March Through Time: R.E.M.

I grew up in Atlanta, so R.E.M. was considered a local band (Athens is just over an hour’s drive). One didn’t even have to be particularly hip or plugged into the music scene to know about them, and I’m not claiming any particular inside knowledge on that score. They were just a really good, unusual band that played a lot locally. When they made their first big jump in popularity with Fables of the Reconstruction, they organized an impromptu free concert at Legion Field on the campus of University of Georgia, ostensibly to test out their brand-new sound rig. My friends and I road-tripped to the show. The date was April 22, 1985. I recall that Michael Stipe performed nearly the entire set with his back to the audience. Still, great show. It’s a hopelessly cliché thing to say that you dug a particular band when they were unknown and lost interest after they made it big, but to some extent that’s my history with R.E.M. Only now am I working my way through their later material – which is better than I remember – so I don’t have much to say about it.

  • Chronic Town (1982) – While Peter Buck’s jangling Rickenbacker rooted R.E.M.’s sound in the Byrdsian ‘60s, for the most part, this debut EP didn’t sound like anything I had heard before. “1,000,000” is a standout, but the whole thing is essential.
  • Murmur (1983) – Building on the EP with an album’s worth of good songs, credit is due also to the superb production team of Mitch Easter and Don Dixon. This record sounds as fresh and exciting today as it did 40-plus years ago. A must-have.
  • Reckoning (1984) – The debut EP, Murmur and this record are of a piece. The songs are even better, Easter/Dixon worked their magic again, and we could even make out some of the words. “(Don’t go Back to) Rockville” is a personal favorite. This album looms large in my life; I named my daughter after the last song on Side One.
  • Fables of the Reconstruction (1985) – We thought of this as R.E.M.’s “psychedelic” album. Weirder song structures, weirder arrangements and two spectacularly great songs in “Driver 8” and “Can’t Get There from Here.” Horns on an R.E.M. song? Unexpected. Perhaps the group’s most literate effort.
  • Lifes Rich Pageant (1986) – The production on this album was jarring to longtime fans like myself; it felt too mainstream by half. But some of the best songs of the band’s career made it irresistible.
  • Dead Letter Office (1987) – R.E.M.’s Odds and Sods. Quirky in the extreme, it was a refreshing revelation of the group’s playful, experimental side. And covers can reveal a lot about a band’s influences; the Aerosmith cover here surprised some fans.
  • Document (1987) – At the time, I couldn’t help feeling that this record was a shameless bid for widespread acceptance. That disappointment wore off soon enough thanks — again — to excellent songs. And to be fair, the strangeness that defined all of the band’s music was still there; you just had to dig a bit deeper to find it.
  • Green (1988) – The move to Warner Brothers brought with it accusations of selling out. Even more mainstream than Document, it’s a very good album but was somehow harder to like than previous efforts.
  • Out of Time (1991) – Everything suddenly changed with this one. The most commercial-sounding R.E.M. album to date, it was so damn good that accusations of “sellout” didn’t, couldn’t have any weight. I was working in London when this album was released, and was tickled to hear my hometown heroes’ music being played everywhere I went. A mature album that built on the group’s sound in new and interesting ways, it’s easily their best since the first three.
  • Automatic for the People (1992) – Leaving their indie character completely behind, R.E.M. became an arena rock band. They weren’t afraid to craft non-rocking songs with all manner of intricate arrangement details. It’s a dark and moody album, though.
  • Monster (1994) – I’ll admit that it’s not an original perspective, but I actively disliked this album on its release. Part of that was that it wasn’t easily found on vinyl. But more significant was that it felt in places like a conventional hard rock album, the kind of thing that any mainstream band could have cranked out.

UPDATE 2024: I’ve since received vinyl reissues of some late-period R.E.M. albums, listened to them (in most cases for the first time) and discovered musical riches therein. What follows are links to my reviews of those releases.

(And there’s also my 2018 review of The Best of R.E.M. at the BBC.)

With a young family at home and a conventional office-based business career, I found myself less engaged in what R.E.M. was up to in the years that followed. My tastes diverged with their sound, and I spent time with music that moved me more, like Matthew Sweet, Ben Folds Five, Jellyfish and Radiohead. None of which should suggest I didn’t like R.E.M.’s music of that era; I simply didn’t hear it. Not long ago I found a used copy of Accelerate (2008) and quite enjoyed it; the album didn’t remind me of the Chronic Town era band I fell in love with, but it’s a solid, enjoyable record. I’m told it’s better than the previous three or four albums I pretty much had ignored.

Well worth seeking out: We Are Having a Heavenly Time is a bootleg LP – quite possibly sourced from a tape made by my friend Fred Mills (no relation) – that captures the band firing on all cylinders at a 1984 live date in Durham. The much more recent R.E.M. at the BBC has some great moments, but there’s some less compelling material in there as well.