R.E.M. is a rock band formed in Athens, Georgia, in early 1980 by drummer Bill Berry, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills, and vocalist Michael Stipe. Throughout the 1980s, while signed to the independent label I.R.S. Records, they achieved a growing cult status due mainly to Stipe’s obscure lyrics and the band’s sound, most noticeably influenced by the jangly, arpeggio-driven melodies of The Byrds. The band’s politics, aesthetics, and hardworking ethos - largely inspired by the early punk and art rock of the 1970s - enabled the group to establish itself quickly as one of the pillars of the U.S.’s burgeoning alternative rock scene. By the early 1990s, R.E.M. was one of the world’s most popular, respected, and influential bands.
Their debut EP, Chronic Town (1982), illustrated R.E.M.'s signature musical style: jangling guitars, chords played in arpeggio, murmured vocals, and lyrics that avoid the standard topics of popular music - love and relationships. The sound of the initial albums was also shaped by producing duo Don Dixon and Mitch Easter. Their debut album, Murmur (1983), is held to be one of the best records of the 1980s (Number 197 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time). The album is stylistically unified; the songs blend together and share largely oblique lyrics. The jangling guitars, so prominent on Chronic Town, are used more sparingly. Mills’ bass guitar carries much of the melody, and Stipe’s lyrics are practically indecipherable, used to create a mood instead of a narrative. The dark mood is broken by three brighter, more hopeful songs, “Sitting Still”, “Shaking Through”, and the child’s anthem, “We Walk”, marked by the return of Buck’s chiming arpeggios.
R.E.M.'s second album, Reckoning (1984), explored a variety of musical styles. Song topics include cold weather, a fairy tale of brothers with magical powers, a flood, and separation. The jangling guitars and rich vocal melodies obscure rather dark lyrics. The final song, “Little America”, is written about driving through rural America (“another Greenville, another Magic Mart”), and serves as a prelude to the Southern themes on the subsequent album. The song may seem political (“The consul a horse - Jefferson I think we’re lost”); however, the song refers to the band’s former manager, Jefferson Holt, and not Thomas Jefferson or Jefferson Davis. At this stage, R.E.M. had yet to develop their signature political focus, but that would change with their next album.
Fables of the Reconstruction (1985) explores the mythology of the southern United States, but was ironically recorded in London with Joe Boyd producing. A celebration of an eccentric individual is the subject of no less than four songs on the album (“Maps and Legends”, “Life and How to Live It”, “Old Man Kensey”, “Wendell Gee"). “Driver 8” is a song about the scenery surrounding railroad tracks. (Trains are a frequent topic of Southern music; they epitomize the freedom and promise of an escape from one’s home environment). The source of the title of “Can’t Get There from Here” is a curious phrase heard when asking directions in a rural area. “Kohoutek”, their first song about a romantic relationship, compares the fizzled comet of 1973 to a fizzled romance. By the time this album was released, R.E.M. was critically acclaimed, and the video for “Can’t Get There from Here” was played frequently on MTV. R.E.M. practically defined college rock by this time.
The next album, Lifes Rich Pageant (sic) (1986), takes its name from the Inspector Clouseau movie, “A Shot in the Dark” (“You’ll catch your death of cold!” “Yes, I probably will. But that’s all part of life’s rich pageant, you know”.) The songs are more upbeat, and the tempo is faster; owed largely to collaborating with John Mellencamp producer Don Gehman. The lyrics were becoming both more intelligible and more direct, with political themes appearing more explicitly (“Begin the Begin”, “Flowers of Guatemala”, “Hyena”). “Cuyahoga” is about the river in Ohio that caught fire due to pollution and “Fall on Me” is about air pollution. The “hit” from the album, “Superman”, was a cover song that did not appear on the original album cover. In many ways, this album marked the end of the first period in the band’s history.
Document (1987) was their last album for the independent record label I.R.S., and provided their first major hit with “The One I Love”, which reached number nine on the American pop charts. The song expresses a grim satisfaction over the end of an unhappy relationship, but was widely misinterpreted as a love song. “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)” recalls the rapid-fire lyrical style of Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and can be described as pre-apocalyptic. The band reached new heights as a commercially viable group and established a decade-long association with so-called “sixth R.E.M.”, producer Scott Litt.
Dead Letter Office (1987) was a collection of b-sides and outtakes. The collection includes three Velvet Underground covers (“Pale Blue Eyes”, “Femme Fatale”, and “There She Goes Again”, which was narrowly left off of Murmur), an Aerosmith cover (“Toys in the Attic”), a non-commissioned commercial for a barbecue restaurant in Athens, and a boozy version of “King of the Road”. (The Dead Letter Office CD includes Chronic Town). The album is described in the liner notes as “a little bit of uh-huh and a whole lot of oh-yeah”. The band’s early years are summarized in the compilation Eponymous, released in 1988. The overview contains alternative versions and mixes of “Radio Free Europe”, “Gardening at Night”, and “Finest Worksong”.
In 1988, R.E.M. signed to the major label Warner Brothers and released Green. This was the band’s first time with heavy promotion, and they toured stadiums across the world extensively in 1989. Some fans from the I.R.S. days complained that R.E.M. had become too commercial and that the quality of the music had decreased, but the band had now been brought to international attention, with radio hits like “Stand” and continued their political interest with the anti-war anthem “Orange Crush”. In 1990, a mid-80's side project between Berry, Buck, Mills, and Warren Zevon, The Hindu Love Gods, had a record of blues covers released by Giant Records without the R.E.M. members’ consent or participation.
Their next records, Out of Time (1991) and Automatic for the People (1992), were both international hits, despite the fact that R.E.M. did not tour for either album. These two critically acclaimed albums featured hit singles including “Losing My Religion”, “Shiny Happy People”, “Everybody Hurts”, “Man on the Moon”, “Nightswimming”, and “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite”. The videos for “Losing My Religion” and “Everybody Hurts” received heavy rotation on MTV, and have been revered as pinnacles in music videos since. Out of Time also includes emotional, contemplative tracks such as “Belong”, “Half a World Away”, and “Country Feedback”. On Automatic, the band developed a reserved, meditative sound that took them back to their roots, and the record’s fifteen million copies were sold in spite of such melancholy themes as death, suicide, and sexual jealousy.
The band’s 1994 release, the grunge-influenced Monster, including “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”, proved to be a crossover hit and their best selling album to date, though many critics disliked the band’s foray into glam rock. The album was followed by a massive tour during which drummer Bill Berry suffered a brain hemorrhage on stage and Michael Stipe had to undergo an operation.
While on this tour the band recorded the album New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996), a long, roughly-produced and decidedly bleak record which featured, in the seven-minute “Leave”, perhaps the band’s most intense song. It was well-received by critics and fans alike, yet failed to achieve the heights of the previous three records. Other notable tracks on that record include “E-Bow the Letter” (a collaboration with the legendary Patti Smith) and the western-themed rock of “Low Desert”. The band re-signed with Warner Brothers in 1996 for the (at the time) largest recording contract advance in history: $80 million for five albums.
Bill Berry departed on October 30, 1997, his only explanation that he simply didn’t want to be a rock star anymore and has since been a farmer. With him R.E.M. parted ways with their decade-long producer Scott Litt. The following year the band returned with the Krautrock-influenced Up (1998), another long and reflective record, with the lead single “Daysleeper”. R.E.M. commissioned Patrick “Pat” McCarthy for this lush production, who remains on the production stool ever since. Many tracks contained drum machines, and Peter Buck played little guitar. Their record sales in the United States were down considerably, though in Europe they stayed popular.
Released in 2001, Reveal confirmed the return to an even mellower songwriting approach, with songs, such as “Imitation of Life”, “All the Way to Reno (You’re Gonna Be a Star)”, and “She Just Wants to Be”. Garnering only mixed reviews in the U.S.A., the album was critically feted in Britain, receiving generous praise from many popular music magazines including Uncut, Wired, NME and Q. Recent R.E.M. soundtrack appearances have found them revisiting some of their earliest material, hitherto available only on live bootlegs; their single, “Bad Day” (2003), was the prototype for “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”, with some of the same lyrics, and “All the Right Friends” was written in 1980, but featured on the soundtrack to “Vanilla Sky” in 2001.
In 2004, the band returned with Around the Sun, which once again met with mild critical praise. For this record, as well as for the following tour, they hired a new full-time session and tour drummer Bill Rieflin: “Peter brought him in,” says Stipe. “He thought he could pull us in a different direction, and Rieflin really responds to the singer, which is great.” Singles from this album include “Leaving “New York”, “Aftermath”, “Electron Blue" (which has been heavily played in Britain), and “Wanderlust”. R.E.M.'s Around the Sun World Tour is the first world tour since the infamous “Monster” Tour (1995), during which R.E.M. needed to suspend shows because of Mike Mills’ intestinal adhesions from prior surgery, Bill Berry’s brain aneurysm, and Michael Stipe’s hernia operation.
Accelerate (2008), the first studio album in four years from R.E.M., finds modern rock's most acclaimed band returning to the stripped-down, guitar-driven power that first enraptured fans. The album puts the group firmly behind the wheel of alternative rock, a genre R.E.M. helped invent.
From the first listen, Collapse Into Now (2011) comes scorching from the hi-fi with a blistering freshness that seriously belies the fact that this is the band’s fifteenth outing.
It also reveals a sudden, clearheaded clarity about who they are and what they do, evident in the way the album scours the band’s past for its finest moments and re-works them to great effect.
Opener Discoverer kicks things off with the same glacial block of guitar noise that illuminated “Finest Worksong” (1987), while closing track, “Blue”, is an impossibly beautiful hybrid of “Country Feedback” (1991) and “E-Bow The Letter” (1996), complete with punk goddess Patti Smith on some rather sublime guest vocals.
Expertly produced by Jacknife Lee, Collapse Into Now’s sound is fresh and vigorous, shorn of the sometimes over-lush gloss of recent albums, replacing it with a thrusting, punchy presence that combines all the sonic textures of their best work with a new and successful determination to make Collapse Into Now sound fresh, vital and uniquely itself.