Ruminations on TV Shows, Comics, And Music
As you might have guessed from the month long intermission, I wasn't especially stoked to go through the final phase of REM. Up came out during my Must Buy Every CD From Every Artist I Love phase of my 20s, and I listened to it repeatedly, trying to will myself to like it more. I had recently transitioned out of working in a record store an into working in a chocolate store, and had also started blogging / sending out e-newsletters to fans. My very first one mentioned listening to this album while waiting for a manager to unlock the shop. I believe I referenced trying to slit my wrists with a crisply folded dollar bill.
The blogs got happier.
The REM albums did not. Reveal never appealed to me. I bought it, I listened to if a couple of times, and then I forgot about it. So much so, that it turns out that I never uploaded it to my computer, and have just now realized that there are no tracks from that album at all represented here. That's ... fine. I do remember enjoying "All The Way To Reno", as well as "Bad Day" from their Greatest Hits around this time. But I didn't miss them when I put this together, so I'm not going to redo the album.
I thought Around The Sun was okay, but it felt like the way I feel when I'm done writing something, feel content, then look at it and think "Oh God, I've already written this before. And I wrote it much better back then." It feels a bit like a B or C-side release.
I appreciated Accelerate's return to early REM rock sound, but after a few tracks, the songs started to sound the same, just A Better Same than the previous two albums. And while I've included some songs from that album that I really enjoy listening to, I couldn't quote a single lyric.
I didn't even know Collapse Into Now had come out, nevermind that it was the band's final album, until one of the songs came up on a friend's playlist in the car. This is no fault of REM, 2011 was not my favorite year. But Collapse Into Now, while never going to be in contention for my favorite REM album, certainly felt more like one of their classic albums than the preceding three.
I don't want to give the impression that this reimagined album doesn't have its own unique sound. It does. I think it holds together nicely, and I like it much better than I imagined I would. But most of my descriptions are going to be talking about which previous album I think it would fit well on. This is both an attempt to be helpful to REM fans who couldn't stick with it, and also as a bit of an homage to their final album, which was a deliberate attempt to revisit certain eras of their history. I thought that was a cool conceit.
REM came back soft and grieving from their diminishing. Reviewers dubbed their new sound "keyboard farts" and it was easy to hear the whole album as a dirge. I don't want that feel. So I'm starting with one of my favorite rockers from their later work, Horse To Water. It's got the upbeat guitar of Monster if you squeegeed all the grunge off and tried to toss it gently back to Fables Of The Reconstruction.
Alligator, Aviator, Autopilot, Antimatter is "Shiny, Happy, People" if it didn't suck. The lyrics are delightfully early REM, the background vocals are punk rock, the guitars have picked up a little bit of the grunge that was shed from the previous track. It's fast, loud, and joyous, without feeling cloying. I guess if I were going to put it on an earlier REM album, I would have to slice it in half Solomon style, and send it back to Green and Chronic Town.
Those two tracks were heavily influenced by their earliest work, but as I mentioned, their first two post-Berry era albums were more Automatic For The People / New Adventures In Hi-Fi but with drum machines and keyboards. It's not my favorite era by a long stretch, but there were some good tracks on those albums, including Electron Blue. Stipe's vocals are further up in the mix on these first two albums, which I quite enjoy. I understand that pushing his vocals back make the rock tracks feel more retro, but I enjoy how the reverb on vocals like this one make you feel like you're at a concert, and the vocals are hitting you at different times from different speakers.
Outsiders is a song that just sounds like the album it's from, Around The Sun. Doubled vocals and Stipe harmonizing with himself usually doesn't work for me, but he nails it here. There's a breakdown, and then Q-Tip sets down a verse. It's not my favorite rap verse on a rock song by a long stretch, but it's 1,000% better than KRS-One on "Radio Song".
A piano ballad? On an REM album? No. Hollow Man's acoustic piano intro quickly waves back and forth between piano and guitar soft rock. It does sound like a re-recording of something off of Green with better production value.
Blue definitely could have worked from the Automatic For The People era. It's got Stipe doing spoken word over guitar and effects before Patti Smith, who also appeared on "E-Bow The Letter", has her vocals crawl over his poetry.
Crawling is also how Lotus arrives. A wriggly, vocally doubled shimmy that definitely would have felt at home on Automatic For The People. This was the song from Up that made me hold out hope for what would become the slow wind-down of REM's career. It's a sad song about being happy again. Haven't you noticed?
I don't know where I'd put It Happened Today in the spectrum of previous REM albums. Maybe Murmur. Sure Stipe's voice is gruffer, and Buck and Mills are more masterful than jangly, but this track definitely has an experimental flair that a lot of their later work didn't bother with.
A drum track and a jangly guitar and an echoey keyboard set this solidly in Monster territory. Suspicion could be "Tongue"'s mature sibling. It's occasional surfish guitar is also a great feature, a trick that the band rarely uses, but which always feels welcome.
Supernatural Superserious brings the rock guitar back. This song could really have come from almost any REM album except Automatic For The People and Up. It feels like a song they sat on for years, while also sounding 21st century fresh.
We are dropped back into New Adventures In Hi-Fi with Boy In The Well. The acoustic guitar line is fantastic. The drums are played loud, but set back in the mix. The keyboards fade forward and back, while Stipe's vocals sit clearly in the center. A slightly different mix would make this feel ethereal, but I think its refusal to go full Ballad while only having half a foot in rock works really well.
If I were a slightly bigger jerk, Diminished would have been the title track for this album. It works for both quantity of band members, and overall quality for their last four albums. But 3/4 Time is mean enough. This feels very Document to me. I do love the effects laid over strings, and the more prominent than usual bass.
"Diminished" has a false ending and an acoustic hidden track actual ending that works as a perfect bridge to At My Most Beautiful, the piano ballad that "Hollow Man" threatened to be. This is another clear Automatic For The People throwback. The background doo doo doo doo vocals are a perfect accent to another sad song about being happy and in love. This was in consideration for final track of the album, as it, too, has a false ending, and a satisfying fade out. But ...
Discoverer gives us a booming bass drum that has been long absent from REM's catalogue. This is Chronic Town all day and night, and I love it. I didn't want the back half of the album to feel like a complete wind-down, and this is a nice pick up in tempo.
If you don't consider Uberlin, "Drive (Part Two)", then I don't know how to talk to you about this song. It just feels like it's "Drive"'s sequel, if it had been placed on New Adventures In Hi-Fi. It's more uplifting, but it's all about the Hey now that made "Drive" so catchy.
The album closes out with the band's first post-Berry era single, Daysleeper. I didn't know if I liked this song when I first bought the album. I was worried that this Automatic For The People happy maudlin was going to be the new normal for REM, and while it was for a while, they did eventually evolve out of it so much that I found myself really enjoying this song.