Monday, October 3, 2011

Thank you, R.E.M. (but not for everything)

I can't spend any more time editing this. So here it is, with all of its flaws. 

I've been thinking about R.E.M. since they broke up recently. I feel sad, even though I haven't really paid attention to them in almost twenty years. Here are my thoughts about R.E.M.'s music. They're not really very sophisticated or well argued-for.

I rank the R.E.M. albums I have listened to in the following order, from most to least favorite:
  1. Murmur
  2. Out of Time
  3. Fables of the Reconstruction
  4. Chronic Town
  5. Green and Lifes Rich Pageant (tie)
  6. Reckoning
  7. Document
  8. Automatic for the People 

    The first two on the list, Murmer and Out of Time, are near-perfect wholes, and a best-of anthology that omitted any of the songs from either of them would be incomplete. As my wife put it, Out of Time is magical, and I would say the same about Murmer. I was alive when Murmer was released in 1983, and I remember listening to it for the first time with my best friend at the time and marveling at its greatness. I don't think the album has a single weakness. I have met people who dislike jangle pop, but anyone who takes the time to listen cannot deny that Murmer is a classic in the genre. Most people who have heard R.E.M. have probably heard "Radio Free Europe," which is a very good song indeed. But every song on Murmer is well-written and played. "Perfect Circle" is one of the most beautiful songs I've ever heard:



    So if you haven't heard Murmer, do yourself a favor and buy it or stream it on Grooveshark.


    Out of Time, released in 1991, is a very different record. This is evident from the very beginning: the first song, "Radio Song," features the vocals of rapper KRS-One. By this time, R.E.M.'s sound had become more varied: different vocalists and instruments were making appearances on their songs. Every song on Out of Time is brilliantly written and executed, and they all somehow form a coherent whole. (Rolling Stone's negative review of the record is, in a word, idiotic.) "Losing My Religion" is one of those rare hit songs that is genuinely great. "Shiny Happy People" is perhaps the weakest song on the album and sounds like the kind of song that could grow annoying (and I have no doubt that it has for many people), but it never has for me. Because the album is more or less uniformly excellent, it's difficult to pick one song from the album to post here. "Low," however, is perhaps less well known than other songs on the album and represents the emotional thrust of the album well:



    Third on the list is Fables of the Reconstruction (or Reconstruction of the Fables, depending on how you read it).


    Released in 1985, Fables may not be in quite the same category as Murmer and Out of Time, but it is significantly better than the next best album, in my opinion. When it first came out, I think that the songwriting struck me as being odd and it had to grow on me. Maybe it was all of those minor keys. "Feeling Gravitys Pull" doesn't sound quite like anything on their previous records:



    But grow on me it did: the songs are truly great and they hang together quite well. "Wendell Gee" is one of my favorite R.E.M. songs of all time (pardon the inferior sound quality):

    video

    If I had to pick my favorite R.E.M. songs from the remaining albums, they would be the following, in no particular order:
    • "Wolves, Lower"
    • "Gardening at Night"
    • "Stumble"
    • "Get Up"
    • "World Leader Pretend"
    • "The Wrong Child"
    • "Begin the Begin"
    • "These Days"
    • "Fall On Me"
    • "Superman" 
    • "7 chineSe bros."
    • "Time After Time (annElise)"
    • "Finest Worksong"
    • "Fireplace"
    • "Nightswimming"
    Of all of these, my favorite is probably "World Leader Pretend":



    Document never did much for me. (Though I like it a little better now than I used to.) "Oddfellows Local 151" is, I think, the first throwaway track R.E.M. ever recorded. And I have really tried to love the weirdly subdued Automatic for the People, and it just hasn't worked. There are half a dozen good songs on the entire album at most. (And no, "Everybody Hurts" isn't one of them.) Perhaps the songs seem lackluster because they just don't measure up to R.E.M.'s best material. I'm not sure. (Incredibly, Rolling Stone rates Automatic for the People as the 247th greatest album of all time, ahead of David Bowie's Low, Jesus and Mary Chain's Psychocandy, The Cars, Talking Heads' 77, Simon and Garfunkel's Greatest Hits, Frank Zappa's We're Only In It For the Money, The Pixies' Surfer Rosa, Jethro Tull's Aqualung, and The Doors' L.A. Woman, to name a few.)

    I heard the follow-up Monster in the local Hastings soon after it was released, and I hated it. With the exception of "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" it was just awful. After that, I wrote them off. I listened to at least part of New Adventures in Hi-Fi when it came out; I liked "Leave," but that was about it. A friend of mine tried to turn me on to Up when it came out, but it did nothing for me. And that was the last I had heard from them (due to my own lack of curiosity) until they disbanded. So I'm not sure why I'm sad now, since I've been missing them, or at least the good music they were once capable of making, for some time. For the great music you made, however, I thank you, R.E.M.

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