R.E.M. emerged in the wake of punk from Athens, Georgia, and started their career as an insular Indie band, with cryptic albums that enjoyed a cult following. But gradually they beefed up their sound, experienced airplay, signed up to a major label, and became one of the most successful bands in the world.
More than most bands, all four members of R.E.M. were important – Michael Stipe was the most recognisable figure as the front-man and lyricist, and his voice was distinctive and adaptable. Guitarist Peter Buck gave them their signature sound with his pretty arpeggiated guitar, which was always compared to Roger McGuinn’s work in The Byrds. Along with Buck, the rhythm section contributed heavily to song composition; Mike Mills’ harmony vocals and melodic bass-lines were also an important part of the ensemble sound, while drummer Bill Berry provided a solid back-beat and contributed the music for some of the band’s best known songs like ‘Man On The Moon’ and ‘Everybody Hurts’.
Bill Berry left the band before 1998’s Up; losing a member of the original quartet disturbed their peculiar synergy and they were never quite the same. R.E.M. released four more albums after 1998’s Up, which I haven’t covered below. I don’t think they ever disgraced themselves, although 2004’s Around The Sun is probably their least highly regarded album, but they arguably diminished their legacy by outstaying their welcome.
R.E.M.’s five albums for IRS Records are all very strong; albums like Murmur and Lifes Rich Pageant are classics of 1980s college rock. While their major label albums were less consistent, all of their 1990s’ albums have some very strong material, and they produced one very strong album with 1992’s acoustic and gloomy Automatic for the People. Their 1990s’ catalogue is also notably more diverse than their work in the 1980s.
R.E.M. Album Reviews
Favourite Album: Lifes Rich Pageant
Overlooked Gem: Chronic Town
Chronic Town (EP)
R.E.M.’s debut album Murmur, released in 1983, seemed like the work of an idiosyncratic band with their distinctive sound fully honed. It makes more sense in the context of this excellent debut EP, where the band’s sound is fully formed. The material isn’t as memorable as the songs on their debut, but more energetic. Michael Stipe already has his charismatic mumble, Mike Mills provides melodic bass lines and backing vocals, Bill Berry a steady back beat, and Peter Buck’s guitar is distinctive without being overbearing – the band as a whole sounds like a hybrid of The Byrds and The Velvet Underground, with a dose of Southern USA eccentricity.
At only 5 songs, and 20 minutes, Chronic Town doesn’t quite rank among the band’s best albums. The most accomplished song is ‘Wolves, Lower’, full of ringing guitar hooks and memorable vocal lines, while ‘Gardening At Night’ is melodic and pretty. Mike Mills’ backing vocals provide the hook for ‘Carnival Of Sorts (Boxcars)’.
R.E.M.’s initial albums are more accessible than this EP, but if you love them it’s certainly worth going back to hear the group’s sound almost fully developed on Chronic Town.
My father likes to tell me the story of a Scottish folk singer who earned respect for his precise enunciation; this is the exact opposite of Michael Stipe’s vocal performance on Murmur where the title refers to his virtual incomprehensibility. R.E.M.’s debut album is an absolute critic’s favourite, and it’s not difficult to see why; the group already had their entire sound figured out, and they’d only get more mainstream and less interesting. The key R.E.M. elements are recognisable on Murmur; Michael Stipe’s arty and cryptic lyrics, Peter Buck’s jangly guitars and Mike Mill’s harmonies are all present.
The opening ‘Radio Free Europe’, with a surprisingly dance-able beat, was a surprise minor hit. The remainder of Murmur, however, is moody and more organic, more typical of the group’s early style. The piano led ‘A Perfect Circle’ and the piano infused ‘Shaking Through’ are particularly pretty, while ‘West of the Fields’ (which sounds like “Wezstzofields” after Stipe’s tonsils get tangled in it) is an appropriate ending, climactic but not losing the rest of the album’s subtlety. Discounting the irritatingly straightforward ‘We Walk’, which is out of place on an otherwise subtle album, Murmur is a flawless debut.
Murmur is a quintessential statement for R.E.M., and there are plenty of fans who would argue that they never bettered their first full length album.
Reckoning is usually ranked among R.E.M.’s elite albums, but to me it’s a solid entry in their excellent early catalogue. The dour Indie folk of Murmur has already altered somewhat, and the group are pursuing a more conventional college rock sound. Reckoning is punchier than previously, and less acoustic, but Stipe’s vocals are still low in the mix; he’s credited as the “lead vocal instrument”.
Opening track ‘Harborcoat’ demonstrates the potential of this micro-era of R.E.M., marrying an arrangement that’s more propulsive than anything on Murmur, opening with a Bill Berry fill, to a pretty folk rock melody that would have been right at home on that album. The other really effective rock piece is the closing ‘Little America’, which is one of the more fascinating and overlooked songs in the R.E.M. discography. Elsewhere, the material is slower, and lacking the unique atmosphere of Murmur. There are pretty songs like the atmospheric ‘Letter Never Sent’, the gently repetitive ‘Time After Time’, the bright country of ‘(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville’ (inspired by a girlfriend of Mike Mills), the apologetic ‘So, Central Rain’, and the enigmatic ‘7 Chinese Bros’.
I like Reckoning a lot, but there’s no really single fantastic track to push it over the top, and having heard Murmur and Lifes Rich Pageant first, it’s just a highly competent but somewhat unsurprising link between those two peaks.
Fables Of The Reconstruction
Fables Of The Reconstruction was recorded in London with Fairport Convention and Nick Drake producer Joe Boyd. The Byrds influence was always commented upon in R.E.M.’s early reviews – Peter Buck wrote “we get compared to The Byrds every day”. It might have been expected that Boyd would accentuate such tendencies and lead the band in a more folk influenced direction, but if anything it’s a more eclectic album than its predecessors. Moody pieces like ‘Old Man Kensey’ and ‘Feeling Gravity’s Pull’ account for the album’s sleepy reputation, but there are also bouncier songs like ‘Driver 8’ and ‘Can’t Get There From Here’.
The opening trifecta on Fables Of The Reconstruction is arguably the strongest start to any R.E.M. record. ‘Feeling Gravity’s Pull’ is a weird atmospheric opener, before the album kicks into gear with the catchy folk rocker ‘Maps and Legends’ and the upbeat ‘Driver 8’. The reputation of this album as a downer is further dispelled by the energetic and eccentric power-pop of ‘Life And How To Live It’ and ‘Can’t Get There From Here’, while the stuttering rocker ‘Kohoutek’ is another overlooked gem and the piano driven ‘Wendell Gee’ ends the album on a calming and elegiac note.
Fables Of The Reconstruction is a little inconsistent and disjointed, but it’s still a very good early album.
Lifes Rich Pageant
R.E.M. took a step towards the mainstream with Lifes Rich Pageant, enlisting John Mellencamp’s producer, who gave them a more commercial and rock oriented sound, with Stipe’s vocals higher in the mix. Although R.E.M. lose some mystique in the process, the more direct sound is helpful, resulting in my favourite R.E.M. album.
The majority of Lifes Rich Pageant is upbeat, but my favourite is the mellow ‘Flowers of Guatemala’; Peter Buck squeezes out a lovely melodic solo which awakes the otherwise soothing song in a breathtaking fashion, while his riffing is seldom as effective as on the excellent opener ‘Begin the Begin’. Bassist Mike Mills’ vocal spotlights sound fantastic; his cover of the garage rocker ‘Superman’ is charming, while his bridge on the wonderful single ‘Fall On Me’ and harmonies on the chorus of ‘Cuyahoga’ enhance each song. R.E.M. also peel off a convincing punk song with ‘Just a Touch’, and even the tossed off ‘Underneath the Bunker’ is fun.
There’s some tough competition with the likes of Murmur and Automatic For The People for the title of best R.E.M. album, but Lifes Rich Pageant is my pick.
Document garnered R.E.M. some mainstream attention – they scored major radio play with ‘The One I Love’, ‘It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)’ and ‘Finest Worksong’, and secured a major label record contract for their next album. But while it was successful, Document marks the end of the group’s most consistent phase, and it’s less enjoyable than its predecessors. Part of the problem is sequencing – it’s very strong for the first seven tracks, but gets more esoteric for the last few tracks.
The three obvious singles are all enjoyable; ‘The One I Love’ is one of Stipe’s most charmingly oblique lyrics: the “this one goes out to the one I love” verse fits in so seamlessly with the “fire” chorus that the lack of sense doesn’t matter. ‘Finest Worksong’ is stuffed full of hooks, while ‘It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)’ is fun and subversive. I don’t enjoy the cover of Wire’s ‘Strange’ as much as the original, but there are solid album tracks like the bouncy ‘Exhuming McCarthy’ and ‘Disturbance At The Heron House’.
Document isn’t necessarily much weaker than Lifes Rich Pageant on a song by song basis, but for an album that was the band’s commercial breakthrough, it’s surprisingly inaccessible in places.
Green was R.E.M.’s major label debut for Warner Brothers, bringing them into the mainstream. Unlike R.E.M.’s I.R.S. material, Green doesn’t feel like a coherent album – it’s merely a collection of songs, some strong and some dispensable, although generally tuneful. The group’s use of acoustic instruments like mandolin and accordion probably felt surprising in 1988, coming after a pair of rock based albums, but R.E.M. recorded better acoustic songs on their subsequent albums.
The material is hit and miss; ‘Turn You Inside-Out’ is essentially an inferior rewrite of ‘Finest Worksong’, while ‘Hairshirt’ is pretty, but drags. The single ‘Stand’ is catchy, with nice organ from Mike Mills but feels like a throwaway. But there’s plenty of good material – ‘Orange Crush’ is an excellent single, ‘I Remember California’ is haunting, and ‘World Leader Pretend’ is a pleasant, contemplative acoustic song.
Green is a mixed bag, but R.E.M. made the transition to a major label with relative grace and ease.
Out of Time
R.E.M. dropped the serious, moody atmosphere that pervaded their 1980s albums, and shot to mega-stardom on the back of Out Of Time, a lighthearted and acoustic album. It’s more diverse than anything else the group have done, and it’s probably one of R.E.M.’s more divisive albums – there are plenty of strong tunes, and it’s well produced, and plenty of people love it, but I often find it lightweight and inconsistent. The group bring in a lot of outside musicians; rapper KRS-One guests on ‘Radio Song’, while The B-52s’ Kate Pierson sounds great harmonizing with Stipe on ‘Shiny Happy People’ and ‘Me In Honey’. Peter Holsapple, formerly of The dBs, augments the band with guitar and bass parts on many of the songs.
On a lightweight album, it’s probably not a coincidence that the best song is also the darkest lyrically: ‘Losing My Religion’, where Stipe famously declares “Life is bigger than you/And you are not me.” Elsewhere, pretty songs like ‘Near Wild Heaven’ and ‘Texarkana’, both with Mike Mills on lead vocals, are successful, and I even enjoy the pop fluff of ‘Shiny Happy People’. But there are throwaways – the rap on ‘Radio Song’ makes for a gimmicky opener, and the instrumental ‘Endgame’ and ‘Belong’ feel inconsequential.
There’s an argument both ways for Out Of Time – it has some nice tunes and it’s fast moving and entertaining, but I find it too insubstantial to be a favourite.
Automatic for the People
“Today I need something more substant, more substantial” sings Michael Stipe in Automatic for the People‘s ‘The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite’. And R.E.M. deliver with Automatic for the People, a vast improvement from the fun but shallow Out of Time. While the two albums share an acoustic sensibility, Automatic for the People has a sincere and poignant core, and it’s a much more affecting album. One important and unlikely collaborator is Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones, who contributes some gorgeous string parts, particularly to the slow burning opener ‘Drive’.
Other gorgeous pieces include the elegant and lilting closer ‘Find the River’ and the cello driven ‘Sweetness Follows’, while even the overplayed ‘Everybody Hurts’, written by drummer Bill Berry, has plenty of emotional resonance. There are plenty of enjoyably idiosyncratic acoustic songs like ‘Monty Got a Raw Deal’ and ‘Man on the Moon’, and the only real throwaway is the brief instrumental. Automatic for the People isn’t all acoustic ballads – the political ‘Ignoreland’ rocks and provides a brief respite from the gentle tunes and serious themes.
Automatic For The People showcases the acoustic R.E.M. at their peak, with a successful balance between sincerity and commercialism.
With their previous two records, R.E.M. paused touring and became a studio based band, following the lead of groups like XTC and late period Beatles, and focusing on intricate and acoustic based arrangements that would have been difficult to successfully recreate in arenas. When they decided to tour again, they purposefully created a loud and aggressive album that would be fun to recreate live. Monster trades in R.E.M.’s usual sincerity and restrained arrangements for a sound that’s equal measures of 1970s’ glam and 1990s’ grunge. At times Monster is successful, with Peter Buck generating some great guitar noise with layers of tremolo and reverb, but with generally simple songs and limited stylistic variation, as a whole the album is underwhelming.
Monster does have its moments; opener ‘What’s The Frequency Kenneth?’ might be my favourite R.E.M. song ever, with the tremolo guitar used as a central hook, while ‘Bang and Blame’ is another trashy and fun. ‘Strange Currencies’ is like an improved version of ‘Everybody Hurts’, while ‘I Don’t Sleep, I Dream’ showcases Stipe’s falsetto. But while the album sounds good initially, a lot of the tracks reveal themselves as routine on subsequent listens.
Monster is one of R.E.M.’s most trivial albums; although it does have a certain charm, don’t expect to get much mileage out of it.
New Adventures In Hi Fi
New Adventures In Hi Fi was largely recorded during sound checks on a horrific tour, during which drummer Bill Berry nearly died from an aneurysm, and Michael Stipe and Mike Mills were both hospitalised. It’s more authentically aggressive and rough around the edges than the contrived Monster, but it’s also overlong at 65 minutes.
The relatively sedate nature of the opening track, the minimalist piano driven ‘How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us’, and the relatively calm singles ‘Bittersweet Me’ and ‘E-Bow The Letter’ paint a somewhat disproportionate picture of the album; a lot of the remaining tracks are gritty, and it’s slightly overlooked gems like ‘Undertow’, ‘Be Mine’ and ‘So Fast, So Numb’ that form the backbone of the record.
But the standout track is ‘Leave’, at seven minutes the longest track R.E.M. have recorded, rocking off the base of a dissonant synthesiser loop. ‘E-Bow The Letter’ is another epic, but sinks in more subtly, building intensity over its slow pacing with backing vocals from Patti Smith and impressionistic lyrics from Stipe (“aluminium, it tastes like fear/adrenaline, Princess Leia”). Other keepers include the charming low key ‘New Test Leper’ and the closing ballad ‘Electrolite’.
There’s a bit of filler, but this is exactly the kind of album that dedicated fans will enjoy wading through, and in spite of, or perhaps because of, its sprawling nature New Adventures In Hi Fi is among the group’s best records.
Drummer Bill Berry left R.E.M. during 1997, a major upheaval for the group who’d had no lineup changes in their twenty years. In the tight knit group, Berry had shared composing the music with Peter Buck and Mike Mills; the group considered breaking up, but Berry made them promise to continue. While they continued, R.E.M. took a radical departure from the hard rock flirtation of the previous two records, with Mills primarily playing keyboards and Buck playing bass.
With its slow tempos and lack of approachable material, Up can be a difficult proposition, even though it contains plenty of strong material. Opener ‘Airportman’ is built around a minimalist repetitive riff that’s electronica influenced. On the other side, first single ‘Daysleeper’ is very much in a traditional R.E.M. vein, with acoustic guitars and a memorable chorus. ‘Lotus’ is just about the only upbeat track, ‘At My Most Beautiful’ is an enjoyable Beach Boys homage, while ‘Suspicion’ and ‘Falls To Climb’ are enjoyable melodies.
If you’re not turned off by slow pacing, Up is worth exploring, but it feels less effortless than most R.E.M. albums.
Hindu Love Gods
An R.E.M. side project, formed by Mills, Berry and Buck along with the late Warren Zevon on lead vocals, the Hindu Love Gods album was recorded in the mid 1980s while working on Zevon’s Sentimental Hygiene. It’s less subtle and idiosyncratic than contemporary R.E.M. albums, and much more resembles the work of a well oiled bar band; Berry sums up the disc well with his comment that “it took us about as long to do as it takes to listen to.”
A collection of mostly blues covers, it’s very much to be taken at face value, and it’s certainly not an essential part of the R.E.M. discography, even though it’s interesting to hear the group let their hair down and play in a more relaxed and less ornate style. Buck in particular, is playing a fuller rhythm sound that’s different than his typical Byrds-derived jangle. Zevon’s vocal swagger is entertaining, full of libido and gusto in songs like ‘Travelling Riverside Blues’ (appropriated by Led Zeppelin for ‘The Lemon Song’). It’s entertaining, but the material’s mostly ubiquitous (‘Mannish Boy’, ‘Wang Dang Doodle’, ‘Junko Pardner’) and it’s played straight, so it doesn’t hold up to repeated listens. The exception is a glorious cover of Prince’s ‘Raspberry Beret’; transformed from effeminate psychedelia into blustery swagger.
I paid $2 for my copy, and it’s going straight into my sell pile when I finish this review, but it’s worth hearing ‘Raspberry Beret’.
Ten Favourite R.E.M. Songs
Find The River
What’s The Frequency Kenneth?
Fall On Me
Losing My Religion
Flowers of Guatemala
The One I Love
Maps and Legends