“When we made the announcement, all three of us were in very different places, literally, but we all had dinners with dear friends or family or both, and I could see us three raising a glass that same night, but just not with each other, which is kind of interesting.” —Mike Mills, on R.E.M.’s break-up, in an interview with The A.V. Club
When I interviewed Mike Mills shortly after R.E.M.’s break-up last year, the most poignant moment for me was when he described the distance between the band members as the announcement was being made. The image of Mills, Peter Buck, and Michael Stipe toasting each other from far-flung corners of the country made me a little sad, though I guess it would’ve been weirder if three guys who hung out extensively in their 20s and 30s were still attached at the hip in their 50s. R.E.M. stopped being a band in 2011, but the members had slipped out of the pretzel logic of a working rock group long before that.
Rock-group logic dictates that you suspend every other part of your life in order to drive around the country for an endless series of one-night stands that pay little or no money, on the very unlikely chance that you might one day fly around the country for a tour of concerts that pay large sums of money. And you’ll do this with the three or four people that you were close with when you were young, and you’ll hang out with those people for years and even decades afterward.
This violates regular-person logic: Regular people eventually find a set place to live, get a job, and cycle through new groups of friends as they move through different stages of their lives. By the end of R.E.M., Mills, Buck, and Stipe had more or less become regular people, and while they insisted their friendship was still solid, the nature of their partnership in the band had obviously, inevitably, and irrevocably changed.
The members of R.E.M. had been living separate lives for a while, starting with Buck’s decision to leave Athens for Seattle in the early ’90s. In a 2008 Spin story, Mills admitted he was “pissed” when Buck left town, because it meant their relationship would revolve almost entirely around business from now on. “As you grow older, you’re going to grow apart,” Mills told Spin writer Michael Azerrad. “But it means you have to adapt to that—that old way of working together might not work anymore. What’s more important, getting my way and making sure my feelings don’t get hurt, or making music with one of the best bands of all time?”
The degree to which this lack of physical proximity impacted the band’s music is debatable. The band splitting up into their own separate pockets coincided with R.E.M.’s creative downturn—the band put out eight LPs, all classics, in its first 10 years, and seven lesser studio efforts in the next 20—as well as the band’s steep decline in record sales and overall popularity. But so did R.E.M. getting older, getting rich, and not working as much.
With the exception of Buck, who was pushing for R.E.M. to keep on putting out new records every year right up until the end, R.E.M. willingly fell into a familiar trajectory for successful bands, gradually allowing themselves to let music fall down the list of personal priorities. But the failure of Around The Sun both commercially (it was the worst-selling R.E.M. album in years) and critically (it is the least-loved R.E.M. record by a mile) gave the band’s next project a sense of urgency that would carry R.E.M. through its final years.
When Buck summoned Mills to Seattle to work on demos for what became 2008’s Accelerate, the mission was strange but absolutely vital to rehabbing the band’s sagging reputation: R.E.M. needed to sound like R.E.M. again. Buck chafed under the slow, laborious working conditions of the band’s previous three records, and wanted to get back to recording on the fly. Together, Buck and Mills worked on demos that consciously ditched the fussiness of Reveal and Around The Sun in favor of tossed-off rock songs designed to explode on immediate impact. This was to be a simple guitar-bass-drums record, with R.E.M. as averse to extraneous coloring as it had been on Murmur.
Stipe felt more connected to the layered, ballad-heavy sound of the dour “post-Berry” trilogy, but in deference to his bandmates, “I ignored my instincts and went toward the faster stuff,” he told Spin. Stipe also was pushed to write lyrics quickly, rather than dither over his word choices, as was his custom. “I work really well under pressure,” he said. “And the guys know that all too well. So the pace forced me to kind of spit stuff out.”
Before the recording sessions for Accelerate commenced, R.E.M. traveled to Dublin to road test the material during a five-night stand at the 1,500-seat Olympia Theatre. Working out new songs in a live setting used to be standard practice for R.E.M., but the band’s songwriting process had become cloistered in recording studios as its tour schedule slowed. Later compiled in 2009 as the fine live record Live At The Olympia, these shows scattered new songs amidst a deep survey of greatest hits and beloved deep cuts. Along with giving the fresh material a public airing, the concerts were clearly intended to be confidence-builders for the band, reconnecting R.E.M. with its old way of doing things.
Accelerate is not a great R.E.M. album, but it seemed more like a “real” R.E.M. album than anything the band had done in years, and subsequently was greeted like an old friend. Rather than a full return to its iconic ’80s sound, Accelerate is like a belated sequel to New Adventures In Hi-Fi—a record R.E.M. might’ve made if it had waited a few years after Bill Berry’s departure rather than hurry back to the studio in the middle of a deep emotional funk.
Which is not to say that Accelerate is as powerful as the record R.E.M. did make at the time, 1998’s Up, or any other R.E.M. album from the ’80s or ’90s. Accelerate is the tradition of the Rolling Stones’ Voodoo Lounge, U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind, and Bruce Springsteen’s Magic: a safe, reliable distillation of an aging superstar act’s well-established strengths, a sort-of greatest-hits record made up of new songs repackaging old ideas. The days when fans and critics expected R.E.M. to experiment were long gone. Now people just wanted an album they could actually enjoy playing.
On that level, Accelerate totally works. The opening salvo of “Living Well Is The Best Revenge,” “Man-Sized Wreath,” and “Supernatural Superserious” is particularly effective, forcibly introducing the record as a return to the melodic guitar crunch, driving rhythms, and “hey, baby!” vocal stylings of a decade earlier. After that, Accelerate loses some of its momentum for me. The spirit is there, and it’s certainly more fun than the formless wandering of Around The Sun. But around the time of “Horse To Water” and “I’m Gonna DJ,” R.E.M.’s renewed energy stops compensating for the shoddy craftsmanship of the filler tracks. (Stipe’s lyrics are especially forgettable.)
The exception is “Until The Day Is Done,” a guitar jangler in the classic R.E.M. mold that looms like a mysterious oasis in the record’s mushy second half. Marrying a fully engaged Stipe lyric referencing the ravaged political landscape of the late ’00s to evocative music that recalls the sweeping Ennio Morricone-inspired “Drive” from Automatic For The People, “Until The Day Is Done” sounds like R.E.M. finally reaching the end of the world, and trying to make sense of how it got there. Gorgeous and cinematic, “Until The Day Is Done” is the last truly great R.E.M. song.
While Accelerate was the most enthusiastically received R.E.M. record in years—it even debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard albums chart—it did not reverse the ongoing trend of R.E.M.’s shrinking prominence in the rock landscape. Unlike All That You Can’t Leave Behind, it didn’t spin off an enormous hit single like “Beautiful Day” that might’ve given the back half of R.E.M.’s career fresh legs. Not that R.E.M. was necessarily looking for that. Buck claimed to Spin that the band “laughed” about its declining record sales. “We’ve sold 50 million records,” he said. “We don’t have anything to prove in that regard.”
Which is true, though for someone like Bono, with his talk of “re-applying for the job [of] best band in the world” in the early ’00s, this would not have been acceptable. He drove U2 to even greater commercial success in the ’00s, making more money than ever before on the road, even as the band’s records became less culturally important. In contrast, R.E.M.’s goal with Accelerate seems to have been less about mounting a major career comeback, and more about simply getting people to appreciate R.E.M. again. With that goal accomplished, the band’s gaze turned toward its future.
In my interview and others, Mills hinted that the expiration of R.E.M.’s lucrative contract with Warner Bros.—the one the band signed at the peak of its commercial powers, right before the ’90s alt-rock bubble burst—was partly what prompted the initial discussion to end the band three years earlier, during the Accelerate tour. In retrospect, 2011’s Collapse Into Now seems like a thunderously obvious endpoint. (As Mills relished pointing out to journalists, Stipe is even waving goodbye on the cover, the first and last album emblazoned with a photo of the band.) But when Collapse Into Now was released, there was a nary any speculation in the media about R.E.M.’s possible demise. Accelerate seemed to herald a new beginning: For the first time in a long while, people seemed to want R.E.M. to stay together.
Collapse Into Now isn’t exactly Abbey Road as far as telegraphing the band’s intentions to split up. But there are some fairly plainspoken sentiments in the lyrics, most obviously in “All The Best,” when Stipe drolly notes, “It’s just like me to overstate my welcome.” Other than that, there’s no apparent deeper meaning to the likes of “Mine Smell Like Honey,” “Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter,” and “Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando, And I” other than being thoroughly uninspired R.E.M. tracks.
Collapse Into Now ended up selling even less than Around The Sun, but it was generally considered a solid effort that, along with Accelerate, had righted R.E.M.’s course in a more respectable direction. But when R.E.M. broke the news of its disbandment in September, the outpouring of affection for the band concentrated, not surprisingly, on its ’80s and ’90s work. Those who speculated that R.E.M.’s decision to stay together after Berry left would damage its legacy—which, it should be noted, included me—were mostly wrong. As fans do all the time, they merely blocked out in their minds anything that happened after they checked out with R.E.M., remembering only the parts that meant something to them.
I asked Mills whether he felt R.E.M. was underappreciated in its later years, which seemed to be the case now that people were coming out of the woodwork to talk about much they used to love the band’s music. “It’s not something I would have dwelt on, but of course it happens,” he said. “Any time you stick around for that long, people just assume you’re going to be around forever. But I never lost any sleep over that, because people are people and they do what people do.”
Mills was also pretty matter-of-fact about his own feelings about the band’s break-up. There was some sadness, of course, and uncertainty about his future. But he was definitive about this being the end. “We put a lot of thought into this, and we realized that we’ve accomplished pretty much everything we could hope to accomplish,” he said. “We’re going out on a high note—I think we just made two of our best records, and we’re going to walk away on our own terms as friends, with no negativity involved. It just seems like the right thing to do.”
I’m sure, in private moments with friends and family, Mills was more emotional about the end of R.E.M. But publicly, the members acted like the heads of a major corporation dispassionately issuing a press release. It was fitting, because that’s exactly what R.E.M. had become: a company. R.E.M. was no mere hobby or labor of love. It was a livelihood that depended on professionals acting in a businesslike manner. And the break-up announcement was nothing if not businesslike.
At the start of A Perfect Circle, I wondered why R.E.M. meant so much to me. It was a question about the nature of fandom itself: What causes us to relate so personally to monolithic institutions, an act of anthropomorphism that fools us into treating things as confidants and companions? Cynically, my love of R.E.M. can be likened to finding a spiritual connection with a can of Coke or a set of tires. Records are just mass-produced objects; songs are mere stimuli that distract and enliven the brain for a few minutes before disappearing into the ether. The significance of these things exists only in your brain. That millions of other people happen to share roughly the same experience does not mean we’re not all deluding ourselves.
I feel like this is probably true, but it’s a rational explanation of an inherently irrational phenomenon, and therefore meaningless. For fans, R.E.M. breaking up was like finding out that the color green no longer existed. The world can exist without the color green. But only when green is gone does it suddenly become noticeable in its absence. And then you realize that the fabric of your life is composed of countless little threads that you can’t see, but have come to depend on always being there. R.E.M. was a thread connecting me to past lives I’ve long since lost. I can live fine without that thread. But I’ll always miss it.