Last summer when I asked my girlfriend if she wanted to see R.E.M. with me and some friends, she was surprised that I liked them. “That’s a very odd band to like for a music snob,” She told me. If you only know R.E.M. by the way of “Man on the Moon”, “Shiny Happy People” or “It’s The End of the World”, then I suppose this could be true. And with a mediocre output for a decade until last year’s “Accelerate”, I could somewhat agree. But the truth is, for their first five albums, R.E.M. were pretty much the coolest band on earth. And two decades later, these five albums still resonate. Somehow, R.E.M. managed to sound ahead of their time, and outside of their time.
In grade school, while all of the other kids in my class were raving about whatever was on the radio, I was obsessed with R.E.M. Growing up as the youngest of five kids, my older siblings exposed me to the music they listened to. Always wanting to be like them, I automatically thought whatever they liked they was cool. I spent Friday nights watching their tour -documentary “Tour Film” believing Michael Stipe to be a god. R.E.M. remains to this day, one of the few artists whose entire catalogue I know by heart.
As I got older, and began cultivating my own musical preferences, I began to grow tired of R.E.M. I wanted to find my own musical identity, and at the time, I considered R.E.M. part of my childhood. It also didn’t help that around this time, R.E.M.’s drummer Bill Berry quit the band, and they went on to release a series of uninspired albums.
A few years later though, a curious thing happened. As my music snobbery unfolded, it also began to include R.E.M. for entirely different reasons than childhood nostalgia. I began to understood the group’s importance, and how weird they were in the mid 80’s. No one sounded like R.E.M. in the 80’s.
“Murmur”‘s murky atmospheric sound is still haunting all these years later. Does it really matter what Michael Stipe is singing about? Even as he mumbles his way through the album, you believe everything he sings even though you know he may not be sincere. Or at the very least, he never reveals himself in any of the songs. With “Reckoning” R.E.M. got even weirder. Apparently the album was meant to sound like their live shows, and it shows. Gone is the murky sound, and they play almost every single song like a punk rock version of the Byrds. Nearly every song is played with an urgency, yet Peter Buck still relies on his chiming Rickenbacker to power the songs. “Camera” may one of their best ballads. Written as an ode to a dead friend, the songs feeling doesn’t rely on Stipe’s lyrics but rather his heartfelt vocals and the band’s melancholy restraint.
For all my love of R.E.M. I never “Fables of the Reconstruction” when I was kid. It lacked the urgency of “Reckoning”, and didn’t have the bombast of it’s follower “Lifes Rich Pageant”. Yet, the more I listen to it, the more I appreciate it. I tend to think of it was their “Bob Dylan” album. Not so much in terms of lyrical themes or song-writing, but the approach. Like Dylan had done when he recorded “The Basement Tapes”, R.E.M. were digging deep into Americana whether they knew it or not. “Driver 8” was a song about trains, and “Wendell Gee” was an ode to an old man who died in their hometown of Athens, GA complete with a bango. Although the album is actually titled “Fables of the Reconstruction” it’s also alternately titled “Reconstruction of the Fables”, which adds a whole new twist to the album and it themes. In a way, “Fables” marked the end of an era for R.E.M. With the follow-up “Lifes Rich Pagaent”, Stipe cleaned up his vocals and his lyrics became more direct. Yet ,it was still R.E.M.
Even when they became of the world’s biggest bands, they still managed to maintain their integrity and identity. Upon first listen, I liked “Accelerate” because R.E.M. was back after years of sub-par albums. Is it their best? Nope. But it’s certainly a very good R.E.M. album, which makes it better than a lot of other albums.