Wednesday, November 23, 2011


And so we bid adieu to R.E.M., a band which tried so hard to remain relevant, or at least tried to keep themselves interested.  But despite every attempt, they couldn't beat back the inevitable, and as predicted, never overcame the loss of drummer Bill Berry.  He didn't so much mess up the mix when he left, as he did let the air out of the thing.  They tried everything, it seemed;  they recorded a lot, they took big breaks, they played lots live, they stopped touring, they tried a new sound, they went back to their earlier sound.  They were soft sometimes, and loud others, and defiant over the dwindling status until the very end.  Yet their legacy will be so easy to write; with Berry they amassed an impressive string of artistic triumphs, but without him, hits and passion dried up.  The albums, while initially seeming to hold some magic, inevitably paled to the past, and a series of bland titles (Up, Reveal, Accelerate) hid groups of songs where nothing stood out to sit with the old numbers.

Nowhere is that more obvious that this new double-disc best-of.  Once we get past New Adventures In Hi-Fi, and Berry's departure, the best cuts are either an old number revived for a previous hits compilation (Bad Day) or Peter Buck's Brian Wilson tribute (At My Most Beautiful).  And if you can name any other tracks from their later albums, kudos my friend, you're one of the rare fans.

So now that the retirement is official, we can all breath properly again, and pay homage to the first half of the band's career, without feeling guilty and disloyal.  Two-thirds of the tracks come from those days, and it's so easy to pick 'em, they fall off the discs like the biggest, juiciest apples.  Radio Free Europe, Driver 8, Fall One Me, It's The End Of The World As We Know It, The One I Love, Stand, Losing My Religion, Shiny Happy People, Everybody Hurts, Man On The Moon, What's The Frequency, Kenneth?, what a streak.  Like The Rolling Stones, we don't think of them as a singles band, but they sure knew how to make 'em. Maybe that's what happened to this band in the end, they just lost the ability to distill it in three minutes.

For the buyer, this set offers three final attempts, recorded this year in aborted sessions for another ill-conceived album.  And once again, none of them has any energy or spark to burn them to your memory.  It's as strong a two-disc set as you'll get otherwise, with all the must-own's here, and for the first time, the early I.R.S. years are compiled alongside the Warner material.  A rare song or two might have sweetened the pot, but that would have meant further reductions from the latter part of the career, perhaps an even bigger embarrassment  for the band.  They probably should have either packed it in earlier, or embraced live touring as their future, but at least they tried.  What each member does next should proof very interesting.

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