I feel a little sad yet somewhat relieved that R.E.M. has finally decided to leave the party. They’ve been one of my favorite bands since I was 10 years old and bought Out Of Time on cassette, but I’ve enjoyed very little of the new music they’ve created after 1998’s Up. I kinda-liked their 2008 album Accelerate, but that proved to be something of a dead cat bounce, following 2001’s uninspiring Reveal and 2004’s dismal Around The Sun, and preceding this year’s Collapse Into Now, an album that most R.E.M. fans seemed to dig, yet it left me cold and rather depressed. Frankly, if I made a list of the Top 10 R.E.M. tracks of the 21st Century, at least 2 of those songs would be from the latest Decemberists album.
However, I post here not to bury R.E.M., but to praise them. Despite their latter-day mediocrity, at their best they did a number of things better than any other band. Like, at least 5 things.
1. Mumble, Jangle, Pogo (“Radio Free Europe,” et al)
Michael Stipe did more to advocate catchy incoherence in pop music than any other singer between The Kingsmen and Kurt Cobain. Meanwhile, Mike Mills, Bill Berry and Peter Buck offered the finest proof that punk’s energy could shimmer in earthier colors, not just goth metallic black or new wave neon or pot-hazy Clash dub.
2. The Most Beautiful Song That’s Probably Inspired By Dr. Kevorkian (“Try Not To Breathe”)
My first listen of Automatic For The People‘s “Try Not To Breathe” at the tender age of 11 might be the first time I got choked up by a song. I had seen a lot of Dr. Kevorkian in the news and I thought he was doing something very heroic, helping to ease the pain of all those suffering people. So when I heard Michael Stipe put a “shivering and bold” human voice to the Death With Dignity philosophy, it moved me profoundly. This song gave life to an idea that had earlier felt only abstract and distant to my young mind- the idea that a person could one day have little to look forward to but intense pain and wretched enfeeblement. The possibility of this happening to me remains one of my biggest fears. Though if I’m ever unfortunate enough to be in such a situation, I hope I can muster the same courage, sensitivity and determination as the song’s character when he says, “I will try not to breathe/ this decision is mine/ I have lived a full life/ and these are the eyes/ that I want you to remember.”
3. Shiny, Happy, Dorky (“Stand,” “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite”)
Actually, this isn’t in reference to “Shiny Happy People,” because I agree that song was kind of a mistake. But when I want to hear a song that will make me feel overjoyed and unabashedly dorky, I generally have 3 options. Either They Might Be Giants’ “Birdhouse In Your Soul,” or 2 R.E.M. songs: “Stand” and “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite.”
4. Most Fun-Sounding Guitars From The Era Of Not-Fun-Sounding Guitars (Monster)
Now, not all guitars in the mid-90s were the mopey, grungy type. There were the Green Days and the Weezers and the Urge Overkills almost-balancing out the Pearl Jams and the Soundgardens and the Alice In Chainses. (Or is it Alices In Chains?) But when R.E.M. embraced Arena Glam on 1994’s ass-kicking Monster, the guitars didn’t just bang and fuzz. They slithered and echoed and throbbed and sweated and strobed, and they still sound sexy and fresh these 17 years later.
5. The Best “Rattling-Off-A-Bunch-Of-Famous-Names-And/Or-Dada-Nonsense” Song (“It’s The End Of The World As We Know It [And I Feel Fine])