Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Not So Shiny Happy People



"Collapse Into Now," the new release from R.E.M., sounds good. It has a strong opener, and for the next 5-6 songs that follow, the band appears to have found a bit of the magic that seemed to vanish over the last 15 years. I felt the same about their 2008 release "Accelerate," yet I haven't gone back to that album once since then, and my feeling is, I'm not going to go back to "Collapse Into Now."

I have a theory.

It seems most critics cite 1992's "Automatic For The People" as the last truly great record from R.E.M.. I agree wholeheartedly. Since then, the band has released 5 mediocre to downright lousy records, each with a gem or two. So, my last happy memory of R.E.M. is about 20 years old. Someone is stuck in time, and I'm not sure if it's me or the band. They now seem like a nostalgia act.

I knew a guy who thought Meatloaf's "Bat Out Of Hell 2" was his first release since "Bat Out Of Hell," not realizing there were 4 albums in between. I say this because, that's how I feel about R.E.M. these days. I remember so little of their output since 1994, "Collapse Into Now" is like a comeback. Yet they never went away.

I hear R.E.M. now, and no matter how close they come to cohesion, no matter how much they sound like the great band they were from 1981-1992, they've poisoned the well, and all I hear is a band clutching at straws to regain their popularity. Their sound immediately takes me back to 1992, the way hearing "Axel F," Harold Faltermeyer's huge hit from "Beverly Hills Cop" immediately brings me back to the 80s. R.E.M. were of a time and that time is long gone.

19 comments:

Shriner said...

I find it hard to believe that a band can seemingly become so irrelevant just because it's drummer retired.

Who knew Bill Berry had such power in the band?


(And I agree with you almost completely about REM -- when something from the last few albums comes along on the shuffle, I don't turn it off -- or when the "newer" songs come along in live sets, they are pretty decent -- but I never find myself seeking out anything since Berry left.)

soundsource said...

never been a huge fan of rem but not really a detractor either, just thought they were another decent band with some great songs some not so great. But to your point it seems like they follow the fate of many "greatest band in the world" bands. A couple of really major records and then more or less what you said. Don't know the point of this ramble except that so many of the bands that are touted as the greatest thing since the beatles are just really good rock and roll bands and would have been better off with out all the hype and expectation. Then they could have just put out records that their fans would have liked and not be seen as disappointments. Does that make any sense or is it the cough medicine doing the writing?

wardo said...

I enjoy the new album, as I did Accelerate, but for me it's also too early to tell how often I'll go back to it. It has me thinking I buy their albums more out of habit then ongoing enjoyment, and I hate when that happens with a band I was once nuts about.

Anyway, I think their decline can be pinpointed to when Stipe shaved his head.

steve simels said...

To be honest, apart from the radio hits, the only music of theirs I've loved unreservedly is "Murmur." Admittedly, a tough act to follow....

Noam Sane said...

Awaiting the inevitable 4-star Rolling Stone review. I bailed out after hearing "Swan Swan Hummingbird," lo those many years ago...around the same time I noticed Michael Stipe was, shall we say, overly impressed with himself.

As an aside, has anyone ever heard the live version of "To Sir With Love" he recorded with Natalie Merchant? Makes me want to slice my wrists.

Sal Nunziato said...

I didn't even get on board until "Life's Rich Pageant." The first two left me cold...sorry to say. But I'm happy to see some of you feeling the same way as I do.

@Noam...re: To Sir With Love--YOU SAID IT!

Anonymous said...

I tend to differ. I have been a fan since Chronic Town and I really enjoy this new album and some of the post "Automatic" work. I can understand why some people don't. Personally, songs like "Shiny Happy People", "Ignoreland", & "Everybody Hurts" make me want to vomit. And, I believe Stype is over-hyped! But there are some very good songs that they have done in the last 15+ years. Sort of like the "Latter Day Gems" you did on the Kinks. They are there, not in one cohesive knock your socks off album. My thoughts anyway. Thanks as always for the music and conversation.

Andy

Sal Nunziato said...

Thanks Andy. I think I mentioned the "gems," though maybe I found a few less than you did. I didn't mind "Around The Sun" the way so many others did. "Leaving New York" is gorgeous. I guess I hear them as a band trying too hard these days. That's not a good thing.

big bad wolf said...

i think it wasn't so much that bill berry had so much power in the band, but that they were such a band; that is, their own understanding of what it was they did required all of them and the feeling, not just the music, they produced together. at some level, they didn't think of themselves as r.e.m anymore.

that said, i quite like reveal and around the sun, much to my own surprise. at first, i thought them too smooth but that's the surface, there's a lot going on in both the music and in stipe's tone.

i haven't heard the new one, but i did think they were trying to hard with accelerate. trying too hard to sound louder and relevant and trying to hard to be a rock band, in the way that monster did, but when they were great they didn't sound the way they did on monster. i think they did both jangly, mumbly, obscure, mopey great (through reckoning) and slightly louder, slightly less,mumbly and mopey well (through automatic). after that, not so much, partly through running out of youth and ideas and partly out of the departure of berry, i'd guess.

Rushbo... said...

I owe REM a lot. They're the band that saved me from REO Speedwagon. They're responsible for a whole heap of fantastic musical experiences and provided the soundtrack to an important part of my life. Since 'Up', I've tried so hard to find something to love about their albums, but with diminishing returns. 'Accelerate' seemed to be a return to form, but only because the ones prior to it were so poor.

Berry's departure really shook the band - 'Up' is a pretty weird record by anyone's standards, but it's great. It was at that stage they started to think about what REM could sound like and went off on some interesting tangents. Sadly they found the door marked 'Pearl Jam B sides' and stayed there. And now, I don't think they know what they're supposed to sound like.

I’m not a fan of the ‘big’ albums (‘…Time’/’Automatic…’) but I really enjoyed ‘Monster’ and ‘New Adventures…’ To me, that was the band unfolding and tried new stuff. And a lot of it worked. ‘Monster’ got a severe kicking, but it really holds up. Its major flaw in the eyes of the Music press was that it wasn’t ‘Losing my religion’ times 12. That is a good thing.

You can't write them off and they are capable of writing something dark, biting and commercial (eg 'Lifes Rich Pageant'). I'll buy the new one (I'm streaming it as I type...) and I'll play it for a week. Or until my sadness and frustration forces me to replace it with Murmur.

Albert said...

Let's face it...how many great artists(solo or group) who insist on staying around a little too long are as good now as they were "then"....great bands that didn't decline either quit at the top or had someone die and then packed it in...and when they carried on without full ensemble it always seemed like stretching...so be it...

Sal Nunziato said...

@Albert

Good point, but there are always exceptions. (That could be for a future post.)

In the case of R.E.M., it doesn't feel like better or worse. As I stated briefly, there have been some "gems," and actually, if the consumer wasn't always comparing new work to old, "Around The Sun" may stand on its own, at least to my ears.

I think my problem with R.E.M. is that it all seems so transparent. The records seem to be sacrificing heart and soul in exchange for that one last ticket to the top. The band sounds tired and dated...to me.

Bill said...

I don't know, I've had Accelerate on my player or in my car pretty much since it came out, and I think there are some good songs on there. I like the fact that it's short--they did what they wanted to do and left it at that. And I like the "rock" sound of it--and this is coming from someone who's least favorite REM album used to be Lifes Rich Pageant. And I played Chronic Town on my college radio show when it first came out, so I've been around awhile.

There was a good article on The AV Club recently about the White Stripes breaking up, talking about how the combination of people in a band (or other creative endeavor) can create a situation or space that allows the members to produce great things. When the drummer leaves, you might think nothing changes, but in fact the situation changes, and that can change everything.

Anyway, I'm going to buy Collapse Into Now, just like I've bought every REM album before it.

A walk in the woods said...

I don't think REM is tied to a period of time any more than any other artist -- but it does seem their best days have passed. The problem for me is not what era they sound like, or what age they are, or even so much if Bill Berry's in the band, but how much fun I have listening to them.

And for so long, they have plied such a dour furrow (except the last album which sounded kinda forced -- I mean, I don't want 'em to be mopey but they don't have to RAWK either), I've lost interest. Shame, because they have greatness in them.

Dolphy said...

Sal, I agree with much that you say. I was and remain a huge fan of their early stuff, but they have lost their mojo. Can they find it again? Dylan did. Neil Young has. That said "somebody" could make a great mix-tape of post-Automatic album cuts and contributions to tribute albums. Also, please give UP anohter try. It is about 80% a solid, REM effort. Finally, Mike Mills, especially his harmonies remain strong.

Sal Nunziato said...

Dolphy,
That post-Auto REM comp is a great idea. Maybe readers could suggest the tracklist.

But...Mike Mills? All I keep reading is "the strong harmonies of Mike Mills."

Really? To me, he sounds like Felix Unger honking during one of his sinus attacks. One of my very fave songs, "Fall On Me" was absolutely ruined by Mike Mills on the bridge. Or how about the droning on "Love Is All Around?"

I just don't hear it.

Sal Nunziato said...

And Dolphy, my apologies for coming on so strong. But it was literally minutes ago I had this same discussion with a friend. I'm still fired up. Forgive me.

Dolphy said...

Hey, that's not coming on too strong, you should me and my music buds go at it!. Music should bring out THE(talk about the) PASSION!.
I am not saying that Mike Mills is a strong vocalist but his harmonies are one of the strongest signature aspects of the band's sound.

JB said...

Saw them open for the English Beat a few million records ago. We were there for the Beat but I found the band with the mumbly voice guy intriguing. Shortly thereafter the local AOR station started playing Radio Free Europe and Laughing from Murmur. I bought Murmur and some of their subsequent releases. I particularly liked Document, Out of Time, and Automatic. But their mojo did seem to evaporate.

I'll nominate Electrolite for the post-Automatic mix, for sentimental reasons. When I started listening to music again after my Dad passed away, it was the first song to pop up on my iPod. "I'm not scared, I'm outa here" seemed appropriate.

And I've never heard the studio version of I've Been High from Reveal, but I enjoy the live version on KFOG Live at the Archives Volume 9.