that turned out to be "Up to par and Katie bar the kitchen door/ But not me in" -- that's when people started asking questions, and they only really stopped around the time the band started printing its lyrics with its records. Which was 1998, when Bill Berry departed and it was never the same R.E.M. again.
Among the band's greatest acts of dada:
- Releasing '80s albums with classifications on the spine like "File Under Fire" (Document) and "File Under Water" (Reckoning). Then-label I.R.S., which would long bemoan the band's refusal to try and hit the mainstream, even gave into the spirit for the Eponymous compilation and put File Under Grain up the side.
- Embracing typos. The members of R.E.M. left Lifes Rich Pageant and "Feeling Gravitys Pull" without apostrophes. When Green was printed with the number "4" in the tracklisting replaced by "R," they rolled with it. It added to the mystery they were cultivating, despite being four open-humored Southern gents who first claimed they signed to Warner Bros. because of Bugs Bunny.
- Several albums into his career, singer Michael Stipe once told an interviewer that the Murmur and Chronic Town-era lyrics he no longer knew, but that he knew how to sing them. He called it "syllabizing," approximating the sounds from playing them every night, even though the meanings had been lost in translation. This was a novel idea, that the words were now just code and existed only in the memory as music. All signifiers in music disintegrating into nothing but melody and beat is a common idea with the electronic crowd, or with Western listeners who embrace The Indestructible Beat of Soweto, say. But in hit-single rock 'n' roll, this was new. One such hit single was "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" which turns a psychotic beatdown threat to Dan Rather into a sort of admission: "I never understood the frequency, uh-huh."
- Embracing, well, everything else. If I can be an old person for just a minute, it's infuriating to see a band like Animal Collective garner praise centered around "They based a song on a Frankie Knuckles house anthem" and then also "sampled the Grateful Dead." In the same year! My first concert ever was Beck on the Odelay tour in sixth grade, so alt-rock eclecticism was never unnatural to me, but even then it was the biggest thing about Beck. R.E.M. had a lot of biggest things about them, especially "Losing My Religion," which comes on Out of Time in sequence after a rap from KRS-One fades out a "piss-take" on the radio. The other named guest on the album was Kate Pierson of the B-52s. This was the same year that U2 was said to be saved by a newfound infusion of European dance and industrial trends, though with U2 it was the story. R.E.M.'s attention was never centered around one sound at a time, or else its members would've played a whole lot more mandolins.
- For R.E.M.'s next record, Led Zep's John Paul Jones arranged strings. Back in 1987 the band covered Wire's cold-droning "Strange" in a swaggering New York Dolls glam-rock style, piano and all. R.E.M.'s weirdness and ability to adapt to any environment, genre, or guest collaborator is often overshadowed because it wasn't the whole story. But its members were masters of everything. They'd go on to work with Warren Zevon, William S. Burroughs, Thurston Moore, Patti Smith, Q-Tip, Dashboard Confessional, the Decemberists. And these were not indie tastemakers even in the Kurt Cobain sense. The members of R.E.M. were hit purveyors worth $80,000,000 sixteen years after they began.
Of course, the eclecticism wasn't the whole story. The music was. The band wrote about anything and everything. Sometimes about nothing. Subjects of its hits included Andy Kaufmann; an apocalypse summed up as "birthday party cheesecake jelly bean boom"; a friend of Stipe's who had trouble finding literal direction; advice against suicide; and "shiny happy people holding hands." The band wrote two different choruses with "I'm sorry." It played with its own mythology, threatening "I'll eat the lotus" on "Be Mine" and claiming to have already done it on, yup, "Lotus." The members wrote several fine protest songs against Reagan, Bush Sr., and Bush Jr.: "World Leader Pretend," "Ignoreland," and "Final Straw," respectively. They made loads of beautiful music unknown to radio: "Wendell Gee," "How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us," "Sweetness Follows," "Laughing," "Tongue." They even wrote good songs following Berry's departure, though they did indeed lose their way (on the frustrating Reveal and Around the Sun in particular) and repeat themselves (I liked return-to-rock Accelerate and this year Collapse Into Now a lot, but couldn't shake the feeling of needlessness).
This is one of the few bands that really deserves to break up. The members of R.E.M. exhausted everything they could make themselves do. They put out a best-of, live albums and DVDs, revisited unfinished songs from their youth, re-released all their albums, toured for good causes, parlayed a song into a Jim Carrey film, made new hits from the chord progressions of old ones ("Imitation of Life"), yet also deviated from their sound entirely ("Airportman"). They released one last video with Peaches called "Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter." And now they are done.