I once said I would only own two R.E.M. albums, Murmur and Dead Letter Office. I expanded that to include Eponymous when that was released because “it had all the songs I liked from the other albums”, and is still one of the best “greatest hits” records by them or anyone else. It expanded again to include Out of Time, and the last R.E.M. record I ever bought was Monster, back in 1994. “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” is a great pop song with a bit of an edge. I guess I liked them more than I wanted myself to believe that I did. I’m not sure why I held them at arms length. It wasn’t snobbery.
So the news came down last week that Stipe, Buck & Mills were hanging it up as an entity after all this time. It’s easy to forget that R.E.M. was once a huge band, one that, for me, was the definition of “alternative” music, alongside synth bands like New Order. “Alternative” used to be basically just independent college rock, back when there was such a thing. I digress, and could write much more in that topic, and probably will sometime.
As I remember it, I discovered Murmur through the girlfriend of one of my best friends in high school. Andrea had great taste in music. She was also at least partly responsible for introducing us to the Violent Femmes, more quirky guitar rock. I have this vague memory of hearing Murmur in her car. I knew of R.E.M. and had seen a couple of videos, but it was the snare pops at the beginning of “Radio Free Europe” and the simmering shuffle of the song that exploded when it reached the chorus that really got me.
The whole album ebbs and flows in tempo and tone, from the bounce of “Laughing” to the gorgeous barroom piano that anchors the wistful temper of “Perfect Circle“. It’s fun to think of these four kids making this music in a small college town in Georgia, becoming torchbearers for independent music.
Dead Letter Office is a collection of b-sides and outtakes, one of the first records of that kind that I had ever come across.
So, what did I love about Dead Letter Office? The playfulness. The joy. The liner notes by Peter Buck that detailed the little stories behind the songs – something else I didn’t see much of, and surely didn’t expect from R.E.M. He wrote about how much better they thought Pylon were, how some songs were throwaways or reworkings of other songs – he was writing about how they made their music, who their inspirations were (one Lou Reed and two Velvet Underground covers). I felt *close* to the band, a feeling I didn’t much get from the likes of The Cure or New Order, whose music I loved, but didn’t speak directly, literally to me in that manner.
I was listening to “Perfect Circle” on a rainy day a few years ago, and that got me to thinking of her. I wrote Avenue to her and that song..
I stopped listening to R.E.M. with any regularity after Monster. I slagged them pretty badly around the turn of the century, saying that they were pretty much irrelevant. Sour grapes, perhaps? Maybe. I did read a lot of people’s comments to the effect of “R.E.M. was still together?” when the news broke last week. I knew they were still together – I actually kind of dig their new album – but they hadn’t been relevant to me in years, unless you count Stipe’s turn as an angry reindeer in Olive, the Other Reindeer. (Brilliant, by the way, both him and the show)
But in listening to one of the Marc Maron WTF podcasts last week, I realized that R.E.M. were who they were, and they are who they are, and their relevance to me isn’t important. What’s important is that they were still creating music, being artists, playing shows. They continued to strive. But now, instead of pushing too hard, they’re easing back – all the way back. There’s plenty of life for them left to enjoy.
I have a feeling that I’ll be going back and listening to a lot more R.E.M. in the coming months, to hear what I missed. Because I know I missed something just by not giving them a chance. They have my respect for being who they were for 31 years.
Those kids grew up a long time ago. Perhaps it’s time I did, too.