You can draw a distinct line between 2 eras of REM - (1) the IRS Years, (2) The Warner Bros Years.
It's the same band, the same personnel, even the same producer (initially). It just seems to be coming from a different place - the same, but different (if that makes any sense ...).
Arguably, the Warners Years can be split into 2 as well - with Bill Berry (who left the band in 1997), and without Bill Berry.
Their first recorded output was the single "Radio Free Europe" in 1981 - it took it's cues from Post-Punk and New Wave imbued with a certain amount of Byrdsian jangle.
There is an argument that REM were doing something "new" that would ultimately be classed as College Rock and/or Alternative Rock (Alternative to what? Not Rocking?).
However you wish to genre-ise it, there is a certain catchy freshness to the song. Which was only confirmed and amplified by the first IRS outing - the EP 'Chronic Town'. First album proper 'Murmur' followed a year later, and included a re-recording of "Radio Free Europe" - an assured debut which certainly hinted at the potential of what would come (even if it sold slowly, critical acclaim does not always equal commercial acclaim).
12 months later (almost to the day) 'Reckoning' hit the shelves and sold to "those in the know" and started to pick up other sales - no doubt helped by the strength of the singles ""So. Central Rain)" and "(Don't Go Back To) Rockville". In truth, these are the strongest tracks here, but it's a close thing.
1985s 'Fables Of The Reconstruction' was a departure from template. It feels more folky, delivered at a slower tempo,and a bit chin-strokey and wordy. It's not a great favourite of mine, but "Driver 8" is often reason enough to give it a spin.
'Life's Rich Pageant' (1985) and Document (1986) are treated in my head as a double album. I can't separate them and can't listen to one without the other immediately following it.
They really are flying here - 'Life's Rich Pageant' is as confident as they've ever sounded, and in the shape of songs such as "Begin The Begin" and "Fall On Me" some of their finest tunesmithery.
If 'Life's Rich Pageant' was a step-up, then 'Document' is another leap - I really don't believe there is any flab in this record. The albums open perfectly with "The Finest Worksong" and builds from there. My only real criticism would be the placing of "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" at the end of Side 1 when it would better sit as the album closer (no disrespect to "Oddfellows Local 151" but it's not a signing out song).
'Document' marked the point when REM came to national attention, rather than just "a big cult". And after an album like that, it's no wonder the big companies were waving cheques in temptation.
They signed to Warners on the basis of artistic control (ie no record company meddling or hassling for a single) and the bank-rolling of world tour(s) - something IRS just didn't have the capital to do.
But first came the new major label album - 'Green' released in late 1988.
For this album there were bigger (and better?) studios, and a certain amount of time freedom. The results are not a million miles from 'Document' but there is more expanse to the sound and instrumentation, and the production is a lot cleaner (which is not always a good thing). 'Green' almost feels like a burst of creation - it's not consistent or thematic, but is not impenetrably going down different rabbit holes in search of a sound. You get (for want of a better term) commercial pop in "Pop Song 89" and "Stand" rubbing shoulders with caustic comment of "Orange Crush" and the mandolins of the more reserved "You Are The Everything". This album sets the stall for the next couple of outings.
And following a major World Tour, 'Out Of Time' arrived 3 years later. Preceded by the single "Losing My Religion", this is probably the point where REM arrived in the Big League. And as if to re-enforce the point, the endlessly jaunty (and sometimes annoying, sometimes wonderful) "Shiny Happy People" arrived soon after the album started to ascend the charts across the globe.
"Near Wild Heaven" is almost as insistent and "Endgame" and "Half A World Away" are pointers to what was coming.
And what was coming is, in the ears of many, REMs crowning glory - "Automatic For The People".
I say that many cite this album as the peak - I don't actually rate it that highly. Too many slow and mid tempo tracks - it doesn't seem to swing like others. Oh, don't get me wrong they are fine songs - "Drive", "Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite", "Ignoreland" - they just seem to lack a certain REM-ness.
But then again, when you've got an album with"Nightswimming" and "Everybody Hurts" why would you want to up the tempo?
But up the tempo they did, and crank the guitars up too. Track 1 of 'Monster' will blow away any cobwebs lingering in the lugholes.
"What's The Frequency Kenneth?" is part an attempt to break the slower introspective feel of recent albums, part an object lesson how to write a punk song in the early 90s.
OK, the album is perhaps an intent to cover too many styles, bases and rock-isms to be seen as cohesively great, but I place it as the pick of the bunch. It's the ecelecticism that wins it for me. "Star 69" is cut from similar cloth as "Kenneth" and "Strange Currencies" may well be one of their finest moments.
So where next? It may only have been a year since 'Monster' but 'New Adventures In Hi-Fi' has a certain air of exhaustion about it. It can be heard as an attempt to combine all the best bits of their past 5 albums into one whole - but it just misses the spot.
There are moments of greatness - "How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us", "New Test Leper", "Departure", and "So Fast So Numb" to name 4 - but there are also moments where you feel you've heard it all before. And I'm still not sure where I stand on "E-Bow The Letter"
There's a school of thought which states this was REM's last great album, and I'm inclined to agree. It was also the last album to feature Bill Berry bashing the drums. Related?
And now the narrative starts to get a bit shaky.
'New Adventures In Hi-Fi' was the last REM album I bought on or near it's release. 'Up and 'Reveal' did not arrive in my possession until after I'd bought (I think I bought it? maybe I just acquired it from somewhere?) the compilation 'In Time: The Best of R.E.M. 1988–2003'
'Up' just sounds tired and like they're not really trying - although with "Daysleeper" they managed to create one shining spot on the album.
'Reveal' wasn't so much a re-invention, but at least it felt there was a tad more effort in it - "All The Way To Reno" and "Imitation Of Life" being the picks.
'Around The Sun' has a certain atmosphere about it - "Electron Blue" and "Leaving Nw York" passing muster, the others nearly but not quite. And is it portentous to have a track called "The Last Straw"?
Well, 'Accelerate' was not the last straw - this one is almost as good as anything that came before. It sounds fresh and attempts to swing a bit. Opener "Living Well Is The Best Revenge" is as strong a rocker as anything that came before. There's some real energy going on here, punctuated with a few slower moments, but certainly more Up than 'Up'.
Final album 'Collapse Into Now' continues a theme - there's life in the old dog yet. But ... it does seem (after a couple of listens) to limp to a close. Maybe, just maybe, the band could see the end coming and signed off with 1 very good album ('Accelerate') and one nearly good album ('Collapse Into Now)'.
What have I learnt?
- The sound of a band can change with money and time - by nature, a musician wants to widdle about in the studio and see what happens.
- The sound of a band will change again when a key member is taken out of the equation (and no amount of machines or session players can quite replace that chemistry)
- Don't be too hasty to write a band off after a couple of duff albums - 'Accelerate' is a fine slab of noise, and the final album 'Collapse Into Now' (despite me mentally preparing to say "not a great way to conclude the legacy") is much better than I remember
- REM were amazingly consistent and constantly developing over 30 years - I think they hit a peak, burned out, and we're just about reaching heights again before they decided the game (and time) was up
Radio Free Europe
It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)
What's The Frequency Kenneth?