Farewell to R.E.M., and a return to Accelerate

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by Mark Saleski

There were a handful of nights back in the early 1980s when me and my buddy Gene did little else but sit around in his folks’ living room, bliss out on the heat of the woodstove, and listen to Elvis Costello’s Imperial Bedroom and, especially, R.E.M.’s Murmur.

I remember being completely amazed at what I was hearing — the weird part being that I had no way to articulate the “why” of the music’s greatness. Peter Buck’s jangly arpeggios and mashed chords, Mike Mills’ hyperactive basslines … these were surely part of the reason I was so entranced.

They just sounded very new and fresh, this despite the supposed Byrds influence that I’m sure I didn’t pick up on at the time. It’s also amazing to me that we’re still talking about the band so many years later, even if it’s because R.E.M. has called it quits.

In a new message posted to their Web site, R.E.M. says: “To our fans and friends — As R.E.M., and as lifelong friends and co-conspirators, we have decided to call it a day as a band. We walk away with a great sense of gratitude, of finality, and of astonishment at all we have accomplished. To anyone who ever felt touched by our music, our deepest thanks for listening.”

When R.E.M. exploded to the superstar level so many years after Murmur, I can’t say that I was surprised. It was pretty easy to see the talent and creativity even in the early songwriting. It did feel a little strange though, to see a band that I thought of as my own little secret grow into a worldwide sensation.

It has been similarly weird to see R.E.M.’s transformations later in their career, especially post-Monster. No, especially post-Bill Berry. I didn’t know what to think of Up and really liked Reveal. And Around The Sun? Let’s just say that I was sure that it was their swan song. That’s not what I as hoping for, but that lackluster collection of songs (“Leaving New York” excepted) sure wasn’t encouraging.

Longevity is a rare thing in the rock world, and given the direction the band had taken after Berry’s departure, R.E.M. sounded like there was nothing left in the tank. That is, until Accelerate, which found the band back squarely where they belonged. Buck rediscovered the electric guitar, Mike Mills was all over the place instrumentally and vocally, and Michael Stipe sang as though his life depended on it.

It was good to have them back, if only for a moment.

Here’s a Something Else! Rewind on R.E.M. Click through the titles for expanded coverage:

R.E.M. – LIVE AT THE OLYMPIA (2009): This double-live album, made from those five nights in Dublin, revealed a three-piece band digging back into their roots. What’s important about this is that the material from Accelerate makes perfect sense presented alongside tunes from Chronic Town and Lifes Rich Pageant. Perhaps more important is that the ‘older’ songs seem just as fresh, at least in this high-powered, rock ‘n’ roll environment. With the band driving hard through old tunes like “Wolves, Lower” (from Chronic Town), “West Of The Fields” (Murmur), “Second Guessing” (Reckoning), and “Driver 8” (Fables Of The Reconstruction), we were reminded of the reasons why this band caught our ear in the first place.

R.E.M. – IN TIME (1988-2003) (2003): Like any other aging vinyl addict, what’s the first thing we do after opening the package? That’s right: read the liner notes. And In Time has some fantastic track-by-track commentary written by Peter Buck. I can never get enough of this kind of thing. Years of living with a body of music makes me wonder what the artist was thinking. Aside from your typical VH1-type details — why was a song included on (or left off of) an album, etc. — you get to see that Buck (and the other members of the group, I suspect) is also a fan of music.

ONE TRACK MIND: HINDU LOVE GODS, ‘RASPBERRY BERET’ (1990): A rowdy, no-frills run by Warren Zevon and three-fourths of R.E.M. through a series of familiar tunes is capped by a left-field choice of a then-recent Prince hit: his 1985 psychedelic pop delight “Raspberry Beret.” There’s nothing terribly tricky that the Love Gods do with this tune. Well, actually there is one thing: they took a riff from the string arrangement in the bridge and converted it to the song’s main riff. The bridge itself is discarded. Who needs all that clutter? The HLG’s sure didn’t on this straightforward, harder rendering that perhaps His Purpleness should have tried himself.

R.E.M. – LIVE (2007): Though there are no big surprises (like something from Murmur! What the hell guys??!!), they do pick and choose from around their career dial: “Don’t Go Back To Rockville” (Reckoning), “Drive” and “Man On The Moon” (Automatic For The People), “Orange Crush” (Green), “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” and “I Took Your Name” (Monster), and a bunch of others.

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