R.E.M.’s incredible non-shrinking legacy

R.E.M.’s incredible non-shrinking legacy

In 2007, on the same day that R.E.M. was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, I wrote a blog post for The A.V. Club entitled “R.E.M.’s Incredible Shrinking Legacy.” In it, I made the following claims about one of the most beloved American rock bands of the last 30 years: 

1) R.E.M. should’ve broken up after the departure of founding drummer Bill Berry in 1997.

2) By not breaking up, R.E.M. not only missed out on having a graceful exit, it was also actively hurting its legacy by making a series of underwhelming albums in Berry’s absence.

3) R.E.M.’s slow fade in the twilight of its career had made plain previously overlooked weaknesses of its “classic” period albums, which maybe weren’t as good as we all thought at the time.

Perhaps more than anything else I’ve written in my four and a half years with The A.V. Club, “R.E.M.’s Incredible Shrinking Legacy” left an indelible impression on readers. And by “indelible,” I mean “negative.” Very negative. Countless pieces with my byline have come and gone, but this particular essay has followed me around like an especially unseemly sex scandal. From time to time, whenever commenters wanted to cite an example of my writing that proved incontrovertibly that I was a buffoon, “R.E.M.’s Incredible Shrinking Legacy” was what they pointed to. But that was nothing compared with my colleagues at The A.V. Club, many of whom (like me) had spent their formative years listening to R.E.M. For them, it was like I had paged through their yearbooks and pointed out how every pretty girl they grew up worshipping was actually not nearly as attractive as they remembered. For many people, knocking R.E.M. (especially old R.E.M.) isn’t mere music criticism, it’s full-scale assault on the most vulnerable parts of their pasts. But even if my bosses thought I was a fool, at least they didn’t try to stop me from being publicly foolish. As my boss Keith Phipps put it in the comments section, “I disagree with just about everything in this post. (But I let you post it anyway since I’m a nice editor.)”

Looking back, there are parts of “R.E.M.’s Incredible Shrinking Legacy” that even I don’t even agree with anymore—namely, anything to do with claim No. 3. In my defense, I knew at the time that I was having an emotional outburst, not making a well-reasoned argument. I was an R.E.M. fan that had grown hungry and cranky after going more than a decade without having my fandom nourished by new music worth caring about. All I had left was the music I grew up with, and it didn’t sound fresh to me anymore. So, I lashed out, and in the process of burning my T-shirts and tearing my posters off the wall, I might’ve made a few rash statements. 

The time has come to correct the record, so here goes: From the early ’80s to the mid-’90s, few bands were as consistently great as R.E.M. In the process, R.E.M. invented a new kind of rock group—underground but accessible, indie but not beholden to any particular scene or genre, and “cool” without having any of the trappings normally associated with rock-star coolness. For many of us, the R.E.M. template still defines what a rock band is supposed to be. And nothing is ever going to take that away from them. Okay?

Now that I have that monkey off my back, let’s address the parts of “R.E.M.’s Incredible Shrinking Legacy” that still seem true, which are claims No. 1 and 2. Even after 2008’s “comeback” record Accelerate and the new Collapse Into Now (which to my ears is R.E.M.’s real comeback record, though it’s not a full return to form), R.E.M.’s piece of rock history real estate is still much smaller now than it was at the band’s commercial and critical peak in the early ’90s. R.E.M. might be respected, but Collapse Into Now isn’t an event like R.E.M. records once were, and it’s certainly not a lock for year-end best-of lists, now that there’s a new generation of music writers that was born around the time Lifes Rich Pageant was released. 

In some ways, R.E.M.’s scaled-down stature suits it, since the band’s most likeable guise remains that of the scrappy, hard-working indie group of its first five records. It could be argued that R.E.M. has gone back to those roots, both in terms of its audience size and the sound of its albums, which have consciously revived the aggressiveness of the band’s early live shows on Accelerate and the arena-leaning folk-rock of its Document/Green period on Collapse Into Now. And now that Collapse Into Now completes the band’s mammoth, circa mid-’90s contract with Warner Bros., R.E.M. is set to become literally independent as a business entity. 

But does taking on the trappings of the past translate to R.E.M. returning to past glories? The members of R.E.M. would like to think so. In Rolling Stone, Peter Buck claimed (as he’s wont to do when promoting a new record) that Collapse Into Now is the best thing R.E.M. has ever done, while Mills was slightly more conservative, saying it’s the band’s best since 1991’s Out Of Time. You probably don’t need me to tell you that these statements aren’t even close to being true. If they were, Collapse Into Now would already be a favorite for album of the year, since it would be better than ’92’s epochal Automatic For The People and maybe my favorite R.E.M. record, ’96’s New Adventures In Hi-Fi

I’ll say this for Collapse Into Now: It has “Discoverer,” the first R.E.M. song I’ve really loved in 15 years. The live-in-the-studio feel of the music and “hey baby”-isms in the lyrics remind me a bit of New Adventures In Hi-Fi; the difference is that New Adventures is a bracingly honest and moving depiction of an exhausted band limping bravely through the final stage of its original incarnation, while “Discoverer” introduces an album that’s trying (successfully at times) to make you forget that all ever happened. 

Another interesting comparison for Collapse Into Now is to Majesty Shredding, the fine album by Superchunk released to great acclaim in 2010. Like R.E.M., Superchunk is a consistently great indie-rock institution that many fans had grown bored with by the time of 2001’s Here’s To Shutting Up. Superchunk responded by taking a nine-year vacation, finally returning last year with a record that sounded exactly like all the records that had lulled its audience into a quality-induced coma in the ’90s. Only this time people (rightly) loved it. If R.E.M. had done something similar after New Adventures—a record that positively screamed for R.E.M.’s need to take an extended mental-health break—following up with Collapse Into Now would at least seem a lot more vital. 

As it is, R.E.M. has conformed to a more standard trajectory for an aging rock band. Where R.E.M. once tried to push its music in new directions with each new release, Collapse Into Now works best when it most recalls the band’s classic sound. By that standard, I think it works pretty well, though Collapse Into Now ultimately isn’t even the best throwback R.E.M. record of 2011. That distinction belongs to The DecemberistsThe King Is Dead, a record that is every bit as jangly, arch, obscure, and gorgeous as your most treasured R.E.M. mixtape. (Peter Buck even plays guitar like how you want Peter Buck to play guitar—nodding to the Byrds instead of Nirvana—as a guest musician on “Don’t Carry It All,” “Calamity Song,” and “Down By The Water,” more so than at any point on Collapse Into Now.

If you’re like how I was and worn out from listening to your classic R.E.M. records, The King Is Dead probably is a better palate cleanser than Collapse Into Now. If you’ve never heard an R.E.M. record, The King Is Dead is more likely to get you excited about checking out the band’s back catalog. And it’s not just The Decemberists. An emerging crop of young bands has refreshed the R.E.M. sound by filtering it through their own sensibilities. You can hear the beautiful pastoral folkiness of Murmur in Woodsist label bands like Real Estate and Woods, the feisty guitar-pop of Reckoning in the hopped-up surf-inflected tunes of fine L.A. four-piece The Soft Pack, and the gothic dreaminess of Fables Of The Reconstruction in Athens outfit Futurebirds. Then there’s The National, practically R.E.M.’s handpicked successor, which doesn’t so much sound like R.E.M. as embody all the intangible qualities—integrity, caginess, and a good mix of seriousness (of purpose) and humor (about themselves), to name three big ones—R.E.M. exhibited in its best days.

Hearing these bands makes me excited about listening to R.E.M. again, which brings me to a strange but true realization: If R.E.M.’s legacy is no longer shrinking, it’s because it no longer belongs to R.E.M.

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