R.E.M. – Part Lies Part Truth Part Heart Part Garbage

HAVING FRIENDS IS MAYBE THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN LIFE (EVER NOTICE HOW SAD UNPOPULAR PEOPLE TEND TO BE?), AND R.E.M. IS A GOOD FRIEND. RELIABLE, EXCEPT FOR A FEW YEARS THERE. NEVER TOO LOUD OR TOO QUIET, PRETTY ARTISTIC, OLD BUT STILL NEITHER THE FIRST IN OR LAST ORT OF THE PARTY. AND THEY DON’T MAKE AWKWARD FACEBOOK STUSES OR VULGAR TWEETS. THAT’S IMPORTANT. MAN, RECORDED MUSIC WAS A GREAT INVENTION, WASN’T IT 10 YEARS AGO THIS WOULD HAVE ALL BEEN FOR SHIT1 BUT NOW WE HAVE”PILGRIMAGE” AND “WENDELL GEE” and “Me In Honey” to enjoy forever. Not that they’re here, of course, becauSe this is a career-spanning compilation, and when you’re gajillionaires there’s only room for the album tracks you have a major hard-on for. Yes, you, second-person person. And no, I’m not going to turn those caps off, because I’m writing this in bliding sunlight, and it’s not my fault, and I don’t care I don’t care I don’t care.

Yes, a career-spanning retrospective, 30 years on two “discs”, let’s break it down period by period in terms of contributions, because i’m boring and lazy and stupid stupid stupid: Okay, I’m inside now.

When You Were Young and Mumbly Joe, The Early Years: These songs are uniformly fantastic, so they literally could have picked songs out of hats and come up with a good selection. That’s what they actually did, I’m told, they just magically ended up choosing the big singles. Lucky! Questionable choices include random album track “Sitting Still ” and meh “Perfect Circle” from the first album, instead of the better songs on there, and the original single version of “Radio Free Europe” was far faster and therefore superior. Reckoning contributes its too obvious catchy songs, the ones that trend towards narrative, while album three wisely skips the shitty funk-rock single and contributes the awesome “Driver 8” (TRAINS) and a hidden gem of an album tracks with a long name. Life’s Which Pageant, a great album, sadly skips over the wonderful “Cuyahoga” and “I Believe” to contribute “Begin the Begin” and obvious single “Fall On Me.” Lovely songs, both, even if the first is an odd album track choice. Document contributes its three singles, go-getter “Finest Worksong” and the overplayed (but excellent) anti-love song “The One I Love” and “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”, which is maybe the best song of the entire 1980s, which is something that only comes up once every ten years or so. Early R.E.M. were stupid good, and most of these songs would be ridiculously solid today, so go out and get those albums, there’s way more that’s skipped to make room for what’s to come.

Part Schmaltz, Part Dad-Rock, Part Catchy Melodies and Solid Lyrics, The Missing Years: Inexplicably, shitbag of an album Green contributes FOUR songs, including three failed attempts at political pop songs. All four songs have the same problem: the “say a few vague things” approach to lyric-writing doesn’t work when applied to external stimuli instead of internal stimuli. These songs all have their moments (except the dumb “Get Up”), but it’s a bit much and makes the decline seem way more precipitous than it really way. Next is where the big singles stand and all the songs get mid-tempo, but they do a good job of mixing it up and including gorgeous album tracks “Country Feedback” and “Nightswimming” alongside “Losing My Religion”, “Man on the Moon”, and “Everybody Hurts”, which is a fine song in extreme moderation. Oh, but they included the relentlessly shitty “Shiny Happy People”,  a song so bathetic that the band vowed never to play it live *and just about kept said promise for 20 years). The next four albums contribute one song each, even though they weren’t bad albums, and said song choices are silly. Okay, I understand only including the big single off of Monster, but why the hell is “Electrolite” on here, and even more confusingly, why is genuine love song “At My Most Beautiful” here instead of the actual hit “Daysleeper”? Still nice songs, but enough that you’ll long for the day when they were just four anti-semites from Georgia singing about pussy and keg stands!

It’s Not Me, It’s You, The End: As the band enters its final phase, first we had the stage where they were shitbags for a few years. Reveal contributes “Imitation Of Lfie”, its one good song, while Around The Sun contributes one of its many shitty, slow, overly synthesized songthings. There’s also a couple non-album tracks, including “Bad Day”, which was originally the demo of that song I called the best song of the 80s twenty minutes ago. They got better, but, perhaps understandably a bit in love with their most recent creation, Collapse Into Now contributes more songs than the vastly superior Accelerate. What did Mother Mother cover “O My Heart” and the silly “Automatter Aviagator Allipilot” do to deserve being here as the hypotenuse of, say, “Fall On Me”? Nothing, nothing nothing nothing. Then there’s three new songs, two of which are nice enough but meh songthings, and one is a comically terrible ode to how nice weekends are. No, really, it’s fucking terrible. And that’s it! Play time is over!

So, R.E.M. are gone, hopefully, except for a few compilations that are coming. They did many good things, and some of them are collected here. Maybe it’s not the most important thing ever, but like they said in Charlotte’s Web: it’s hard to find someone who is both a good friend and a good writer. It’s been fun, R.E.M.

Or, as a recent spam email I received wrote:

Whats up, buddy? This is some kind of offer.. from Elizabeth!

You, my next star, should know such a famous person like me!

I am some kind of exotic movie tehnician.

Unknown guys has uploaded your, lets say, .. picture here:

Oh! Oh! Oh…, you are so hot! Probably you want to try yourself in that hot biz?

Nevermind,

Elizabeth

8 / 10

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R.E.M. – Collapse Into Now

R.E.M.s last studio album, possibly ever! At last my long nightmare of listening to one of my favourite bands is nearly over!

 

This one continues their renaissance as talented elder-statesmen alt-rockers, which is nice, but there’s little of the experimentation and catchiness that was in play last time, and way more ballads, resulting is a much duller and less memorable album, even if it’s still a solid listen.

There’s also far more callbacks to old songs – “Discoverer” is like “Lotus”, U-Berlin is like “Drive”, “Oh My Heart” and “It Happened Today” are super like “New Test Leper”, which was never my favourite mostly-acoustic rambler, even though the band seem to love washing its leprous balls when it gets the chance to talk about it, and “Blue” is so very “E-Bow The Letter”, complete with Patti Smith singing the chorus again.

Like every album since the mid-90s, there’s a solid contingent of flyover songs – including most of the ballads and a couple of the rockers. That said, of the memorable songs, most are memorable for good reasons instead of bad. “Discoverer” has a great buzzing guitar sound (even if the chorus is tacked on), “It Happened Today” ends with gorgeous wordless harmonies, “Mine Smell Like Honey” has a great title, “Walk It Back” is a proper old-man trope namer, “That Someone Is You” is the one song on here that tries something new and totally succeeds (it’s like 80s pop-punk! cute!), and “Blue”… well, I personally never get tired of spoken-word art shit, and that Finnegans Wake wraparound into “Discoverer”, while nothing new, is new for R.E.M. and also works.

But here’s something that doesn’t work, and makes me a bit glad for the breakup: Michael Stipe has a new penchant for fast-paced, often stupid aabb rhymes. “This is not a parable / This is so terrible” or “I feel like an alligator / When I’m on the escalator” or “This is not a lie / It’s not all cherry pie” – it’s a disturbing trend from a band that once led the world in neat-o pensive, wonderfully opaque lyrics. Though he does pull out some old magic in “Blue” with the tearjerking “I want Walt Whitman proud / Patti Smith proud / My sisters proud” talk.

So, this album isn’t quite Myspace Top 8 worthy, but give it a couple million (on CD) spins, R.E.M. may not go out on top, but they go out with not a whimper, but with a dignified handshake and a respectable blowing out of the candles.

7 / 10

R.E.M. – Live At The Olympia

Well! Technically a rehearsal for the terrible live album R.E.M. Live, which is weird as heckfire, because this album is the best. A live album with freaking 39 songs? That’s Springsteenian!

But wait, it gets way better. The band is the fuck on top of their game – Stipe sounds lively, the backing vocals are on key, the drums are on top of the melodies, the guitars and bass guitar are mixed clearly and they KILL. It’s a joy to listen to in terms of timbre.

But wait, it gets way better. The guys play whatever the fuck they want, and, unusually for such a long-lived band of professionals, they felt like wonderful and sloppy takes on early material. The tone gets set right from the start, when they predictably start with the catchiest song off the latest album. Then, without a word, they jump into a random album track from their 25 year-old second album. Then they jump into another random album track from their 25 year-old second album. It’s way the hell unusual and great for an old band. They give the hardcore what they want, and in good humour. Seriously, who would’ve guessed they’d play a THREE HOUR set that’s heavy on 80s material? Not I! Any holy shit are these great songs. Like, almost all of them! There’s even a couple songs not available anywhere else – the boring Around The Sun-esque “On The Fly” and the decent Accelerate-esque “Staring Down The Barrel Of The Middle Distance”, which also features a cool title. it doesn’t hurt that Accelerate is a good album, since they play most of it, too.

Oh, and there’s no “Losing My Religion” or “Man On The Moon” here. This is a for us fans kind of show. Oh, the endless joys! Oh, the backing vocals on “Maps And Legends”! Sing, O Muse, of the singing of Buck’n’Stripes! And completely free of affectation!

Seriously I don’t know what got into R.E.M. on this wonderful night, but this is pretty much perfect. Stipey’s even in good humour! “We’re R.E.M. and this is what we do.” No it isn’t! You’re old! You play boring tracks off of Around The Sun! You don’t play fucking “Kohoutek” and “Circus Envy” and “Romance”! At least I don’t think you do. But on this album you do. That’s just lovely. There’s also the memorable line from Peter Buck that “there are no B-sides anymore, it’s all MP3s” after a brief discussion of whether or not “Man Sized Wreath” would be on the next album (Stipe was wrong; it was).

A solid nine. R.E.M. the best.

9 / 10

R.E.M. – Accelerate

Well, this is a pleasant surprise. Score one for the old guys!

It’s maybe better to think of this album as being made by a totally new band, aside from the sweet backing vocals and, of course, Michael Stipe. The jangle is gone! The gimmicks are (mostly) gone! The overcomplicated production is gone! Instead we’re left with a record by a bunch of 40-somethings that sort of… rocks? It’s weird to write and feel, but this is the first R.E.M. release in forever that gives me that turn-the-volume-to-max feelings, as well as that sing-along-the-first-time-I-hear-it feeling, albeit periodically.

It’s like R.E.M. were the band featured in a movie about an aging band of rockstars. They’re awesome and cool, then they give up being poor for being worldbeaters, then spend a decade making increasingly tired and orchestral records in an attempt to recapture the old magic. Then they see a mystic, played by Jack Black, who tells them “just play some fuckin’ songs, man!” Then the scene opens to a stage at Carnegie Hall and the band plays opening track “Living Well Is The Best Revenge”, their best rock song since 1989 or something.

Lyrics? I think most of them are left-wing political yelling, aside from the obvious single about being a bored teenager in a small town. But there’s no sign of a weepy “Everybody Hurts” or artsy “I’ve Been High” here. Instead, they’re a band-like band, and one unafraid of singing the word “complicatedness” unironically. Plus, they take chances like young people, even if not all of them work. Having a main hook be a two note squeal? Sure! Ending the album with consecutive two-minute rock songs, even if one of them is crappy half-rap? Yes! A riff that sounds suspiciously like Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid? Who cares! Fake piano opening? Yes and yes!

There are a few songs here that just kinda play – “Sing For The Submarine” is a five-minute meh that’s still better than all of Around The Sun for referencing about ten old R.E.M. songs and having a cool title, and “Until The Day Is Done” is an unremarkable acoustic number, and the title track’s no great potatoes either, but the other songs are actually good, I can forgive it, writing songs seems hard!

It’s okay to feel weird about a bunch of aging, rich, white dudes sounding like a rock band and getting away with it, but if it feels better, imagine they’re not CEOs in their spare time. There’s too much goodness here to get bitter – what makes a rock album good? Hooks! Tempo changes! Originality! This album has all of those things, and it’s charming as an album, not as a “comeback album” or a “big bowl of bees and bandaids” or god damn it I’m unemployed again.

8 / 10

R.E.M. – R.E.M. Live

More like R.E.M. Dead. Let’s do this point form style:

– The band sounds exciting for exactly two songs, a couple old album tracks, before settling into a sad rut of bored-sounding greatest hits and boring new album tracks.

– Over a quarter of the set (six songs) come from their boring shitcan (what, you didn’t get the deluxe edition??) of a last album. These songs have no hooks, and every time you think there might be a little momentum building, they kill it by playing one of these snoozers.

– The new song, “I’m Gonna DJ”, is a sad attempt to sound “rocking.”

– MIchael Stipe consistently thinks the only way to emphasize a line is to shout the last word, so “so fast so numb that can’t even feel” becomes “so fast so numb that you can’t even…..FEEEEEEL!!!!” This mannerism quickly becomes parodic when it’s used even in the quiet “Drive.” Hey, at least I got a smile out of it!

– Old man Stipe ruins “Man On The Moon” by saying the Elvis impersonator line like a maniacal, jovial clown, not a depressed Elvis. He also keeps up the tradition of shouting “COOOL!” after the chorus, which is really, really annoying.

– There’s almost zero stage patter to comment on, except for the time Stipe says he’s going to play two protest songs, which gets a rousing applause, but they let the audience down by playing sleepy new songs “I Wanted To Be Wrong” and “The Final Straw” instead of the great, angry “Ignoreland”.

– The backing “bocals” are out of key most of the time. The heck?

– As the show drags on, the whole band sounds like the collectively come down with a cold. The whole production gets more wheezy and nasal, Stipe starts pronouncing words wrong, the drums sound like they’re playing along to slightly different songs. Or maybe I’m just as tired of hearing “Everybody Hurts” as the band were of playing it.

– Lovely Up-era track “Walk Unafraid” translates just horribly in a live setting.

– All this is to ignore that two-thirds of these songs are great songs, even if they’re in better form on albums other than this one. Go listen to those albums instead. After all, “Depression can make you nihilistic – you start to see everything as pointless and absurd. Depressed can blind you to the genuinely awesome and wonderful things in life, but it also gives you a very low tolerance for meaningless bullshit. If you start from a place where everything is meaningless, a LOT of the little stuff people really stress out over becomes totally ridiculous.”

5 / 10

R.E.M. – And I Feel Fine: The Best Of R.E.M. 1982 – 1987

First of all, sorry for all of this. I really mean it. I’m so fucking sorry. Please, find it in your heart to forgive me. I know I don’t deserve it.

Second, Margaret Thatcher was an awful person and we shouldn’t be sad that she’s dead. And I don’t mean because she fought unions or was a member of the Conservative party. No, she was horrible because she supported (at least) the following genocidal dictators: Pol Pot, Suharto, Hussein, Pinochet. She called Nelson Mandela a terrorist and supported apartheid. And one policy point: the fucking poll tax. If you’re not familiar with it, it has little to do with the American Poll Tax, which was essentially a fee collected for voting aimed at suppressing the black vote. No, Thatcher’s Poll Tax was a replacement for property tax that meant that households were taxed based on number of members instead of value of property. Therefore, an apartment of three people making $10,000/year each would pay more tax than a mansion of two people making $100,000 each. Fairness! So nobody should be sad that the witch is dead. And I didn’t even know her! Fookin’ Maggie!

Thirdly, this is yet another compilation, this one a retread of their 80s output spread over two discs, with the second disc comprised of rarities and album tracks. Yes, it is a fast driving two hours with Ari M. to come, so get your hands off your puds and listen!

The good news is that R.E.M. in the 80s were pretty much fucking flawless, so everything here (speaking of the ‘best of’ and not the ‘rarities’) is mighty purdy. Of course, I was as not-alive in 1980-1985 as I likely will be from 2080-2085, so I can’t remember any impact these songs had, but I feel pretty certain that they’ll still be great when I have returned to the loam and maggots eat my Jew eyes. Why? Because they sound fucking amazing but don’t make any sense! So you get to make your own meaning, and boy howdy do they ever meaning to me! That’s only sometimes true, sometimes there’s meaning, but how could the concept of “Gardening At Night” or the crafty folk story “7 Chinese Bros.” go out of style? Its been over thirty years and they (and their ilk of which there are multitudes here) are still wonderful. Such chiming guitars! Such a mellifluous tenor! Such catchy melodies! This is literature set to music, young men and women! It’s way better than that “Everybody Poops” garbage that came later!

I’m not finished yet! “Driver 8” has trains! “So. Central Rain” and “Don’t Go Back To Rockville” have pathos! “Talk About The Passion” has talking about the passion! And that’s not counting the three later hits that will surely have you saying “hey, I’ve heard that song – it’s really good!” as you marvel at how malevolent “The One I Love” is and all the other good stuff when they got obtusely political! And the track list is all mixed up so you never get tired of any album’s style (though you also don’t get a sense of the band’s history! I write with exclamation marks because fuck these are great songs! Golly gee, except where’s “Wendell Gee”? Anyway.

The first “dick” (hee!) has 21 songs, and since there weren’t 21 hits from the time when they lived in their tour vans and shitty Southern apartments, so the list is aided by a bunch of occasionally lesser album tracks, but for the most part they’re just as ding dang good.

The second “dick” also has 21 songs, and these are comprised of a bunch more album tracks (filler!) that are apparently band choices, which is silly but includes the stupendous “Pilgrimage”, then the rarities start! One of them is “Superman”, a single that obviously should’ve been on the best of. Then there are a couple demos of what would go on to be good songs, an oft-released “Live In Studio” “bersion” of “Just a Touch” with extra unnecessary “oooh ooh”s that make Stripes sound super tired, a sentence break. There’s a few rawther grate live songs, an oft-released “Other Mix” of “Finest Worksong” (which I didn’t like much the first time around), and a couple previously unreleased demos that’ll yank your crank until you realize they kinda suck. “Theme From Two Steps Onward” does sound like a demo of the lovely “Good Advices”, so that’s nice. But hay, unreleased tracks! And then a couple more album tracks, including “Time After Time”, just for you, Pavement!

I’m reminded of the good parts of Faulkner when I’m listening to this joy-causing old-timey indie-rock, except that this beats the hell out of reading S&F. It certainly destructifies that one embarrassing essay I once wrote about Dilsey in one night that I got 65% on back in third year. What a shameful exercise that was, I literally feel myself sweating just writing about it now. But really, this is Faulkner, only way the fuck better because four-piece rock band, the scientifically best way to perform songs. The southern gothic, the impressionism, the stream of very particular consciousness.

Oh! Also there’s a ssssslllloooowwww demo of “Gardening At Night” and the original (vastly superior) faster versions of “Radio Free Europe” and “Sitting Still”. And the great lines are too numerous to count “I’m not beating off, you are” for one. Hey, wanna know what I did today? I lost my job! Well that’s not quite accurate; more like my contact wasn’t extended. So I bought a 12-pack of Steam Whistle in mid-afternoon and set myself to drinking it, cancelling on Girlfriend midway through. I’ve got to get over it fast, you see, because tomorrow morning I leave on a road trip to Montreal, to spend the weekend around the very people who chose not to extend me, acting like it isn’t awkward because they’re potential employers in the future. It’s not a complaint about the economy; it’s normal and I really do like my country’s left-wing political party, but AAAAAGGGHHHHH. That is all.

9 / 10

R.E.M. – Wanderlust

Hey, you know what’s pretty inoffensive? The nice but flightly pop songs “Wanderlust” and “The Outsiders” performed without it’s stupid rap appearance.

Hey, know what’s a stupid headline? This: “Mayor Rob Ford says he will try to kill City Hall hike station with showers” – how the hell do I not have a job copy editing headlines if this is making it to press? Because while I hate Rob Ford, I can assure you he is not trying to use showers to assassinate a bike parking lot. Though his objection to said bike station is terrible. You know, I’d dislike Rob Ford policy-wise regardless of his personality, but the fact that he is a corrupt, lying, misogynistic, stupid, violent drunk makes me quite content in saying that I hate him.

Hey, know what’s a serious issue? Perhaps, you might say, a serious “Men’s Issue”? Suicide, that’s what. Perhaps even an issue one would feel justified in starting a club about, along with the general feeling that men feel growing up that they are meant to be self-reliant and stoic. So, when several universities in the Toronto area announced they wanted to start “men’s rights” clubs I was initially optimistic. Among men 17-24 suicide rates are four times that of suicide rates among women of the same age; it’s something that could use some specific attention. As a young man who struggled awfully with emotional problems when I was young (especially after my mother’s suicide), and who found nearly zero recourse other than the friends I was lucky enough to have, I feel like I understand that this is an issue that needs addressing on a personal, not institutional level. Male-dominated society is responsible, but that doesn’t help tomorrow’s 19 year-old men dealing with their serious emotional problems, yo. But no, cursory examination reveals that these clubs are only interested in young men dying as a pretense for rambling about false rape accusations and alimony. Thanks a lot for letting young men continue to die, assholes! You’re little better than rich southerners complaining about reparations! What a sadly missed opportunity. I guess Johnny will have to continue to deal with his mom’s death (or abusive coach, or alcoholic dad) on his own just like now!

For the record, I sort of wish I could start a young men’s support club, and universities sure as fuck need some way to reach the disproportionate number of young men that are killing themselves every year, I would start by hanging a big banner that says “IT’S OKAY TO WANT HELP” – because I sure as fuck remember feeling like nobody was there for me. Until, of course, my friends (including my fraternity – gold and blue!) told me over and over that I had people to talk to, until I finally believed them. I remember my dad never talking to me, and I remember the university psychiatrists giving me no special attention, and I remember not getting any exam exemptions, and I’m obviously still worked up about it, and I might have turned out as at least a dropout without the support I had through friendly serendipity. But if I was a stupid, and didn’t have the friends I had…might’be been rough. I’m drunk, and this is terrible. A bunch of self-involved blather.

The numbers are a bit serious, and I feel bad because it could have been me. It sort of is me, except that I had the magic elixir of a million lovely friends. No surprise, I guess, that 20 year-old internet men don’t care about real problems and just want to get their own. Hey, it’s great popcorn to read about. But but but, if I was in charge of the universe I’d be addressing that suicide rate; the fact that it’s ignored and outraged about Mike Rice’s firing is not ignored is just one more reason to rant against Conservatives. I really must digress now.

Hey, put it in my butt and change your name to Franklin. No? How DARE you stress out over little stuff while young men are KILLING THEMSELVES? You are a MONSTER.

5 / 10