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Gentlemen, testify – Why REM matter

‘If only in everything in life’, ran the advertising tagline, ‘was as reliable as a Volkswagen’. But in a way, everything is. It really just depends which angle you are coming from. Take REM, for example. Once arguably the greatest band in the world, you could count on them to deliver a stonking album every time they appeared. While that isn’t the case now, REM are still reliable. Just not in the same way.

With Collapse Into Now due for release this month, the REM machine is rolling into gear. They have a set plan for a new album, and they stick to the model no matter what. Firstly the band say they weren’t happy with the last album. Then they say this one, however, is a return to form. Then they release a single which is absolutely brilliant. This is followed by excitement from all that this might actually just be the album which is their return to form. Then the album comes out, and everyone agrees it’s fine, gives it 6/10 and puts it at the back of their cupboard, never to be played again.

Which is a shame. Because as the band grow older and further away from what they were, there is a danger that a whole generation don’t understand just how dazzling REM were. Their first 8 – EIGHT! – albums are essential. Not recommended, not good, but essential. How many acts can say that? They caused British men to ditch overcoats for checked shirt almost overnight. They looked amazing. They brought Rickenbackers and paisley pattern back into the consciousness. They sang strange words which didn’t make sense and still touched you in a way you couldn’t understand.

Maybe it was the departure of Bill Berry in 1997 which broke the spell. If one is to use Brian Epstein’s analogy of what the members of a band are, Berry was the soul. Since he left, the remaining three – Buck, Stipe, Mills – have often given the impression of flailing just a little, something they never seemed to do before. Occasionally, they’ve got it spot on – Up is a lost classic of an album – and occasionally badly wrong (Around the Sun, their career nadir.) But mostly they’ve just sort of drifted.

So out they charge again, to deliver an album which will most likely be okay and then they’ll go back to their mansions and try and figure out how it didn’t quite work out they way they thought it would. But that’s okay. For REM were once the best thing in music. It remains important we remember that.

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3 Responses

  1. I watched a docu on Sky Arts the other night called Rough Cut, about the tour preparations for the “Monster” album. Reminded me (like your review)of how magical they once were. The mates-who-got-lucky feel amongst the four band members and their entourage was palpable. Monster is a bit of a dog of an album (and that’s pre-the exit of Berry)but the live/rehearsal footage of them doing Superman, Begin the Begin and a couple of Jimmy Webb tunes (Galveston and Wichita Lineman)was fantastic.
    I’ll probably buy the new album, I always eventually do.

  2. Me too Whippet – sorta feel it’s a bit daft to have all the others and not this one 🙂

  3. I dont think they ever really recovered from the loss of Berrys occasionally off kilter druming and harmonies. Those first albums are ESSENTIAL because they seem to be made up of the music that just flowed out of the four of them. “It crawled out of Athens”…so to speak…and it crawled through them ; Nowdays they seem to have to construct a “plan” for the style and content of each album – and it shows .

    No coincidence , I think , that this rather self-limiting planning process started with “monster”.

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