“The More I Think about it, R.E.M. Definitely Has Another Album in Them”

I had a lot of ideas of things to pertain to in this next post. I was going to launch into a tirade against Joe Biden and all the people sitting back doing nothing about this Britney Griner situation. I was going to express my disgust at our “LMFAO”-oriented society, the attitude that separate, individual elation should be prized over cooperation and progress. 

But it just didn’t seem right. And maybe it has to do with powerlessness, two-fold: a combination of the extremely scant probability of doing anything that will actually HELP Britney Griner in any way, combined with the reality that a lot of good, kind, caring people I know in the world are just ACCUSTOMED to feeling powerless, relative to the extreme amount of stimuli and information we absorb, more inclined to lurk in the shadows cooperatively and only emerge when there’s something pressing, or “light-hearted,” to be more exact, to say. 

So this post is materializing not so much as any semantic statement or manifesto but rather just as a simple endorsement of music for music’s sake, which is something I’m supposed to believe whole-heartedly in, I suppose, what with this being my vocation, and whatnot. 

A week and a half or so ago, in work, it was a Sunday and I got to pick the music. Right away, without question, I was in the mood for Lifes Rich Pageant, R.E.M.’s fourth or so album, believed by many, including me, to be their best LP. It’s a dynamic album, with classic power pop a la “Fall on Me” and “What if We Give it away?”, along with skittish, frenetic and energetic ditties like “Hyena” and the surf-leading “Underneath the Bunker,” which features this weird, muffled vocal effect that gives the album’s innards a vital element of eccentricity. “The Flowers of Guatemala,” then, is an indescribable centerpiece, plotted with deliberate attention to chord progression and key change, and fantastical lyrics about a faraway haven.

So I put on Lifes Rich Pageant, listened to it, and then switched to Frank Zappa’s You Can’t Do That on Stage Anymore, Vol. 1, which seemed like it was on for about three hours or so. I mention this tidbit, as it were, to illustrate a point, which is that R.E.M.’s music does not exist within a vacuum. I’ve heard it said so many times that R.E.M. listeners are the most likely to commit suicide (apparently these individuals haven’t heard of Antony and the Johnsons and Xiu Xiu, which I guess would be understandable, when you think about it). Sure, it’s true that they lack “gimmick,” and that a lot of people, even in the industry, tend to hold them at arm’s length. The truth is that they’re intimidated and rightly so: this is a band that, right at their onset with the early ’80s, was already catering to a throng of devotees in the Big Apple and rubbing shoulders with “Lenny Bruce and Lester Bangs” at parties, an episode which is referenced in “It’s the End of the World as We Know it (And I Feel Fine).” Typically, when I want to wax poetic on my love for Sharon Van Etten, I verbally assemble something along the lines of “She’s operating at an ‘R.E.M.’ level of songwriting.” 

This, anyway, brings me to another point I’d meant to highlight, which is the unusual and delicate songwriting blueprint that the band R.E.M. have instituted since their origin. Basically, this strategy holds that Peter Buck will graft the ostensible nucleus of the song, musically, Mike Mills and Bill Berry [1] will fill in the blanks rhythmically [2], and then they submit the musical product to Michael Stipe, who writes the lyrics. Now, undoubtedly, there’s a process of ironing out differences, discrepancies, cravings for phrasing unorthodoxies: the songs aren’t “done,” after this process, per se, but they’ve got a pretty good skeletal system intact. It’s interesting to note, too, given the dichotomous nature of this process, that, on several tours, Stipe would actually ride in a separate van from the other members, as is noted in Michael Fletcher’s biography Perfect Circle: The Story of R.E.M. But maybe that works, like those married couples that have two separate toasters. It’s beside the point, I suppose.

Another reason why I mention this songwriting process is that, what with its kind of unflinching element of misanthropic particularity, or the benefit of separation, if you will, it would seem to be especially easy to recreate, in this day and age. We’ve seen a lot of bands emerge this decade already and put out classic albums, from Spoon, to Hum, to Jack White (bear with me), who, though not really originally a solo artist, did hold at his throne’s side a rather metronomic drummer, and one who, by the looks of it, might have been less inclined to get up on stage at a festival and try to tackle Mike Dirnt in the middle of a set. 

And, refreshingly, one thing tying common threads to all these comebacks is that the album’s they’ve produced this decade have tended to adhere staunchly and robustly to the particular band’s original, or overall, m.o. With Spoon, it’s those quick chord changes and knack for irony, Bowie funked out and a little more hurt, all the while. White’s album weaves a beautiful tapestry of Get behind Me Satan-informed gospel pop, often cheesy to its own benefit, and Hum cranked out extant grunge rock and just made the songs LONGER, hence catering perfectly to the shutdown, in the process. 

With R.E.M., I could even look at it musically, like in terms of music theory, and see that, not to say that they’ve skimped on styles or been lacking on prior albums, but that there is indeed room for musical growth. It seems like the band might have been kind of reticent to exhibit such growth in the wake of Bill Berry’s departure. And really, why shouldn’t they have been? Led Zeppelin quit completely after John Bonham’s death. The last tour Berry played on was to support New Adventures in Hi-Fi, a glorious glam-rock album which is like Monster’s nerdy little sister who, locked in her room perpetually, grew vindictively into the greatest paper mache artist of all time. All of a sudden, then, following this album, in R.E.M.’s discography, we observe a stark downturn in artistically quality, the obvious exception being Up (1998), rendered with disappointing drum machine in Berry’s absence and many of whose songs were likely penned while Berry were still in the lineup. 

R.E.M.’s comeback of Accelerate (2007) and Collapse into Now (2011) was solid but tended to adhere vociferously to power pop, lacking the ominous, expressionist and psychedelic elements present in Up and Automatic for the People. And these last two could likely play the most important parts in a potential R.E.M. comeback, in the event that they find a way to fuse the tense, on-eggshells darkness of “Drive” and “Sweetness Follows” with the pop Valhalla of “Sad Professor” and “Parakeet.” And sure, maybe “Parakeet” and “Sweetness Follows” are more similar songs than I’m willing to admit, in my own insane R.E.M. tirade — well, at least, they are very askance in production, juxtaposing the guttural, organic oboe of “Sweetness Follows” with the celestial, trippy synth bath present in “Parakeet.” I mean, I’m not asking them to rewrite “Tongue,” for Christ’s sake. But I wouldn’t complain if they did.


[1] Though he exited the band in’ 96 following a brian embollism, I wanted to shout out to Bill Berry here just out of respect and to acknowledge that he is an original member, thereby embodying a steadfast token of the band’s ideals, if you will. 


[2] I use the term “rhythmically” here just to denote that they between the two of them comprise the band’s “rhythm section,” or bass and drums, exactly. 




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