Music

At Their Most Beautiful - A Farewell To R.E.M.

Brian Ahnmark
When I was 11 years old, I spent my days glibly unaware in a bubble of musical purgatory. My parents wouldn't let me watch MTV, but VH1 got the green light (in hindsight, even more terrifying). My first favorite “artists” were of the vanilla ice cream variety suited for “Two for Tuesday” after-school programming; I gravitated toward Bryan Adams and Rod Stewart. Not Faces-era Rod Stewart, mind you. I'm talking about mid-80s, “Downtown Train” Rod Stewart. A wrenching pang of regret always follows that public confession.

It was then – 1992 – that I first heard “Man on the Moon,” the first song I ever consciously identified as R.E.M. More importantly, my mother nodded in approval as she judged the baroque acoustic strum, agreeing to take me to Columbus' City Center Mall to buy the Automatic for the People cassette (pressed on yellow plastic!). This from the woman who refused to buy me Tom Petty's Greatest Hits because, she proclaimed, “I don't know who that is.”

And thus, R.E.M. became my first true “favorite band.” I followed them loyally for 19 years, almost two-thirds of my life, until the boys from Athens decided last week to call it quits.

I (obviously) didn't know it in 1992, but R.E.M. was already in a state of commercial decline. In terms of unit-shifting, the band peaked with sales of 4.5 million for Out of Time in 1991, steadily dwindling to around 200,000 per record by the end of their career. But I didn't fall in love with R.E.M. because they were popular or famous or lauded by some journalist. I didn't fall in love with R.E.M. because my friends told me to; on the contrary, my friends despised and ridiculed R.E.M., and mocked me for my fanhood. Their era of “cool” was years before my time.

I fell in love with R.E.M. because I heard “Man on the Moon” (yes, on VH1) with its weird, abstract lyrics about Andy Kaufman and Michael Stipe's alien voice veering from baritone to yodel and Mike Mills' perfect, perfect, perfect harmonies, coating the ear like a warm embrace.

I loved their songs. It was always that simple for me, and it's why I'm an unabashed and unapologetic member of the exclusive club that adores the latter half of R.E.M.'s career. Every tribute or retrospective about this band dedicates every last drop of ink to R.E.M.'s “jangly college rock,” Stipe's mumbling incoherence, insert “alternative” or “indie” or “post-punk” reference here. But my epicenter stemmed from the midpoint of the band's career looking forward, and here's a bombshell: I was always bored by R.E.M.'s early work. The supposed “signature” guitar sound of Murmur felt drone-like and sluggish to me, overcompensated by the frantic breathlessness of Reckoning. Life's Rich Pageant and Green? Thin as weak soup, all broth and no meat.

Ah, I don't really mean that entirely. I'm still shaken. I love those records. But seriously, objectively, the early chapter of R.E.M. was considerably more one-dimensional than the chapters to come. R.E.M.'s last 20 years – The Brian Ahnmark era – were marked by constant evolution. It's a risky maneuver for a band. It earned my undying attention and respect. And it alienated millions of listeners who preferred to stick to a formula.

Their loss.

Automatic for the People is probably (wrongly) considered the band's last great album. Monster was – gasp! – loud, a tribute to Kurt Cobain, its distortion an apparent turn-off to the masses holding their breath for Another Murmur or Automatic-er for the People. And this I'd carve into stone: New Adventures in Hi-Fi is REM's greatest album and one of the best records I've ever heard, epic in variety, arrangement, performance and impact. Drummer Bill Berry departed after its completion, and many R.E.M. fans lamented that the band carried on in his absence. Of course, Berry demanded that the band do just that.

Their ensuing record, 1998's Up, is probably their most creative. Berry himself called it their best, a beautiful assortment of melancholy flavored by drum machines and electronica. When Radiohead was elevated to God status in 2000 for Kid A, I always felt like R.E.M. had already done that with Up – and with superior emotional and melodic wallop.

To be fair, not every aspect of the latter half was transcendent. Reveal (2001) lacked the familiar spark (and Mills' harmonies) but still delivered some great songs; Around the Sun (2004) is one of the most disappointing records ever assembled by a respected rock band, and rightfully resulted in folks calling for R.E.M.'s collective head.

But not me. It was gut-check time for me as a fan, and for Michael, Peter and Mike as a band. My faith told me that the band was poised for a comeback, that the foul taste of the recording sessions and resulting backlash would springboard R.E.M. into its final act. I became convinced that the band would snarl back to life with renewed focus, and R.E.M. proved me right with 2008's Accelerate, the most exuberant rock record ever recorded by a bunch of guys pushing 50. “Living Well is the Best Revenge” will go down in history as their greatest album opener. And the frequent criticism of the album – too short and slight to stand up to the “old classics” – was sheer eye-rolling vindication to me, considering how wispy those early records are to an objective listener. (Fact: The under-the-radar Live at the Olympia, released in 2009 and featuring live performances from the Accelerate era, includes ferocious, timeless performances of the “early era” songs that absolutely embarrass the album versions.)

Collapse Into Now, released this spring, was another remarkable surprise, a wholesome cross-section of R.E.M.'s entire career. And goddammit, I should have predicted its ultimate destiny as the band's swan song and bookend. The lyrics to “All the Best” included red flags such as, “It's just like me to overstay my welcome.” The band even returned to the studio after Collapse Into Now was released, which duped me into thinking that a new chapter was on its way. Instead, those new songs will be featured on a career-spanning retrospective due out in November, the last new R.E.M. songs I'll ever hear.

The last new R.E.M. songs I'll ever hear. I can't believe I just wrote those words.

In the Cameron Crowe film Almost Famous, Penny Lane shares a piece of sage advice with young journalist William Miller: “If you ever get lonely, just go to the record store and visit your friends.” After 19 years, I think of Berry, Buck, Mills and Stipe as just that – my comrades. R.E.M. taught me that it's OK to play an acoustic waltz alongside a frantic, fuzzed-out rocker. They were the first band whose music I attached to seasons, whose songs resulted in superstitions. They turned me into the magazine & internet stalker I am today, sniffing out every news nugget on upcoming tours and recordings. They taught me that it's OK to hurt and it's OK to be shiny happy, so long as you're honest, follow your own muse and do so with integrity.

They're the band that inspired me to make my own music. They are the reason I write this after midnight in my basement next to my drumkit, surrounded by amps and guitars. They taught me how a melody could move and linger, how a bass line and harmonies could lead, how a snare crack could lock it in, how words could still have meaning.

They taught me that The American Music Listener is a fickle, ungrateful, detached, narrow-minded, distant, apathetic, disloyal, passionless, ignorant, bottom-of-the-barrel piece of shit too lazy to care and too bloated by toxins to flush down the toilet.

They taught me that legends don't get their due.

So although the song suggests otherwise, no, I do not feel fine. But I'll honor their advice and take comfort in my friends.

If you'll excuse me, I'm going to listen to some records.