R.E.M. – It's The End Of An Era As We Know It

After 31 years, 15 studio albums, a wealth of songs and so many memories, R.E.M. decided to disband this past September. This news was shocking at the time of their announcement, and now that I’ve had a chance to become accustomed to the decision made by the band, it’s still hard for me to acknowledge that they’re leaving us for good.

As a parting gift to their fans, as well as to fans of great music all over the world, they are bequeathing an incredible career-spanning 40-song retrospective titled R.E.M.: Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage (1982 – 2011). Of course, I don’t buy the “Garbage” reference to their music, but like most artists, they feel some of the music in their vast catalog was less worthy of themselves as songwriters compared to some of their other compositions – but that’s in retrospect. I believe all creative people look back at their lives and work, and have fond memories of certain aspects and less than fond memories of some of what they have created. It’s only human.

A retrospective wouldn’t be complete without a few new songs. In this collection, R.E.M. has provided three final tracks to compliment the outstanding dicography they’ve left behind. They are titled “A Month Of Sundays,” Hallelujah” and the leadoff single, and sadly, the final single to be released, aptly titled “We All Go Back To Where We Belong.” The latter is a superb mix of ingenious lyrics sprinkled with a gentle melancholy melody that will unfortunately be a bittersweet conclusion. It’s unfortunate, because the single makes you hungry for more, and according to lead singer Michael Stipe and bassist Mike Mills, “there will be no more.”

Let’s go back to where it all began and maybe, as the final single implies, perhaps where they belong.

At the very beginning of the 1980’s in the town of Athens, Georgia, where fellow musicians The B-52’s put the locale on the musical map just a couple of years prior, Stipe and his buddy, guitarist Pete Buck, droppped out of school and joined forces with Bill Berry and Mike Mills, and within a couple of years, ironically became a college band staple. Their first single, “Radio-Free Europe,” was released shortly before a 20-minute EP, and that was enough to begin a cult following on college campuses across the country. The music studio heads at I.R.S. Records took notice, and R.E.M. now wrote, recorded and released their first full-length album, Murmur, in the spring of 1983. It was an immediate success. This was in an age when rock, pop and New Wave were king. The term Alternative Music wasn’t even a label you’d find at your favorite record outlet. That was until R.E.M. practically invented the term for their genre of music. It was like no other at the time, and with time, they continued to improve their craft. While Berry, Buck and Mills were feverishly composing the music, Stipe was busy incorporating some of the greatest and most obscure lyrics to compliment their unique melodies. It was always a team effort for the band. All took credit, and deservedly so.

Fast-forward five successful Top 40 albums later, the band was signed to the Warner Bros. label and began their most intriguing and commercial work. After a decade of success, they hit the big time with their 1991 No. 1 album, Out Of Time, which spawned two of their most commercial singles at that time, “Shiny Happy People” and the monster hit “Losing My Religion.” They also took home a Grammy for Best Alternative Album.

Following the success of Out Of Time, rumors were swirling about lead singer Michael Stipe’s sexual preference. There were also several rumors as to whether he was HIV-positive, which greatly disturbed him. He responded to the press by releasing a statement that read, “I wore a hat that said 'White House Stop AIDS'. I’m skinny. I’ve always been skinny, except in 1985 when I looked like Marlon Brando, the last time I shaved my head. I was really sick then. Eating potatoes. I think AIDS hysteria would obviously and naturally extend to people who are media figures and anybody of indecipherable or unpronounced sexuality. It’s anybody who looks gaunt, for whatever reason. Anybody who is associated, for whatever reason – whether it's a hat, or the way I carry myself – as being queer-friendly.” Finally, in 1995, Stipe appeared on the cover of Out magazine, and by 2001, he revealed to Time magazine he was a queer artist. This was also the time he disclosed that he had been in a three-year relationship with “an amazing man.”

Amidst all of the rumors, R.E.M. topped themselves with an even more commercial, and many feel, their finest album, Automatic For The People. The 12-track disc was responsible for some of the most prolific songs they had composed, including “Nightswimming,” the melodically and lyrically haunting “Everybody Hurts” and the song “Man In The Moon,” a compostion that Mills said “if we had to be defined by one song, this would be my choice.”

In many cases, the statement Stipe released about his sexual preference could’ve spelled doomsday for other musical artists. But R.E.M.’s music was so exceptional and their audiences far too sophisticated, so it never came close to harming their image.

Still, they had an incredible half-dozen studio albums released until their final full-length disc, Accelerate, in 2008. In 2007, they were inducted into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.

Stipe and Mills, at 51 and 53, respectively, now feel it’s a good time to challenge their individual creative beings in other musical directions. According to both, “we want to disband while we’re still on top.” They’ll get no argument from me. If their final three original compositions, including the latest single, don’t verify that statement, I don’t know what could.

© 2012 Steven M. Housman. All Rights Reserved.