Saturday 10 December 2016

The end: R.E.M. are Out of Time

Published 24/09/2011 | 05:00

Adventures in hi-fi:
R.E.M.’s output has
been prolific over 30
years with 15 studio
albums and nine
compilation
albums.
Adventures in hi-fi: R.E.M.’s output has been prolific over 30 years with 15 studio albums and nine compilation albums.

I've chosen not to begin this piece with 'It's The End Of The World As We Know It' -- if only because it's been used to death in headlines all over the world during the last two days. So instead, I'll start with the basics. On Wednesday evening, a simple yet seismic announcement appeared on R.E.M.'s official website.

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It read: "To our Fans and Friends: As R.E.M., and as lifelong friends and co-conspirators, we have decided to call it a day as a band. We walk away with a great sense of gratitude, of finality, and of astonishment at all we have accomplished. To anyone who ever felt touched by our music, our deepest thanks for listening."

And there it was. R.E.M., a band who seemed to have been around forever, were gone. Amicably and peacefully, it seemed, but gone nonetheless.

Like many of the great bands, R.E.M. began life when two slightly odd people shared a chance meeting against a musical backdrop -- in this case, the record shop in Athens, Georgia, where Peter Buck worked and Michael Stipe shopped. When they were joined by their friends Mike Mills and Bill Berry, R.E.M. was born.

That was 1980 -- and by the time they scored their first widespread success in 1987 with 'The One I Love', they had already notched up five albums, splashed around in the lower reaches of the charts, appeared on US national television and garnered an album of the year nod from Rolling Stone for debut album Murmur. In short, R.E.M. was a success story waiting to happen.

From there, the band followed a fairly standard arc, both in terms of creativity and that success. The peak period began with 1991's Out of Time, an album that included the stunningly clever 'Losing My Religion' -- a piece of music that followed no conventions in terms of melody or structure.

The trend continued in '92 with Automatic for the People, an album which swallowed up five-star reviews and kept the band's star glowing.

'Everybody Hurts' and 'Nightswimming' confirmed the band's collaborative songwriting efforts to be a cut above anything else in the mainstream arena at the time -- with the possible exception of newcomers Nirvana -- but it would be the last time the band achieved anything on that scale.

Monster and New Adventures in Hi-Fi marked a troublesome time for the band, and drummer Bill Berry left amicably after health problems and a general unhappiness with the fame lifestyle. Up produced the wonderful 'Daysleeper' -- but by now the standard that R.E.M. set with 'Losing My Religion' was beginning to sound more like a tired template.

R.E.M. could still turn out a tune, though, even if their pioneering days had passed -- and they did just that in 2001 with 'Imitation of Life'. From there on, though, the feeling of déjà vu would accompany most of what R.E.M. recorded; 'Leaving New York' in 2004 contained a beautiful hook, but it seemed that the band were done breaking down walls of sound.

In evaluating R.E.M.'s body of work, it's essential to strip back the clichés and the tiredness which some of their songs have accumulated throughout the years.

Take a listen to 'Everybody Hurts', for example. On first listen, you'll probably visualise the endless, mawkishly emotional scenes in film and television which have bedded themselves with this number. Or you might remember every muppet who took out a guitar at a party and made an attempt to recreate the song because it was easy to play.

It takes a conscious effort to listen to the song for what it is; a harrowing, devastatingly simple testament to our lowest moments. Whether it refers to a gloomy Monday, or something darker altogether, is for the listener to decide.

Whatever the case, Berry's melody and Stipe's vocals leave you assured of one thing: you're not alone.

And that was R.E.M. For all the cryptic lyrics, for all their oddities, and for all the songs they made in the last decade that sounded the same as one another, at the heart of it all was an unusual ability to communicate with listeners.

I'm sitting in a café writing this article, it's just after 8am and 'Daysleeper' has come on the radio. I'm not sure if the song's content strikes a chord with the tired workers at the table beside me. Maybe it does. Either way, it holds a palpable presence in the room; as sure a sign as any that R.E.M. may have split -- but they're not gone.

acoughlan@independent.ie

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