Could it be true that the end of a beloved and highly regarded band came down to a simple “a funny thing happened while putting together our career retrospective”?
How many bands, when faced with a monumental back catalogue of music and memories, reach the realisation that they have achieved all, and a hell of a lot more, than they ever hoped for? To disband in such a fashion shows an immense amount of respect for their fans, their legacy and their friendship, and is something every band of their stature should stop to consider. R.E.M. quite rightly could’ve gone on forever, but the real talent lies in knowing when to stop.
It’s something of a prerequisite to contribute to Webcuts that you have at one time or another been a fan of R.E.M. Actually that’s not true, we’ll take anybody, but it is no small coincidence that many people who’s taste in music we respect happen to be fall into this category. When putting together this tribute, the Webcuts collective decided to take a look at each of their 15 albums and select a track that for us, showed why R.E.M. were one of the last truly great rock n’ roll bands of the 20th Century.
We hope you enjoy.
“Perfect Circle” (1983)“Perfect Circle” was a track impossible to ignore, purposely placed to close out Murmur‘s flawless first side (ending the album with the track would’ve been milking it). Of several cornerstone moments on the record (“Radio Free Europe”, “Talk About The Passion”), it was one that lingered long after the needle left the groove. Written by drummer Bill Berry (as Stipe was often want to point out), “Perfect Circle” added another room to R.E.M.’s growing house of immaculate song, the haunting piano figure eliciting feelings of nostalgia and melancholy, with Stipe’s tender vocals wrapping a neat bow around it. (CS)
If Murmur was an enigmatic debut, Reckoning only deepened the mystery. The production became crisper, the guitars janglier, but the songs remained off-kilter. Michael Stipe was still singing in mumbled riddles, but there was something achingly compelling about the way he sang them. Opener “Harborcoat” is a fable of a pop song, its tune irresistible and its meaning opaque. The band’s energy is nothing short of a phenomenon. How can you watch them dance and lurch across the stage and not grin at this cohort of misfits creating something so unique, so sublime? (NG)
“Life And How To Live It” (1985)
Fables, by the band’s own admission, was a difficult album to make yet it’s only in the discordant opening rumble of “Feeling Gravitys Pull” that you feel any tension. If push comes to shove, this is (IMHO) their finest hour — “Driver 8”, “Maps And Legends”, “Green Grow The Rushes” all reside here, and so too “Life And How To Live It”. Based on a true story about a schizophenic man who divided his house in two to suit his personalities, “Life And How To Live It” is R.E.M. in manic full-flight rock n’ roll mode. (CS)
“Fall On Me” (1986)
It was around Lifes Rich Pageant that Stipe’s voice began to rise above the other instruments, asserting itself as a force. R.E.M. weren’t yet the stadium sensation they would become, but “Fall On Me” has the roots of an anthem: “Buy the sky and sell the sky/And lift your arms up to the sky.” It’s almost a ballad, almost a prayer. (It’s also worth nothing that Matt Berninger, lead singer of The National, has cited this song as his favourite of all time). (NG)
“Finest Worksong” (1987)
“The time to rise has been engaged,” sings Stipe on what would be R.E.M.’s last IRS records release and the beginning of arguably their best. The tone shifted from the happier Lifes Rich Pageant to the militant, call-to-arms of Document. Everything got very serious, very quickly, and there were kiss-offs for everyone from ex-lovers (“The One I Love”) to the state of art and pop culture (“It’s The End of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”). This album, and song in particular, would serve as a mighty catalyst for R.E.M.’s transformation from sweet 80’s jangle-poppers to the more ambitious, highly-political movement of their iconic 90’s alt-rock. (JL)
“You Are The Everything” (1988)
As much as Document was a major turning point in the public view of the band, Green embodied their own increasing personal and political views. “Wake up, stand up, believe in yourself” seemed to the mantra of the hour. Sandwiched between two prime examples of this, “Get Up” and “Stand”, was the reflective “You Are The Everything”. Here was some Stipe-ian soul baring meets pep talk as crickets chirp and an accordion wheezes in the background. The instrumentation here is exquisite and the presence of mandolin foreshadows the monstrous role it will play in future world domination. (CS)
“Half A World Away” (1991)
Out of Time saw R.E.M. rise to gigantic mainstream heights and remain there indefinitely with two of their biggest commercial hits, “Losing My Religion” and “Shiny Happy People”. The move to Warner had finally brought the group to an international level, as their sound broadened and flourished mixing in baroque pop and eventually country elements into their music. But it was the deeper cuts that made Out of Time so timeless and enduring, including the heartbreaker “Half A World Away”, that somehow manages to make the mandolin and harpsichord combo sound pop savvy over Stipe’s introspective lyrics of loss and a longing to return to the way things were. (JL)