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R. E. M.

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Main Category: Folk Rock
Also applicable: Pop Rock, Singer-Songwriters
Starting Period: The Troubled Eighties
Also active in: From Grunge To The Present Day



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MURMUR ****1/2

Year Of Release: 1983

It's pretty goddamn hard to say just what is this album's appeal. Maybe it's the fact that it has no appeal at all? If you inquired, on a purely technical level, 'so what did these R.E.M. guys introduce to the world in 1983?', no doubt even the most well-versed "remologist" would have to wreck his brains a few minutes before coming up with an answer that wouldn't convince you anyway. Four guys with the most standard instrument array, a set of nice, but not immediately memorable, vocal melodies, a pair of average vocal pipes and... eh... what else? I'm stumped.

Most probably, the correct answer lies in the cute little lead singer of the band. You can tell me over and over about how Peter Buck's exquisite guitar parts really make this album, and yes, they're pretty important and they sound excellent and all, but could you ever imagine Murmur as an instrumental album? Or sung by anybody else but Stipe? The melodies on here certainly seduce the listener with their simplicity, on one hand, and extreme tastefulness, on the other, but without Stipe's "muffled passion", they could pass off for just another ear-candy-set by your average college rock band. Well then again, maybe not; the band puts a huge collective emphasis on not sounding pretentious, and that means intentionally staying away from loudness, distortion (most of the guitar parts are acoustic), just about any kind of production gimmicks and so on... you could well define the sound of Murmur by stating what it does not sound like rather than by what it does sound like. Yet even so, for instance, when Mark Knopfler set out to produce a minimalistic unpretentious pattern of his own, he brought in his own unique, unimitable minimalistic genius; Peter Buck, for all of my respect, does not have the "minimalistic genius" spark in him.

Stipe, however, does. All the twelve songs on this album are good, and they're all good primarily because of his vocal power - or should I say, vocal "anti-power"? The band's lyrics don't normally mean a goddamn thing; whenever I turn around to throw a glance at them, I get stuck with an incoherent, unintelligible piece of writing that's neither truly avantgarde nor psychedelic nor... whatever. The saving grace, I guess, is that you're not really supposed to understand whatever Stipe is singing; he manages to mumble so much that even the most repetitive chorus comes out like total gibberish. The important thing is the intonation. This guy was in his early twenties or something when they did the album, I guess, yet he already sounds like that wise bearded guru that prefers putting his friendly hand on your shoulder instead of speaking to you from a distant dais. The song may be slower, it may be faster, or merrier, or sadder, it's all the same - Stipe always sounds like he's your long lost friend who's here to tell you all the bad news and all the good news in one go. And don't forget all the vulnerability in that voice: for all we know, Stipe might just have been the first lead vocalist to implicitly tell us, 'who, me? singing lead vocals? ah forget it guys, it's just a fluke, no really, I'm about the same piece of unlucky shit as you all are!'.

But... what about the songs? They all rule. They all rule so much, in fact, that in the end it becomes totally impossible to separate one from the other. In the end, only about three tunes stand out in my head, and that doesn't even include the lead-off single, 'Radio Free Europe', which is great bouncy fun whenever I listen to it but seems to be merging with 'Sitting Still' and '9-9' all the time (also very nice songs). 'Pilgrimage' does stand out, though, because it's the album's most "bombastic" number, where they go as far with their pompous egos as to, get this, add some echo to the background vocals! Wow! Is this supposed to be R.E.M. or E.L.P.? Pretentious bastards! Well, they'd better be happy that the song is so inspiring, what with all the minimalistic guitar parts and tiny little chimes and all, or the critics would've ripped their carcasses apart.

I'm also a big sucker for 'Laughing', although the line 'Laocoon and her two sons' bothers me a little, but I'm a-supposin' it's all my fault because I actually bothered to find the lyrics. Silly me, never do that again. The 'lachidlachidlachidlafichoo' chorus (I could tell you the real words, of course, but then I'd have to kill you) is easily the most moving element on the entire record. And then there's the totally seductive 'Catapult' with an impressive key change in the chorus and an atmosphere of... of... well, I dunno. I guess the fact that the song opens with the barely intelligible 'ooh, we were little boys, we were little girls' line is supposed to bring in an air of nostalgia, as well as the touching 'did we miss anything?' chant. As for the 'catapult, catapult' refrain, you'll have to find your own interpretation. Nostalgia, sadness, fun reminiscences, gentle cheerfulness... there's actually so much abstract imagery here it's hard to put in words.

I could go on and on and on, but do you really want me to rave on in the exact darn same way about how song X has that great solid bassline, that minimalistic Byrds-derived guitar jangle, that steady drum beat and that endearing, occasionally tear-jerking profound uintelligible vocal? I guess not, or at least, not until I've spent an entire lifetime with these songs so that each one stands out like a distinct entity, unconfusable with the others. Trust me: there's no filler on this album, even if some songs on here are 'more equal' than the others, I guess. And the CD reissue tacks on a few bonus goodies, such as a nice, if not thoroughly necessary, rendition of the Velvet Underground's 'There She Goes Again' (probably to show how R.E.M. were influenced by that band in the end, I guess), and several live performances - which I don't particularly crave, as R.E.M. live don't add much to the studio experience, except for a few ape-like ad libbed monologs from Stipe that not even the most perfect acoustic analysis program in the world could decipher.



Year Of Release: 1984

Ever so slightly weaker than the debut because, well, the boys wanna have a little more fun this time around, and the more fun these guys want to have, the less convincing they come across. I mean, can you imagine R.E.M. covering 'Johnny B. Goode' or something like that? Wouldn't that be hideous, only topped by Yes' attempts to play 'I'm Down' (and even so, because that abomination actually exists)? Well, granted, they never have that much fun on that album, but the fact remains that it is somewhat more rocking than before and that whenever R.E.M. strip themselves of their humble mystique, they are left with a big fat nothing; where would we be without that humble mystique in the first place?

Still, don't get me wrong - that doesn't mean R.E.M. go wrong whenever they just crank up the amps. 'Harborcoat', for instance, opens the album on a relatively rowdy note, with the drums strangely high in the mix and a loud mix of guitars and criss-crossing vocal harmonies in the chorus, but it's still a masterpiece because Stipe's 'find my harborcoat, can't go outside without it' refrain can't be beat anyway. It's funny how much that line evokes visions of old folksy complaintive ballads, yet when you actually start reading the lyrics you wish you didn't, isn't it? Very much like Dylan, except that Bob was still much more careful with his lyrical imagery than Stipe could ever hope to be - but that's their respective setups, and we have to respect them.

Repeated listenings really work with this record, because Peter Buck's riffs and arpeggios are so thin and delicately subtle you'll be picking them up every time, so much that at the end you might have the cute little opening riff to 'So, Central Rain' as your favourite moment on the record; my favourite, I confess, is still the heartbroken 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry' refrain in that song, another example of that wonderful disarming minimalism as used by Stipe on 'Catapult', for instance (only this time in a minor, minor, oh so minor key). On the other hand, I think that 'Pretty Persuasion' has too much of a "rawk" spirit going for it, which prevents the music from having the classic R.E.M. effect on me, even if it is Elvis Costello's favourite song on the album for some reason.

Another minor flaw, I think, is the nearly-six minute ballad 'Camera'. It's not as much boring as it is useless: written in the mold of all the slow hookless singer songwriter confessional songs (the ones about which you never know if they're inspired by an emotional uplift or by boredom), it obviously aims for a cathartic feel, but the trick is, R.E.M.'s faster, rhythmic songs all aim for that cathartic feel already, and there's no need to slow down the tempo or reduce the drums to a distant chuckling in the background if you want the listener to sympathize, guys. Bad move.

Well, I mean, it was pretty hard to top Murmur anyway - and it's admirable that the remainder of the songs are actually that good anyway. 'Time After Time' is another slower number, but it doesn't drag half as much as 'Camera', and actually has an almost authentic folksy sea-ballad feel to it, with classy ringing guitars, clanging ethnic percussion and a powerful, if somewhat simplistic, refrain. Simplicity actually is a bit abused on this record, I should say; I mean, a song as uprising and energetic as 'Second Guessing' certainly deserves a better chorus than 'here we are, here we are'? Surely it does? Maybe it would look good all by itself, but ninety percent of the choruses on this record are minimalistic in the same way ('I'm sorry...'; '...time after time after time...'), so it's a flaw. '(Don't Go Back To) Rockville' is another experimental number of theirs, with the band audaciously tackling country-rock; maybe it's not the best country-rock song ever written, but it's decent enough, and it has NO BANJO! That alone should raise your eyes.

Also, this time around the bonus tracks on the CD re-issue should raise your eyes as well. 'Wind Out (With Friends)' rocks harder than anything on Reckoning itself (not particularly great news, but hey, it's a bonus track, I'll take that for novel value); the instrumental 'White Tornado', where they try to be the Shadows or something, has some magnificent drumwork from Mr Berry and a great set of thin rockabilly guitar lines; 'Tighten Up' is something like a bizarre funky jam constantly punctuated by the band bantering in the studio; and 'Moon River' is kind of a sucky ballad that shows Stipe should have been prohibited from doing solo piano ballads which expose all the weaknesses in his voice, but the great advantage of all these is that none of them sound like each other and none of them sound like anything on Reckoning, so they're essential for the R.E.M. completist.

So anyway, I seriously doubt anybody who heard this album after Murmur could like it better (although you never can predict some people's tastes, I'll admit that), but it's still a pretty solid "slide-off" record in its own rights, just nowhere near as hypnotic.



Year Of Release: 1985

Or Reconstruction Of The Fables, whichever way you put it due to the sophisticated design of the album sleeve. Either way, the title suggests archaism, nostalgia and epicness, and that's what you get to a certain extent; it's R.E.M.'s most "folksy" album so far, produced by Joe Boyd (ex-Fairport Convention producer), and also the darkest and most inaccessible yet. Pop? It's simply not a pop album at all.

And the biggest problem with it isn't that it's so dark, or so gloomy, or that Stipe mumbles so much, or that the songs get all glued together if you're not arming yourself with the sheetnotes. The biggest problem, admit it, is that the songs have NO CHORUSES. Well, this is not entirely true from an objective standpoint - about half of the songs do have choruses, but even the ones that do have them often sound like they don't. To be more precise, one great thing about all the high points on Murmur and Reckoning was that you had Stipe go 'mumble mumble mumble glub glub glub mumble mumble mumble mumble...' and then, as if out of nowhere, you had some sort of a sonic revelation coming through. Like: 'CATAPULT! CA-A-A-A-ATAPULT!' Or: 'I'M SORRY! I'M SORRY!' Or: 'DON'T GO BACK TO RO-O-O-O-O-CKVILLE!'. You know what I mean.

Well, get this: on Fables, pretty much the only thing you're going to get is 'mumble mumble mumble mumble glub glub mumble mumble mumble'. That's the ONLY thing you're going to get. Upon the tenth listen, you'll learn to associate some (not all) of the mumbles with actual words and feelings, but if you don't live up to that glorious minute, you're probably not the only one. Me, I lived up to the point where I learned to take pleasure in the mumbles themselves, without any kind of decoding; it's gonna take a whole new life to go deeper than that, and excuse me if I refuse to "train my ears" any further. There's only so much inaccessibility that one can actually take without undergoing a complete mental transformation (not necessarily for the better).

Anyway, this is unquestionably a mood piece. There are instrumental melodies on here, always similar and always unmemorable; there are vocal melodies, always slurred and never actually "evolving" into something they already weren't at the beginning of the song. People who spend their time choosing 'favourites' off this album are freaks wasting their time - not only isn't there a single song on the record that's better than the other ones, there just isn't MEANT to be one single song like that. Democracy among the band members has now spread over to the album entries, with no highlights and no lowlights. I confess I did hear people praise 'Driver 8' and condemn 'Old Man Kensey', but I have no idea how that can be done. Just because 'Driver 8' is faster than 'Old Man Kensey'? Well, if you ask me, picking faster songs off Fables Of The Reconstruction and extolling them as 'better ones' is pretty much similar to picking country ballads off The White Album and overpraising them. Fast/slow shouldn't be a criterion when judging this record.

It's not fast/slow that matters. It's the darkness that matters. 'Feeling Gravity's Pull' opens the record with a riff (and then, an atmosphere) that sounds like it comes straight off a Siouxsie & The Banshees album - almost goth-influenced, something unheard for R.E.M. in former times. Don't ask me to name any other hooks, cuz there are none. There's just Michael Stipe pinned against this eternal depression, pinned down by gravity forces, no less? And then there's Michael Stipe trying desperately to reach somebody who can't be reached ('Maps And Legends'). And then there's Michael Stipe apparently complaining about how this goddamn tiresome life goes on without a break (the much-lauded 'Driver 8'). And then there's Michael Stipe rambling out incoherent bad news about Old Man Kensey (at least this song has an interesting, well-mixed bassline, which is more than I could say about 'Driver 8'). And then there's Michael Stipe complaining about how he 'Can't Get There From Here' (at least this song uses some brass, which makes it distinctive, and actually - imagine that - has Stipe lowering his voice and then raising it again. Whew, and I was just starting to wonder if he had wedges implanted in his throat). And then there's Michael Stipe implicitly lamenting the fate of the common man in 'Green Grow The Rushes'. And so on and on, until the album closer 'Wendell Gee', which is just a normal-style Southern rock ballad that I could almost see the Allman Brothers doing (albeit in a much different manner, of course).

So overall, it's just one big lump of humble R.E.M. style depression. You can dissect it, of course, and judge the songs individually, or choose favourites, but I refuse to do that. I give this big album a medium rating of three and a half stars, and I don't give any songs any individual ratings. You can add from the record, you can detract from it, it'll always be the same. Two songs, three songs, or eleven songs, nothing matters. Oh yeah, what matters is that there's a bunch of bonus tracks here on my album version which I don't know anything about, but I definitely know that 'Crazy' is one hell of a good song, and actually is better than the entire Fables album - same depressed atmosphere plus just the kind of hook I was telling you about in the intro. It's mumble mumble mumble mumble YOUR HEAD'S SHAKING AND YOUR ARMS ARE SHAKING AND YOUR FEET ARE SHAKING... it sounds really great as one of those subtle "wordgames" Stipe is so wonderful about. There's also 'Burning Hell', which supposedly predicts the band's turning to a harder rocking sound on the next album, and a couple live versions (including an acoustic runthrough of 'Maps And Legends' which really helps appreciate the studio version).



Year Of Release: 1986
Overall rating =

So that's what it takes to bring back the Chorus Hook... cranking up?

Best song: FALL ON ME

Track listing: 1) Begin The Begin; 2) These Days; 3) Fall On Me; 4) Cuyahoga; 5) Hyena; 6) Underneath The Bunker; 7) The Flowers Of Guatemala; 8) I Believe; 9) What If We Give It Away; 10) Just A Touch; 11) Swan Swan H; 12) Superman.

It's always thrilling to see a band that established its initial reputation by being quiet, humble, and unpresumptuous finally spread its shoulders and start treading this world with a heavy footfall instead of barely brushing it with its toenails. "Thrilling", because you never know whether it'll hurt or heal beforehand - the probability is about fifty-fifty. Luckily for us, R.E.M. are in the good fifty half.

Now, the first thing people always notice about Pageant is that it rocks. It does. They speed it up a little and bring back the occasional distortion. But I certainly wouldn't call it a "rock and roll album" or anything like that; R.E.M. were never really in any danger of being confused with, say, the Replacements. What really happens on here is an intentional abandoning - or, to be more exact, de-emphasizing - of the band's original folksy mystique vibe. Some of the old guitar minimalism is dropped in favour of a more straightahead (and technically more simple, I'd say) "rock guitar" delivery. Another big change is that Stipe's singing becomes much clearer, as if he really cared about getting his lyrics across to the listener this time around; which might just be the point, since the lyrics, too, are getting clearer, what with all the cloudy senseless wordplay often dissipating in favour of oblique, but understandable hints at social critique, personal philosophy and what-not.

In short, Pageant is R.E.M.'s most accessible album so far; no wonder it is often singled out as the band's best, although from a purely artistic viewpoint, I find it far less interesting and intriguing than Murmur. But why the high rating then? Because I also find the change healthy. Good as the previous two records were, they couldn't beat Murmur, and there was always this risk of falling into complete self-parody, because, you know, the more you try recreating your immaculate masterpiece, the higher is the probability of failure. Besides, a truly great band can't simply wallow in one formula forever, unless that formula happens to be kick-ass rock'n'roll, where "change" usually equates "suck". And finally, let's not forget the year: 1986. With synth-pop and hair metal at their peak and most rock veterans at the bottom, a decent, accessible, guitar-driven, sincere, inspired record like this didn't have much competition.

Plus, they brought the hooks back. With Stipe venturing to extend his orifice a quarter inch wider than usual and making more use of his articulation organs than before (so that, for the first time ever, we are introduced to most of the vowel phonemes of the English language on an R.E.M. record), the band's capacities for catchiness are broadened. Now they can write a song like 'Fall On Me', where the General Attraction Effect commences within the verse itself - as Stipe begins with the usual murmur thing and then suddenly starts raising his voice up to the highest note he can reach - and then reaches the apex with the difficult harmonizing on the chorus. Remember me complaining about the lack of choruses on the last record? Well, they're back. It takes exactly one listen to this song for the ethereal 'fall on me-e-e-e, fall on me-e-e-e' line to get stuck in your head. Ethereal, yes, but different: far more grandiose than before, in fact, as grandiose as it can technically get when your technical means are so technically limited. And then you can start thinking whether the 'buy the sky and sell the sky' line constitutes an anti-commercialism manifest or not. That's secondary anyway.

The hooks on the "rocking" numbers aren't as well pronounced, but that's because these numbers belong to Buck rather than to Stipe. It takes a little time to appreciate the charms of that spiraling riff to 'Begin The Begin', for instance, but you just might get around to it someday. Maybe the word "spiraling" should be considered crucial here, since everything about the song seems to be somehow 'looped', from the very title to the swirling, incessant, slightly funky riffage, to the vocal melody which, to my ear at least, doesn't come across as verse-and-chorus-structured but rather as a set of rotating vocal cogs and wheels, for the lack of a better metaphor. 'These Days' isn't very loud, but the overall groove manages to be as rousing and anthemic as any of these to-arms-calls from the Clash or the Jam in the late 70s. And while 'Just A Touch' is by no means a highlight, the very fact of its existence makes me wonder, as it is so generally atypical of R.E.M.: an insane-tempo quasi-punkish rave-up, with wild boogie piano, mad Hammond organ swirls, power chords a-plenty and even Stipe sounding like he's had one shot too many.

As it often happens with "accessible" albums by formerly "underground" artists, LRP used to have its fair share of detractors suing the band in God's face for main-stream-lining their sound. This is certainly a reasonable accusation, and best pronounced when illustrated with examples like 'What If We Give It Away'. There's not a single "mysterious" thing about the song, nor is there anything particularly odd about it to catch our eye in an untrivial manner. It's the kind of smooth, even pop-rock song that would culminate in 'Losing My Religion' half a decade later (it's pretty funny, actually, how Stipe's intonation while pronouncing the word 'try' in this song is so similar to the same "moments" on 'LMR'). In fact, the one sonic association I get (when the opening drum kicks in and you hear that steady bass back to back with minimal atmospheric guitar riffage) is with Fleetwood Mac's 'Dreams' - and how much more mainstream can you get? But on the other hand, if you have nothing against the mainstream per se, then you couldn't find a better compliment. After all, Rumours is one of the most perfect pop albums ever made (sorry, Peter Green). And on yet another hand (don't worry, I've got plenty of them), let's not overrate the magic of the early stuff either. What makes 'Cuyahoga' so much more flat than '(Don't Go Back To) Rockville', for instance?

Besides, it's not like there's no weirdness at all on Pageant. How does one explain the completely unexpected Latin-style instrumental number 'Underneath The Bunker', for instance? Not that it's particularly good, of course, but it's just a minute and a half long (sort of like an intermission between the album's two sides, in fact) and it's so openly grotesque it almost sounds like it belongs in a Quentin Tarantino soundtrack somewhere. Okay, that's not what you meant by "weirdness". Fine. How about the dark, meandering ballad 'Swan Swan H', then? This one captures you with a hidden acoustic quotation during the first four seconds (you figure out the source yourself) and then drags you through three minutes of heavy lamentation for whatever it is supposed to be written about - no break, no relaxation, no tap your feet effect, nothing. Weird? Maybe not weird, but certainly spiritual and impressive.

The final factor, now - consistency. Well, you can count me satisfied; each and every song has something to offer. I remember feeling distinctly disappointed by 'The Flowers Of Guatemala' (supposedly Ronald Reagan taught American kids the geography of Central America much better than the average American school ever could... but never mind) because it was just going and going and going along and the vocal harmonies were just sitting there and doing pretty little, sort of like in a mediocre early Byrds composition, but then the song was totally redeemed by one of the best guitar solos ever witnessed on an R.E.M. song; given that guitar solos in general are pretty rare on R.E.M. records, it makes the song particularly treasurable (except to those who consider the very idea of a guitar solo the epitome of selling out, of course). And there's zilch reason for the band to end the album with a cover of an old garage rock days remnant called 'Superman' (whose melody owes a fair bit to George Harrison's 'If I Needed Someone', whose melody, in turn, owes a fair bit to the Byrds' 'Bells Of Rhimney', whose melody is just lifted from some anonymous folksy ballad whose melody has most probably descended down to us from the dawn of ages so we might as well call it quits) - zilch, yes, but that's intriguing, and they really put their souls to it, and that's double intriguing. Consistency.

Well, okay, so it was the beginning of the end. You can always make a hypothesis that if a band does an album like Life's Rich Pageant, one day it'll start doing albums like Around The Sun. But some bands walk this thin line from genius to tastelessness, and some walk the thin line from genius to self-parody, and some from genius to insanity. R.E.M., from the beginning, chose the "from genius to boredom" itinerary, and the very fact that it took them so long to reach point B only strengthens their genius.


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