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.
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?