I read the term ‘Alt-Rock Godfathers’ when discussing R.E.M. in a recent article about their new album “Collapse into Now” (available Spring 2011) that made me want to reach for my journal and start keeping tabs on all the different descriptions this band of 30 plus years has encountered. Maybe I have fun with how R.E.M. is deemed in the 21st century with their legacy and how it is viewed in the music community. I also think you learn a little bit by what people are saying and how it is described.
It is funny that 12 years ago, their first album without Bill Berry (Up) was released to little fanfare, although it turns out this album still sits among my favorites of theirs without the man behind the drum kit. The album was muddy and disjointed, and at the same time very endearing, like Fables of the Reconstruction. It saw a band in turmoil stop the ‘Bandwagon’ on a dime and come out with an album that was not typical ‘R.E.M.’ Drumkits? They worked. Airportman? Great opening track. Falls to Climb? Yes, Peter was right that the mandolin version of this song was not as good. It's an album about feeling lost and easily succeeds in proving it's point.
The last 12 years have focused from the fans perspective of coming out with that “Great R.E.M. Album”, the kind they made in the 80s or 90s that cemented them on top of the yearly lists for best albums as if the name R.E.M. had just been permanently etched up there. I seem to read or begin conversation like “I love R.E.M but the last 10 years have been pretty dull.”
Somewhere along the way they lost themselves. Maybe when they write their stories about their lives they will not look directly inward but blame a bad turn, or maybe it was just the environment in general.
And so we are focused on another album coming up this spring and fans like myself have to start worrying about whether it is something that I will be wearing out my iPod with or something that will collect electron dust in the back of iTunes.
As I sit here and write this I collectively say to myself that I care. I have cared enough to say when something sucks, when something is not quite right, when something becomes pedestrian and I ache to listen to Murmur or Lifes Rich Pageant because well, they just simply rocked.
Of course, I am just like any other selfish fan out there, sorta playing the Tea Party role. It is all about “Me”. Of course I am being a bit facetious but the fact of the matter remains that I want them to come out with the Great American Rock and Roll album once again for my own pleasures. The rest, as they say, will sort itself out.
I admit it is a difficult task as my own bias is my worst enemy. Comparing any new album to the likes of Murmur is a huge monkey on your back.
If you have not heard already from the articles in both Spin and Rolling Stone is that the new R.E.M. album will feature guest vocals from Eddie Vedder, Patti Smith and Peaches. At the outset of hearing this news I feel much more confident that there is not a rapper on this album, something that just did not mesh right with the sound that R.E.M. was making.
The interesting feature of some of their choices is that they chose the Punk Godmother in Smith and protégé in Eddie Vedder, a symbolic shout out that yes, the artists that paved the way for today’s buzz clips are trying to once again be the buzz.
They have chosen to change the way that they write music. I think in the process of making music, they got lost. It became too predictable and too mundane. Songs like ‘How the West Was Won and Where it Got Us’ was a spur of the moment creation in the studio and a great track at that. This process of Peter and Mike writing songs and having Michael listen to the instrumentals and write tracks seemed to run its course. Something had to break with the process and the failures of ‘Around the Sun’ and what we see is a band that is not trying to “Mail It In” as they would say but work against their own stubbornness and figure out the solution in a different manner, one where they might not actually see the end in sight. And I admit that might be a scary scenario at times but it is also this tension, which I believe creates that element of surprise.
But lets face it, for a band like R.E.M. to make another classic R.E.M. album to match something like Automatic or Murmur creates a relevance for them that is not matched much in the music business today.
In tweeting with Jordan (www.athensmusicjunkie.com), she still has that desire to see the band live a couple more times before they hang it up. Obviously there is a true ethereal effect of seeing a band live that will attract any ‘Music Junkie’ , especially one that lives in Athens.
Conversely, I have argued to the latter that a classic album will be more enduring for their legacy than another tour.
I have had this discussion as well in with others regarding bands of the 80’s and 90’s can still rake in the ticket sales with tours. There will always be a base of fans that will want to see R.E.M. live and hear the hits. There are very few bands/artists, however, that can claim classic albums in three decades. Consider for a moment that ‘Collapse into Now’ hitting 9.2 on the Pitchfork scale or having a score of 87 on Metacritic.
Before we all start hyperventilating and calling this the album of 2011, I just point out the odds that great albums don’t grow on trees. But as a fan this is what I hope for. A show is a 2-hour live experience. An album is an experience that can become part of your life.