frequency still scrambled ken
saving rem from the nostalgia heap.
by jeff wilder
It’s a moment all of us dread. One we hope will never come, yet we know eventually will.
What am I talking about?
Seeing what was once your favorite band turn into a shadow of themselves.
In a recent column by Joe about those Irish former bad boys known as U2, it was observed that Messrs Bono, Edge, Clayton and Mullen have managed to maintain relevance for 25 years without descending into that deadly morass known as nostalgia.
Now the question I wish to ask is: why can’t Messrs Stipe, Buck and Mills do the same?
REM has been around for roughly the same length of time that U2 has. They broke through to mass popularity around the same time U2 was releasing their second masterpiece. They emerged (along with U2) as rock’s elder statesmen in the midst of the so-called “alternative explosion” of the 1990s.
Then they ran into a sort of dead end in the second half of the 1990s. So did U2.
Here’s where things get troubling. U2 were able to break out of that dead end. REM has not. In fact, one could say that REM’s last remotely decent album was 1996’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi.
One fact to note before we move on here. New Adventures was the last album they recorded with drummer Bill Berry. Berry departed almost a year after the album’s release. A drum machine was brought in for the band’s next album: 1998’s Up.
A lot of reviews on Up called the album a disaster and while it was nowhere near as good as New Adventures or the once-critically loved-yet now reviled Monster, let alone Automatic For The People, Murmur, Reckoning or Document it didn’t reach the level of disaster either. In a sense, it was close in quality to Green and Out Of Time. Good but not great.*
Reveal was a somewhat fresher Up. In overall quality it was the same, yet it generally had more of an organic feel than its predecessor and the high points were higher than the ones on Up.
Which brings us to the most recent effort from the Athens Georgia three. I use the word effort deliberately because that’s what Around the Sun sounds like.
On Sun, the band sounds tired. Almost like they’re going through the motions. In essence they sound like the Stones or Aerosmith sound nowadays whenever they release a new albums.
In other words, it’s off to the nostalgia circuit with REM.
When did REM start the downward spiral? Some will say with Automatic. As was proven by the Stones Some Girls and Aerosmith’s Pump and Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, once you reach a peak like that, there’s nowhere else to go but down.
Some will say it began the minute Berry split or maybe the moment Berry suffered his infamous aneurysm. Some will say that they should’ve thrown in the towel right then and there.
And some will say it was over the minute they left the small label IRS for Warner Bros.
My take? It wasn’t any of those things. REM still has it. Up and Reveal showed that in flashes. Around The Sun managed to almost completely bury it. But it’s still there.
I’d recommend that REM take a page from the U2 playbook. Focus on your strengths. Understand that you’re not going to be at the forefront anymore. (Hell you stopped being at the forefront back in 1995.) Don’t try to be trendy yet don’t succumb to nostalgia. Realize that you can make good music on your own terms. U2 realized this. So can you. Just throw out the preconceived notions of where your music should go and start from scratch.
In other words, there’s no need to be the Stones of the 2000s. You can still be relevant for almost 25 years.
*Ranking of REM albums
Automatic for the People
Fables of the Reconstruction
Life’s Rich Pageant
New Adventures in Hi-Fi
Out of Time
Around The Sun
Jeff Wilder is a writer-filmmaker-philosopher who lives south of the south.
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