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Cover for R.E.M.'s first LP, "Murmur," released in 1983. With mostly indecipherable lyrics and a "distant" sound that seemed to come out of nowhere, it was Rolling Stone's album of the year, and remains one of the most unique records of all time.

ROB SHEFFIELD, contributing editor at Rolling Stone, has posted an emotive thank you to REM on the announcement that they’ve broken up. He gets right at what so many of us who loved this band from the early days seem to express, essentially that REM ran it into the ground.

Sheffield writes:

They decided not to be a “go out in a blaze of glory” band like the Smiths or Husker Du, and they also decided not to be a “blaze gloriously and then kinda fade out so everybody assumes you broke up even though maybe you officially didn’t” kind of band, like Echo and the Bunnymen or the Jesus and Mary Chain. They decided to be a “run it into the ground” band, plowing ahead whether they had the wind at their backs or not.

And they ran it into the ground. That’s an essential part of their greatness.

As a kid growing up listening to REM in the 80s (I had the lyrics for “Driver 8″ my 6th grade notebook) and 90s, I always had this feeling that they were taking it in the wrong direction. The earliest albums, Chronic Town, Murmur, Reckoning, and Fables, were an amalgamation of words and phrases that didn’t make linear sense. They were just decipherable enough so that you could invest in them whatever meaning you wanted. Whatever you happened to sing with your friends.

In this way they became deeply personal. They were the soundtrack to the life of a kid growing up in Georgia. The kudzu on the cover of Murmur also covered the hillsides around where I lived. This is how my place sounded.

But starting with Life’s Rich Pageant, the sound seemed bigger and less specific. It covered a greater geography. You could understand what Stipe said. It was still cool, but not as cool because it no longer felt like it was just for you and your friends.

I wanted REM to keep progressing in some opposite direction, getting more personal, more experimental, less “listenable,” a la Radiohead. I didn’t want pop songs.

In the end this “other” progression ended up happening anyway, only not in their music, but in the next generations of bands they influenced, groups like of Montreal and Deerhunter and Wilco, and dozens of others who probably don’t even claim REM as an influence but who couldn’t exist today were it not for the way REM created a college radio / indie rock audience.

Whatever. I still kept listening over the years. It was more like checking in, seeing if there was still some of the old feeling. And oftentimes, in little bits and pieces, there would be.

Sheffield is right of course. There is greatness just being able to continue your progression, even if it feels like “running it into the ground” to those who first loved it. But for me what matters will always be the sound itself, what they were able to create in that particular moment in time. And I know it’s lame, but I still have this impulse to tell people: if you could only know what it was like back then, what this sounded like, and how different it was than anything else. REM wasn’t always like how they are now. They weren’t always middle aged. They were kids once, see?

Musicians

 

About The Author

David Miller

David Miller is Senior Editor of Matador (winner of 2010 and 2011 Lowell Thomas awards for travel journalism) and Director of Curricula at MatadorU. Follow him @dahveed_miller.

  • http://shantiwallah.com Marie

    As another person who went to high school in Atlanta in the 80s and saw REM numerous times in those years including their annual gigs at the Fox on Thanksgiving (We all thought they’d “sold out” when they stopped those!) I find this piece really interesting. By the 90s, I was long gone to England so I missed the transition music, but I remember being surprised to hear REM on the radio in England. I was a little bit proud to see they’d made the international scene and to tell friends who they were, but also wondered if this was the same group who’d sweated on us in little local venues. I sort of lost track after that, but this piece has certainly brought back all those memories. If nothing else, REM is a testament to the fact that not all 80s music was bad. Cheers

    • http://miller-david.com david miller

      thanks for commenting marie. i like that image of getting ‘sweated on.’

      and yeah, i think that’s really all i was feeling, or needing to collect here somehow – all these memories of place.

  • Julie

    Totally. I didn’t feel “sad” about REM’s “demise,” as so many friends on Facebook seemed to. I felt like I feel anytime I hear about a couple who’s great together and who have decided that they’ve given the relationship their all and now need to move on to bigger and better versions of themselves and other people– that it’s mature and courageous and beautiful. 

    • http://miller-david.com david miller

      sweet.

      it was interesting  (and i’m not on FB so i didn’t see those reactions) how after reading the news, i needed for someone to help contextualize all of this.  i searched pitchfork, popsongs (http://popsongs.wordpress.com/ – which is an incredible blog if you’ve never checked it), and finally rolling stone.  sheffield got it:

      “Hardly anyone liked R.E.M. who didn’t like them way too much, so part of
      being an R.E.M. fan meant getting wildly overinvested and then feeling
      vaguely disappointed by whatever they did next.”

      which brings up your parallel with a long term relationship.

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