Green/Out of Time/Automatic for the People/Monster/New Adventures in Hi-Fi/Up/Reveal/In Time/Around the Sun

(Warner; 1988/1991/1992/1994/1996/1998/2001/2003/2004/2005)

By Matt Stephens | 19 September 2007

With plummeting sales and a fat recording contract to fulfill, Warner Bros, R.E.M.’s label since they officially became major-leaguers in 1988, has decided to re-release each of the nine albums (including one compilation) the band has made for them in the years since, each complete with digital remastering and a bonus DVD with the entire album in Surround Sound, complete lyrics, and a short documentary. While the remastering is uniformly excellent, these collections offer nothing in the way of outtakes, b-sides, or rarities, which makes them bait for only the most dedicated of the band’s waning fanbase. What these re-issues do invite, though, is a look back through R.E.M.’s last 17 years, from their coming-of-age with Green through their bleak and stilted nadir Around the Sun. So without further ado, here is the music that was from messrs Berry, Buck, Mills and Stipe:

1988’s Green was the group’s coming-of-age as an unabashedly commercial outfit, and if the album seems a bit unremarkable in hindsight, it’s only because of the audible growing pains that stiffen its weaker cuts. Essentially, Green is the halfway-point between the earnest, muscular political rock of Lifes Rich Pageant (sic) and Document and the moodier pastoral pop of Out of Time/Automatic for the People; tracks like “Pop Song 89,” “Get Up,” and “Stand” are spiky and energetic, but their lyrics are pure confection. On the other hand, the album’s centrepieces -- “World Leader Pretend,” “You Are the Everything” and “Orange Crush” -- retain the seriousness of the band’s earlier work while at the same time exploring the fascinating new sonic avenues that would come full circle with Out of Time. This thematic awkwardness, and especially the weakness of its second half, makes Green the first merely good album of R.E.M.’s career, even as it suggests further greatness on the horizon.

Out of Time realized most of Green’s bigger pop ambitions, and in doing so made R.E.M. one of the most popular bands in the world in the early '90s. While the album is certainly spotty, it’s been subject to undue criticism over the years, mostly on the basis of the Neanderthal sugar-pop of “Shiny Happy People” and the KRS One-guested atrocity “Radio Song.” For those who give it more time, though, the album is one of the group’s best, featuring hardly a single misstep aside from those two. The second half in particular is astoundingly good, with every track from “Belong” onward arguably an R.E.M. classic. And though the lyrical transience of many of the songs can become grating on its own, it mixes well with the album’s gloomier cuts like “Low" and "Belong," no to mention the timeless “Country Feedback” and superhit “Losing my Religion.” All told, it’s a fantastic if incohesive effort, often written off as foreplay for the Automatic juggernaut, but more than sturdy enough to stand on its own. If there’s any album in this batch of reissues that calls for serious re-evaluation, it’s Out of Time.

Automatic for the People followed closely on the heels of Out of Time, and is largely considered the band’s masterpiece. Listening to it now only reaffirms that: it’s aged better than anything else in their catalogue, and the great sense of catharsis Stipe’s performance gives it has not diminished a bit in the thirteen years since its release. There’s a meditative, almost hymnal quality to songs like “Nightswimming,” “Drive” and “Everybody Hurts” that take them to places only the very best popular music is capable of going -- here, the band’s aesthetic seems less musical than spiritual, with much of the music itself (like the bleak and gritty “Drive,” the jazzy, funeral organ-tinged “Star Me Kitten” and the buoyant, single-chord dirge “Sweetness Follows”) sounding distinctly un-R.E.M. While the emotional weight of the album as a whole is such that one may not pick it up as often as, say, Reckoning or New Adventures in Hi-Fi, it’s the one R.E.M. album that virtually all of its fans swear by, as well as the one most non-fans own. In all, it’s one of the very best albums ever released by an American band, and if what I’m writing here sounds like hyperbole to you, it’s probably because you haven’t heard this album yet.

When Monster was released in 1994, it was as if you could hear the walls of Rome crumbling all the way from Athens. The band’s long-promised “punk rock” album, it was a radical deviation from Out of Time and Automatic (and virtually everything else they’d done up to that point), abandoning pastoral folk rock of those albums completely for fuzzy, glam-influenced psychedelica. While the album was largely lampooned, either as a sell-out to post-grungers or simply an unlistenable mess of effects pedals and narcissism, time has been kind to Monster, and one can see now, better than in 1994, that there’s subtlety in its crudeness - beneath the oceans of reverb and feedback in “Circus Envy,” “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth,” and “Let Me In” lie some of R.E.M.’s best tunes, and Stipe’s stream-of-conscious ruminations on stalkers, identity crises and crippling paranoia discuss the tired “pressure of fame” theme in a scary and revelatory light. And while Peter Buck’s often obnoxious guitar fuzz effect (present in some way, shape, or form throughout virtually the entire album) certainly does get irritating after a while, it could be argued that, for good or ill, Monster is the band’s most sonically consistent album. It may not be their best effort, but you have to hand it to a band willing to take such a leap of faith at their commercial and creative apex; if Monster is indeed a failure, it’s one of the most admirable kind.

New Adventures in Hi-Fi was recorded haphazardly throughout the course of the arduous and ill-fated Monster tour (with band members suffering hernias, intestinal ruptures and brain aneurysms throughout the proceedings), and was the band’s last hurrah as a four-piece, with drummer Bill Berry unceremoniously quitting shortly after its release. The album is difficult to get into at first, but proves with repeated listens to be one of their deepest and most enduring statements. Hi-Fi’s eclecticism can be jarring, even to long-time fans. In the first five songs alone, the band cartwheels through loopy free-jazz (the fabulously-titled “How the West Was Won and Where it Got Us”); swaggering cock-rock (“The Wake Up Bomb”); a ballad about religious introspection and day-time TV (“New Test Leper”); a pensive rocker about religious introspection and claustrophobia (“Undertow”); a mutant stew of feedback, nonsensical beat poetry and Patti Smith speaking in tongues that somehow manages to be maybe the greatest thing the band ever recorded (“E-Bow the Letter"). And the thing only gets better from there. While the density of Hi-Fi’s 65 minutes scared the fair-weather Johnsons away, there remains no better proof of the scope and artfulness of their music. From here, down was the only way to go.

1998’s Up, recorded after Berry’s departure, finds R.E.M. in its first ever identity crisis, a self-described (in the words of Michael Stipe) “three-legged dog” that seemed eager to move forward but unsure of exactly how to go about doing it. Berry’s absence is noticeable from the first seconds of “Airportman,” where a dull synthesizer and ticking drum machine introduce a structureless and largely tuneless studio experiment that seemingly serves no other purpose than to alienate potential buyers at HMV listening posts. While the thirteen tracks that follow may not be quite as perplexing, the band still makes an earnest effort to infuse its sound with electronics and feedback, with predictably mixed results - while this new template suits the lovely “Daysleeper” or the Leonard Cohen-copping “Hope” gorgeously, it feels phoned-in on about half the album. The real selling point here is Stipe’s lyrics -- he speaks of heartbreak in his signature enigmatic broken phrases, but it’s more palatable than ever before; he sings throughout Up as if it was his last will and testament. While it’s no classic, Up was a brave step into uncharted waters (Thom Yorke has gone on the record saying Kid A would have been impossible without it), and the last time R.E.M. really sounded like it was trying.

Reveal was the band’s first real stab at mediocrity and irrelevance, softening Up’s edges and reining in its forward-thinking song structures for Beach Boys-influenced M.O.R. bubblegum. The album has its highlights, like dreamy opener “The Lifting,” the bubbly “Beat a Drum” and single “Imitation of Life,” perhaps their last great song. But the majority of the record is just a lifeless studio exercise -- a band hitting middle age very gracefully, too familiar with themselves to realize exactly how much they’re resting on their laurels. Reveal is painfully overstuffed, with layers upon layers of acoustic guitars and unabrasive synths attempting to pull the curtain over songs that don’t seem to be there. It was the first genuine, incontrovertible disappointment of R.E.M.’s career, and while its few sublime moments left some hope for the future, it was becoming clear that the magic of old was conspicuously and painfully absent.

Best-of collection In Time, released in 2003, is a predictable smattering of the band’s best known songs from their tenure at Warner’s. All of the biggest radio hits (save, of course, “Shiny Happy People”) are present and accounted for, as well as two obligatory new songs (“It’s the End of the World As We Know It”-rip-off “Bad Day” and Monster-soundalike “Animal”) to lure in the die-hards. While there is certainly room for nit-picking (as there would be on any project of this nature with a band as celebrated and prolific as R.E.M.), In Time wouldn’t be a bad place for initiates to start -- it gives a fairly balanced sampling of their best and best-known work, and its clever non-chronological sequencing makes it easy to get into.

Where Reveal was simply mediocre, 2004’s Around the Sun is proudly, hopelessly, consistently awful, the point where R.E.M. finally ceased to be an “alternative” band by any definition, and instead dove into the swamp of easy listening head first. The R.E.M. you knew is gone, replaced by three tired, slightly creepy old men who write slow, repetitive, obtuse love songs with listless melodies that seem to drag on forever. Have you ever come across one of those kiddie compilations where studio goons do note-for-note covers of “Livin’ La Vida Loca” because the label was too cheap to get a license for the real thing? Around the Sun feels just like that; this neutered, joyless shell of a once-great band playing bad songs you just know they don’t even like without any inclination to try to make them even sound tolerable. Around the Sun doesn’t have a high point or a low point (okay, “Wanderlust”); it just stretches its one note out for 55 very long minutes, leaving you questioning your own taste as a listener and wondering if maybe R.E.M. was always this boring to everybody else.

And so there you have it. Revisiting these albums is desperately nostalgic for me, and perhaps it does hamper my objectivity; each one of them, save In Time and Around the Sun, documents some important time in my adolescence, hundreds of tiny memories and moments that these albums recapture better than anything else I’ve heard, read, or seen. R.E.M. is the band that catalyzed my obsession with popular music, the band that defined who I was throughout my ghoulish pubescence and probably the ultimate reason why so much of my life is invested in music today. And if you ask the staff on any indie zine, or the members of any band with indecipherable lyrics, jangly guitars and sharp melodicism, they’ll probably tell you the exact same thing. The best material in these albums should remind you that the only reason R.E.M. has become somewhat of a punch-line today is because they were so consistently, inscrutably and impossibly great in the first place.