"On the scale of human accomplishments, turning out a classic album ought to rank up there with climbing Mount Everest. Stoned. With one leg. And no oxygen. Given the infinite potential for obnoxious excess within the Rock genre, it's no small feat to assemble an album that's so well phrased, so deftly stated, that its impact extends far beyond the realm of the audible. Turn out two or more such albums and you're headed for legendary status. Turn out five or six and you're R.E.M."
-Matt LeMay; May 14, 2001 (for Pitchfork.com)
The above excerpt, which introduced a review for the 2001 record Reveal, has always been one of the first things I think of whenever I hear an R.E.M. song. The band, which consisted of frontman Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry (who left over a decade ago after he had a brain aneurysm during a show and collapsed onstage), announced that they were calling it quits today, writing on their website, "We walk away with a sense of gratitude, of finality, and of astonishment at all we have accomplished." The band have been a prevalent force in the music industry for over three decades, have released 15 albums, many of them considered classics, and almost single-handedly created indie and alternative rock.
I can't really remember the first time R.E.M. resonated for me in a personal way. I remember hearing the slew of hits from their 1992 masterwork Automatic For The People pretty much all throughout my childhood, as well as laughing a few times at the video for "Shiny Happy People," but I think the first time R.E.M. really pinged my radar was when they released their "best-of" (well, there have been a few of those...) entitled In Time: The Best of R.E.M.: 1988-2003. Back then I remember thinking that this band sounded vaguely like the Counting Crows (which they really don't at all), and enjoying songs like "Man on the Moon" and "Losing My Religion" on a purely nostalgic level, but very little of the music on that collection really hit me. My first full length R.E.M. album was Around the Sun, which I got for Christmas in 2004 alongside U2's How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, and which was the second album I ever put on my iPod. I really liked Around the Sun a lot, and I still do, even though most R.E.M. fans tend to rank that one at the bottom of their discography. I still don't quite understand that, since I love pretty much every song on that record, and a few, like lead-single "Leaving New York," the heartbreaking "Make It All Okay" or the sweeping title track, are probably still among my favorite R.E.M. songs, but at the time I had no point of reference for the band (and wouldn't really gain one for another six years or so).
It wasn't really until this past winter that I started delving deeper into their catalog, and when I did, I was a bit overwhelmed. R.E.M., I believe, hasn't made a single "bad" or even "mediocre" album. This is a band that makes masterpieces, great albums and good albums, but they rarely dip in quality below that, which means I suddenly had roughly 20 albums worth of material to dig through. In the R.E.M. catalog, depending on who you ask, Murmur, Reckoning, Fables of the Reconstruction, Life's Rich Pageant, Document, Green, Out of Time, Automatic For The People, and New Adventures In Hi-Fi are all essential listening, while you're bound to find a fan who will extoll the virtues of something like Monster (which Stipe described, back in the day, as the band's "big, dumb rock album") or wax poetic about the gorgeous pop of Up, rave about the comeback record that was 2008's Accelerate, or explain to you why Around the Sun is actually a great record (well, I suppose I'm that one). Most Springsteen fans will tell you his best album is Born to Run, most U2 fans will pull out The Joshua Tree or Achtung Baby, hell, even most Beatles fans would rally around one of five records, but every R.E.M. fan seems to have a different answer to that question. It's because R.E.M. have been such a consistent band, have made so many great records and so many different kinds of great records; because they have changed their sound around half a dozen times and gone in so many different sonic directions over the years, while almost always remaining true to what made them special in the first place. In a way, I think that's also why they decided to call it quits.
It seems like it's impossible for a band that has been around for a long time to live up to their own high standards. You stick around for long enough, your records become classics, and no matter how good your latest project is, it's impossible for it to live up to the albums that made people fall in love with you in the first place. Perhaps it's that the artists in question really are running out of ideas. Maybe they don't have another masterpiece in the them, but even if they did, would we recognize it as such? It's as much our problem as it is the band's. We forge personal connections to things, and they become something immortal in our minds, something that cannot be replicated or toppled by anything, least of all the artist that created it in the first place. In the break-up announcement, Michael Stipe wrote: "A wise man once said--'the skill in attending a party is knowing when it's time to leave.' We built something extraordinary together. We did this thing. And now we're going to walk away from it." They made a slew of great albums, they set a bar that they could no longer reach (at least in the eyes of the vast majority of listeners, and probably their own), and they didn't want to be the kind of band who overstayed their welcome. Like he said, they built something they can really be proud of, and now, they can walk away from it. Their legacy is one of the greatest of any band in the history of music.
It's perhaps appropriate that the band goes out with an album titled Collapse Into Now (released earlier this year), and more specifically, with that album's closing track, the dark and confusing "Blue," which ends the record with a resounding sense of finality, reprising the album's first cut, "Discoverer" in it's final two minutes, and seeming to bring everything full circle before it all crashes away. For me, and for many other fans, though, the R.E.M. story begins and ends with their 1992 masterpiece Automatic For The People, perhaps my favorite of all of their great albums. That album's hit singles, "Drive," "Everybody Hurts," (still regarded by many as the definitive break-up ballad), "Man On The Moon" and "Nightswimming," along with "Losing My Religion" from 1991's Out of Time, were the songs that introduced me (and probably many others) to this band in the first place, and they're also some of my favorites to this day. In the pantheon of truly perfect songs, I don't think there are many better than "Nightswimming," a track of such striking beauty that it moves me every time I hear it. The piano line shimmers and rotates around you as Michael Stipe delivers some of his finest lyrics, and the melody immediately attaches itself to your brain. The song is yearning, nostalgic, evocative, gorgeous, unforgettable, perfect. From first note to last, it sounds like a summer night, like youth fading away, and every time I hear it, each moment, each lyrical image, brings me back to a moment from my own personal experience. Only the best songs do that, and this one does it better than almost any other: that 's why it's one of my favorite songs of all time. On Automatic For The People it functions as the penultimate track, flowing perfectly into the almost equally gorgeous "Find The River," and it's these two tracks that I'm listening to right now, as I lay this band to rest. It's a farewell: I don't expect that there will be a reunion; this feels final. I'm sad to see them go, I'm sad that they will never make another record and I'm sad I'll never get to see them live, but one thing is for certain: I'll be listening to a lot of R.E.M. in the coming week. From the Chronic Town EP and Murmur all the way to Collapse Into Now, I've got a lot of ground to cover, and I'm looking forward to it.
As a wise man once wrote, "It's the end of the world as we know it. And I feel fine."