REM Are Scarcely Worth Blogging About
Like a lot of people who didn’t know any better; I used to be into REM. They were my favourite band for a good long while. In the 1990s, they were the kings of not-particularly-alternative rock. ‘Automatic for the People’ was the first album I bought on CD, and I owned all of their more popular albums, which were released on the Warner Brothers label. Before belonging to the giant of Warners, REM were signed to the much smaller label; IRS. I had ‘The Best of’ compilation which covered this era, but found the songs murky and strange. They sounded almost like a country band at times. So, for a long time, I didn’t venture any further into this early part of their career. To summarise; I liked the new stuff but not the old. Over the years, I’ve completely reversed my position.
Early REM is a lot different from their later stuff. The songs were darker and more reflective. The band never strayed too far from their guitar, bass, drums (and piano) roots, and they were all the better for it. They were really ‘Indie’, but in a good way! Along with The Replacements and The Smiths, they were among the most influential bands of the 80s. Not all the songs were amazing, but at least you could listen with the understanding that these were four guys from Georgia, who were signed to a small label. It’s when they became the ‘biggest band in the world’ that they stopped making sense for me.
About the time they signed to WB, their music seemed to change direction. They became less ‘country’ sounding, and Michael Stipe’s vocals were pushed to the fore. This was a huge mistake, as he’s a pretty lousy singer. Distinctive sounding? Yes. Technically proficient? No. This also gave more prominence to the lyrics, which had become bland or often just a series of non-sequiturs. However, Stipe now sounded so earnest; like he really believed the nonsense he was spouting.
During this period, they produced two albums which are considered ‘stone cold classics’: Out of Time and Automatic for the People. However, breaking them down track by track, I don’t think they’re particularly strong. When was the last time anyone listened to Monty Got a Raw Deal? In the age of CDs, many tracks were instantly skip-able. Their following albums (Monster, New Adventures in Hi-Fi and Up) are interesting failures, at best.
I must confess to not listening to any of their albums after ‘Up’. However, the response from critics and friends has been a bit ‘shrug-tastic’. I suspect that those reviews might be overly generous. I guarantee that if nobody had heard of them before, and they released an album like 2004’s Around The Sun, they would’ve been critically mauled, or more likely; ignored. However, they got by, and continued to record and tour.
The Onion’s AV Club used to have a funny section called ‘Justify Your Existence’, in which bands would be interviewed and asked why they made music and if their music could help people. I would’ve liked REM to have taken this quiz. I once saw an interview that Paul Morley did with Stipe. Morley asked why they were still touring and if they’d thought about giving up. Stipe was visibly angry about this. I think a nerve had been touched.
Despite being several musical generations younger than world-whoring giants like The Rolling Stones, they seem to be obsolescent and trading on past glories. They fill their concert set lists with new material, but all the punters must be waiting for them to play their 90s’ hits like ‘Everybody Hurts’. Nostalgia trips are never good, especially nostalgia for the 1990s.