Friday, October 28, 2011

Oh My Heart, the end of REM

So the band that made me love music have called it a day. Like everything in their career they did it their way; no fall-outs, no acrimony, no lawyers, just a time to end.

Before I was blown away as a teenager on seeing the video for Losing My Religion, music was around but not in my soul. Like most kids, I would tape the top 40, and wonder who had the top spot, but it was more like an obligation for me resulting from expectation, and the tapes never got any replay. With that song and video, for the very first time I was struck by the notion that popular music could have intelligence, that it could be art. Unlike all the other tunes there seemed to be no marketing force at work, I wasn't being targeted as a demographic, they weren't being moulded into a product. They were doing what they wanted to do and if people liked it, so be it. I could instinctively tell this and it was immediately empowering and liberating. Liking it was a choice by me and not my being subject to an advertising trick as the rest made me feel.

I quickly mined into their back catalogue, starting with Murmur simply because it was a cheap tape in Barnsley's Casa Disco. What on Earth was going on here? What were these tunes? Where did they come from? The quality of the six albums that preceded Out of Time also gave me the everlasting confidence that popularity did not equal quality, indeed as I learnt more about REM and their peers, it was apparent that the most intelligent work was below the radar of popular radio. That not appealing to the common denominator should allow such freedoms seems a given now, but until REM I had no access to the underground. Suddenly the manhole cover was off and my life of trawling the dark corners of music had started. Due to collaborations, support acts and notable musician fans, I quickly expanded into Kristen Hersh and the Throwing Muses, The Breeders, The Pixies, 10,000 Maniacs, Sonic Youth, PJ Harvey and so on. All this before I had even heard of John Peel.

But REM remained the absolute core of my music. Everything I picked up just seemed to be written for me to like. It all just resonated in me. I couldn't believe the consistency of this band. I remember reading later that Fables had been deemed a below par affair, a blip in their IRS years. Well, it was dark and paranoid yes, but while a couple of tunes could have been described as 'just another REM song', below par seemed like an overstatement as they were still great. This was my first taste of a problem for a band that was noted for originality; that producing good songs wasn't good enough, you had to 'remain different'. No pressure then.

Another problem was the popularity. Although through REM I was introduced to the concept that the good stuff was usually hidden away, it was only REM's arrival on the world's stage that introduced the band to my teenage musically-isolated self. However, just attaining this level of popularity meant that for many an inhabitant of the underground scene the band had already 'sold out', somehow become contaminated because the club was no longer exclusive. This to my mind is merely an issue of social context, and in itself has nothing to do with the music, which is actually the only thing that matters, everything else is peripheral, but it is a periphery that can take some cutting through once your head is above the parapet and the merits of your tunes are being debated by Average Joe. I came across an interesting nuance of this mind trap recently in a retrospective article in The Guardian, which associated the rise in fame of the band with Out of Time and Automatic For The People with 'more conventional music' than what had gone before. This is clearly absurd, a perspective fogged by the passage of time. As Stipe himself said, 'If you're a band trying to write a huge cross-over hit, you don't immediately reach for the Mandalin'. I still know people today who have tried but just 'don't get' Out of Time, sometimes there is something in a name. Likewise Automatic while accessible is hardly conventional, a sparse and dark collection of beautiful tunes, prefaced with the foreboding and chorus-lacking Drive. Certainly upon their releases, these albums were not described as convential. It is more testimony to REM that they turned the unconventional into the conventional by skilfully walking a very thin line.

But all of these discussions are curious traits of an artform intricately woven through our media-drenched lives. I have often thought of the relative freedom of jazz and world music artists, and rock and pop artists who remain below the radar, who can happily produce album after album and never be subjected to accusations and being 'past it', selling out, or having 'return to forms'. But for popular rock and pop, ever since the 50's and 60's, we have been sold an image of the vibrancy of youth with a guitar strapped alongside. This coincides with the energy and irreverence if youth, that most bands will soon quit and get 'proper jobs'. This is true for the fans too. From the teens to the end of the Tweens, with a wide social scene, disposable time and income, music becomes a part of the social oil, defining people and linking them together. When personal circumstances become more limiting, or move on from the social collective, to many music becomes a background activity if it remains an activity at all. I know of many who were once keen music followings in their own genres but who have no such passions today. Alongwith new tune lovers arriving every day, this keeps the wheel turning and drives the need for the new.

In this context, where does this leave bands with internal stability and and a knack for a good tune? It becomes, solely for the bands who have pierced the social conscience, almost a special genre (nobody chats about when will Low or The Fall call it a day or 'return to form'). The media and public will watch like a hawk because either way it's a story, it's chat for when a tune passes on the radio. This is a necessary part of the popularity it's true, but forevermore the band is trapped there as lesser sales won't return the freedom, instead it becomes an albatross through which they will be remembered.

But what about the dwindling sales, dwindling quality is the obvious take, but at this level dwindling interest needs a mention. For REM, Out of Time and Automatic were followed by Monster and a world tour that kept them in the news, by the time they were finishing up, New Adventures, a 14 song hour long LP was already in the shops. Now this album has stood the test of time pretty well, although it is overlong and suffers a little from being too like it's predecessor, there is no real quality issue. For me, this is much more about fan and media fatigue and over exposure. At this time I remember the news of another 5-album record deal being greeted with groans by many not welcomed; the Zeigiest had simply moved on. At that level it takes constant marketing to keep the momentum going, with hyperbole often being fuel to the fire. In general terms it simply isn't the case that popular music has the tunes and the underground doesn't, merely that at a certain level bands get a bunch of marketeers behind them whose job it is to push, push, push. However, these people will carry on pushing while they can get away with it, they will still push a polished turd as long as they feel the momentum is there, they have no quality control until the public start pushing back and the product doesn't sell. The problem is that we the public are not totally stupid, and quickly realise how to spot the approaching turd, hence we push back. Beyond that, we're less likely to believe the promises of brilliance, we remember the turd. And even in REM's case there have been some turds...

Yes, don't worry, I'm not going to say that the quality remained as high as before in the final 5 albums, but it is significant that they started from this point of saturation, and it was never in REM's style to try and maintain a U2 patented ubiquity. The final 5 albums while absolutely being justified by quality tunes within them (well for 4 of them anyway...) have been patchy, and for this I solely lay the responsibility at the door of Mr Bill Berry.

Not that I am blaming him for leaving. I am merely acknowledging his influence in the bands temperments. While REM have always had an experimental nature, there has been much written about how it would be that Berry was the one to rein it in, to remind them that they were also making entertainment, and for my money reminding everyone that less is more in terms of album length (OK, he was still there for New Adventures, but maybe by this time his mind was drifting to his tractor too much). Berry was effectively REM's rudder. He was also an essential part of the social glue. Having a work ethic much akin to Buck's, he stabilised Buck's temperament in the studio by also arriving early and getting on with things. This helped prevent the more laid back attitudes of Stipe and Mills from frustrating Buck, something that helped cause an apparent split during the recording of Up, and that kind of thing is never going to help the music. Indeed, part of REM's success has always been their internal democratic credentials. However, once the balance was off, inevitable tensions followed.

But anyway, what of these final 5 albums? Well first along was Up and the brave or stupid opener of Airportman. I actually quite like it, but I somehow doubt Berry would have said, 'yes, let's open with that!'. Up has survived the test of time pretty well, although like it's predecessor it is too long and has some filler which in Up's case are overproduced, slow and just plain dull. Overall filler dilutes the whole effect, which is maddening when it's there on a 14 song LP. Anyway, with Up, we do have Lotus, Hope, At My Most Beautiful, The Apologist, Sad Professor, Walk Unafraid, Daysleeper, Why Not Smile and even Falls to Climb that are all solid works and show that a 10-song effort would have had much more impact (insert your preferred 10th song here).

Reveal is more problematic, the guys wanted to create an album with a constant mood, which they did admirably, but it came across more as a dirge, suffering more severely from the overproduction that began on Up. Still, tunes such as I've Been High, All The Way to Reno, The Chorus and the Ring, Imitation of Life and I'll Take The Rain show that the old magic is there. Unfortunately they are bogged down by abysmal efforts like the supposed anthemic openers The Lifting and She Just Wants To Be which both sound like they died on the mixing desk, neither helped by Stipe's furnishings, further examples of his patchy forays into 'Hey teenager, you'll be fine' subject matter of latter years. This began all the way back with Everybody Hurts, but was to continue awfully with these two on Reveal, better with Imitation of Life, but awful again on Accelerate's Supernatural Superserious (more later).

First we have to deal with the real black sheep of the family, the mutant zombie killing black sheep to be precise, the 'creative' nadir of Around The Sun, if only we could have got NASA to do precisely that. While the lead single of Leaving New York was fine enough, and for me Wanderlust has worth, these are small islands in a bubbling sea of waste, and on other islands these would have been part of the furniture not the main attractions. Around The Sun just feels like it never gets going. There are good ideas present, Electron Blue for example feels like it was going somewhere, but the execution of every single song has problems. It's all too spacey, polished and slow. There is no edge here, no grip and ultimately no interest. Apparently Buck walked out on the album while it was still in the studio. It's little wonder, but Stipe and Mills are not men to be left alone with an unrestricted budget and a reverb button. Buck's puriety was a big factor in REM giving us Monster after the chamber records, but in the 3 piece his frustrations were ultimately despairing rather than creative. This LP shows a band not comfortable in their own skin and it gave a big dent to their confidence and to that of their fans. Urggh, let's move on.

So, Accelerate. Grrr!! Action! Fast! Accelerate!! Argh! It could also be called, Don't Worry It's Not Shit Like The Last One, It Has Some Fast Songs On It! And so it does, with palpable relief on REM's side and ours, it opens with the onslaught of defiant Living Well is the Best Revenge which like a bombing run comes in quick, does its dirty work and exits before you have chance to recover. It is immediately followed by Man Sized Wreath, another superb full throttle guitar fest designed to disarm you and it works fantastically. So far, so great. However, the trio of fast-openers is completed by another teenager-reassurance effort from Stipe, the cringe-inducing Supernatural Superserious. Apparently it's a sequel to The Lifting from Reveal, if ever a song didn't need a sequel. Guess what teenager, you'll be fine! Yes Michael, as long as they can press skip. Still, it isn't all that bad, but Hollow Song, sorry, Hollow Man, up next, is. This one would fit perfectly on Around The Sun and that is a bad thing. It has a slow-fast structure and some Stipe 101 lyrics on what will happen if you're too passive (God, you'll end up being a Hollow Man!). It's everything that can be irritating by REM without the magic that coverts it to something special, and yet again a terrible single choice by the lads, let's move on. Wow, Houston. The 5th song on Accelerate is a fine and rich example of the dark brooding REM can do so well and is reminiscent of Country Feedback. Houston is a simpler song and as such it is wisely kept short, but along with the openers, it entirely justifies the rest of the LP, which is good because it kind of needs it. The rest isn't bad, and it's certainly no Around The Sun, it just isn't very inspiring. Until the Day Is Done and Sing For The Submarine are interesting, but their full potential isn't reached. Mr Richards overstays its welcome as it never develops from its opening structure, and the 'fast' closers of Horse To Water and I'm Gonna DJ are ramshackle drunk party songs that sound like live tracks circa 1983, and just don't feel like they have the gravitas for LP tracks. Overall then, Accelerate was a much needed life-saving transfusion as REM lay prostrate on the operating table, but it would take a little time and luck in recovery before they would be up to their old tricks.

And then along came Collapse Into Now, aaahhhhh. Who knew? Who knew they had one of these in them still? No excuses, no apologetic analysis, this is simply put a good album. The whole thing just sounds as if they were confident and free in its making. No pressure, no baggage, just let's get together and make some good music. I do wonder if they'd already decided this would be their last studio work and that'd given them a sense if liberation. Whatever the reason, it works. The opener of Discoverer is an addictive layered guitar riff overlaid with some quirky Stipe lyrics and delivery. OK, there are some moments of Stipe 'feeling calm', but my hat off for 'with a little bit more finesse, I'd have made a little less mess, but it was what it was, let's all get on with it, nowwww!'. This is surpassed however in the worthy follower All The Best, a solid, rousing, storm of a song with the surely autobiographical tour de force directness of 'I hold the mirror up, you tell me what is what, you tell me which part of my story baby is stuck, stuck, stuck, I'm in a part of your dreams that you don't even understand, it's just like me to overstay my welcome, bless, let's sing in a rhyme, let's give it one more time, let's show the kids how to do it, fine, fine, fine, I just had to get that off my chest, now it's time to get on with the best, all the best, all the best, all the best, best, best, best, it's just like me to overstay my welcome, bless'. Wow, bullseye Stipe, bullseye. Already with a big smile on your face, this falls beautifully into Uberlin with its wonderful clean country guitar from Buck and fragile but engaging collective lyrics from the Stipe. Add to that the Berlin context and the improvised Aarin Johnson featuring London video and the song is lifted to being a modern classic, good lads. There then follows a 4th blinder with Oh My Heart, and you start to think the patchy years were your imagination. Oh My Heart is a grand fairly slow number seemingly about belonging to a geographical place with all that it brings and the song features the best harmonies from REM since Out of Time. Wow. OK, so there is a little dip after this amazing opening, with It Happened Today and Everyday Is Yours To Win (I'm guessing Mills, anyone?), but they're worthy of a place. These are followed by the fun of hopefully metaphorical Mine Smell Like Honey with its swirling guitar and vocals which would have been a blast live. Walk it Back, a slow and simple piano piece I initially didn't like but it has grown on me especially after seeing the rather odd video! Next up, Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter is tremendous. It's a stomping guitar party reminiscent of the gang ramshackle of Horse to Water and I'm Gonna DJ but here it's really well executed and is one of the album highlights, 'I feel like a contradiction, i'm a walking science fiction' sings guest vocalist Peaches, yes! From there we have a dip with the fast but shallow That Someone Is You and the pedestrian Me Marlin Brando, Marlin Brando and I, but it's not long before Blue comes along to smack us in the face. Blue is a dark fuzz of noise in the vein of country Feedback and Houston, but here Stipe's accompaniment is a spoken word stream of consciousness that includes the album's namesake and is joined by none other than Patti Smith as she adds the only actual singing on the track. It is a fine thing to behold and it is a fitting end to the album (unless you count the curious reprise of Discoverer which works too). All in all this is an album that I find myself returning to time and time again, which is exactly how it should be. Once again, it is a latter day REM album which would benefit from being a 10 song album, for my money dumping That Someone Is You and Me Marlin Brando Marlin Brando and I, but altogether it stands up very well.

And so there you have it. That Ladies and Gentlemen, was REM. To paraphrase Burt Bacharach, the art of attending a party is knowing when to leave. Maybe the lads hung around a little too long for some of the guests, but it was a great party and they still had a good circle of people around them laughing along even if the odd punch line missed. Just like with Stipe's hero, Andy K, maybe they were never there, but in trying you have the possibility of attaining a special place. It's worth a shot.

Why not smile?

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