Imagine a world where the following songs do not exist:
- “Everybody Hurts”
- “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”
- “Shiny Happy People”
Now imagine how much you would love R.E.M., if you lived in that world. A lot, right?
That’s a rehearsal. Michael Stipe picked up a gospel album (The Joy of Knowing Jesus by The Revelaires) and read the liner notes to the tune of “7 Chinese Brothers”, which appeared on R.E.M.’s second album, Reckoning. I’ve always liked this version better. It has a sincerity and spontaneity that the studio version doesn’t quite have. Originally, “Voice Of Harold” was released on Dead Letter Office, from IRS records. Also included was this:
“Everybody Hurts” comes from 1992’s Automatic For The People, almost officially R.E.M.’s last listenable album, unless you want to count Mike Mills Gets A Tremolo Pedal, I’m sorry, I mean Monster, from 1994. “Everybody Hurts” is maudlin glop, with a video to match. Let’s instead focus on this superlative track from Fables of the Reconstruction (1985):
That’s why the later stuff was such a let-down. The early stuff is pretty much all on that level of quality. I mean, for a good portion of the late 1980s, I listened to R.E.M. almost all the time. That horrendous caricature of me on the first panel is doing something I actually did. R.E.M. albums on vinyl had interesting, pungent scents when you took them out of the shrinkwrap, due to the fancy papers used for the sleeve. Maybe you had to be there, but it was the same as smelling a book when you first get it. CDs (and cassettes for that matter) never really captured the same tactility. Clear plastic always feels cheap.
(I don’t know why the person wishing me dead in the second panel looks more like me than the guy who’s supposed to be me does. Not that you asked, but I don’t.)
Here’s an absolute gem from R.E.M.’s first LP, Murmur (1983):
I used to listen to that on my Walkman while touring prospective colleges, in 1989. Its memetic power is undeniable. That’s not even one of their well-known songs. Had you even heard it before? How good is that?
Same album (I caution you; this band was laying it on thick with the hoity-toity lyrics from the start):
R.E.M.’s debut EP was Chronic Town, in 1982, now out of print but included on numerous CD releases. This is the song with which these sons of bitches kicked off. I’m sure the lyrics can be searched out somewhere; be forewarned that not knowing what they are might drive you nuts. Inscrutable words were once an R.E.M. hallmark, like the brief instrumentals they used to sandwich between tracks. I mean, they took their name from the phase of sleep when your eyes move rapidly, in sync with where you look in your dream. Rapid Eye Movement. Of course they’d be on the kooky side.
1987’s Document featured an up-tempo cover of English art-punk group Wire’s “Strange”. All due respect to Wire; I just like R.E.M.’s take better. Call me an ugly American if you must. I just really like what they did with it.
“The One I Love” is decent, I suppose, but is it anywhere near as good as “Strange”? Is “Finest Worksong” even that good? Or is any other song on Document?
Green, from 1988, had the “magic R”; when the cover was tilted, a previously-invisible number 4 appeared on top of the R in GREEN. The explanation for this is rather mundane, but I linked it there in case you’re curious. Basically, I should have held on to the damn thing. Green was the band’s first effort for Warner Bros., and it’s when they truly broke big, for better or worse. Most people know it for “Stand” (track 4, or “song R”), which was used as the theme song for Chris Elliott’s Get A Life, one of the greatest television comedies of all time.
As far as Green goes, the best song is probably the opener. It might be the last truly great R.E.M. song.
After this came Out Of Time, in 1991, not coincidentally the date indicated that I ceased to enjoy R.E.M. in the strip. I don’t have anything good to say about Out Of Time. I lack any and all affection for the sound of a mandolin. Let’s just leave it at that.
Alright look- I’m gonna be blunt as far as Automatic For The People goes. It was done wrong by radio, first and foremost. Half of it is too depressing for casual listening. In our universe, where “Everybody Hurts” exists, there is a slight possibility that I wouldn’t hate it as violently, had it not been so ubiquitous in 1992. That goes double for “Man on the Moon”. Hey, “Nightswimming” is a terrific track; it’s also poignant and somber.
You know it and I know it; the best song on the album is “Try Not To Breathe”.
Even that one’s kinda suicidey.
There’s nothing on Monster that I’m crazy about. There are albums that follow it, but I haven’t heard any of them, and none of the song titles ring a bell. But I’m telling you; before the politics, the brain aneurysm, the hernia, and the 21st century, R.E.M. was one of the best damn bands in the world. Jangliness notwithstanding.