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R.E.M. Rocked the 90s…

I am not a R.E.M. fan, not even close. I’ve seen them three times in concert and they have been dreadful each and every time. Riding their monster hit rock album Monster they put on an enormously egotistical and boring performance, last year they essentially performed the disappointing Accelerator from one end to the other at MSG.
In the 80s I loved a lot of the Athens, GA bands, folks like the dB’s, Pylon, Love Tractor -anything with Mitch easters name on it, but I couldn’t bare R.E.M. I panned “Radio Free europe” as a snooze rock mumble and blew off Murmur entirely. From 83 to 91 R.E.M. recorded precisely two songs I liked: “Stand” and their cover of “King Of the Road”. So what happened in 91 I have no idea but R.E.M. suddenly lived up to the hype with Out Of Time. Not only was the video for “Losing My Religion” brilliant but the songle used a Georgia phrase that, unlike Mike Stipe’s usual oblique rumblings seemed to mean something serious. These were love songs but obtuse, pained loved songs. I have never heard a more thrilling take on pregnancy than “Me In Honey” or a sweeter sounding love song than “Near Wild Heaven”. A smash hit for the band and they deserved it.
The follow up a year later Automatic for the People was a completely uncompromised acoustic beauty. The theme of loss, even a subdued nostalgia, permeates the album and on swelled acoustic blueish gray “Sweetness Follows” the song tantalizes you with a glimpse of the future, of a hope not quite reached, and the songs undertow is more concretely achieved in “Nightswimming”. These are the two best songs the band have written to date. “Nightswimming” remembers a better time, “Sweetness” looks forward to better times and in the here and now “Everybody Hurts”. A gorgeous, haunting album. And that makes two.
In 94 R.E.M. introduced Monster with the monster hit “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth” -you remember, that’s what Dan Rather claimed the bloke who mugged him and ran down the street shouting the title words. It is R.E.M.’s rock and roll moment (so is most of Monster) and a headfirst assault on media overload. “You said that irony was the shackles of youth, I couldn’t understand, You wore a shirt of violent green, I couldn’t understand, I never understood, don’t fuck with me.” It is followed on the album with “Crush Eyeliner” and later still the weird and brutal zoned out “Star 69” And that’s the third.
And finally, here is New Adventures In Hi Fi, the last album with original drummer Bill Berry, long term producer Scott Litt and manager Jefferson Holt. According to Wikipedia R.E.M. claim it was influenced by Neil Young’s Time Fades Away though I can’t hear it myself. What I can hear is Patti Smith’s return from hibernation singing “I’ll take you over” on the stunning “E-Bow The Letter” and one of Stipe’s very strangest lines, “Aluminum, smells like fear”. I hear a great cover of Richard Thompson’s “Wall Of Death” (Stipe’s improvised “lalalalala” at the intro make death almost welcoming), “Electrolite”, “The Wake Up Bomb”: it sounded like a consolidation of the past three albums at the time, an encore, a stop gap but a great one. Now it feels like the end, a final bow and a goodbye from what was then the greatest rock band of 1996, and by 1998 would begin a decline so rapid and so complete nobody gives a shit about them now.
What happened? It can’t be all down to Bill Berry and Scott Litt. On the other hand, what can you make of a rock band so tone deaf, so, ahem, out of time, that their 9-11 song “Leaving New York” was WORSE than Springsteen’s. R.E.M. They have released four albums since New Adventures are they are just horrible -R.E.M. took 11 million dollars off Warner Bros and gave em some real bad product in return…. These egotistical has beens should break up.

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