As one of the principal pioneers in the alternative/college rock scene, REM were even able to make a huge impact with their diminutive, five song EP debut. Right from the beginning their material proved to be highly influential for their contemporaries, even with their early dearth of content.
It's natural that this would be the case, however, as even from the start many aspects of the group's signature sound (for their early period, at least) were in place, from their trademark jangly guitars to Michael Stipe's earnest, hypnotic vocals.
This sound alone would have been worthless, however, without the songwriting to back it up; fortunately even on their debut the caliber of their compositions is high, with songs like Wolves, Lower and Carnival Of Sorts (Box Cars) numbering amongst the group's very best.
The group had a unique sound from the start, and their performances on the EP are tight and remarkably confident for a debut. Throughout the course of a mere five songs the band carves out a distinctive identity for themselves, one that, while subsequently often emulated, was highly original at the time. Through the medium of a short EP the band manages to convey everything that made their early work special, with no flaws saving leaving the listener wanting more.
Ultimately Chronic Town is an extremely accomplished debut, demonstrating the band's sound over the course of a mere twenty minutes, announcing their arrival without giving away a whole LP's worth of material, thus creating early demand and anticipation for a full fledged album. Highly atmospheric and filled with unforgettable hooks and melodies, Chronic Town functions as a microcosm for everything that the band's early work was about, a perfect indication of what was to come.
After a highly auspicious debut, REM more than fulfilled the potential displayed on their debut EP Chronic Town. An atmospheric masterpiece, Murmur cultivates a dark vibe reinforced by deft, minimalist instrumentation, resulting in a unique, rich, emotive sound of incredible potency.
This is not to say that the band relies on atmosphere at the expense of songwriting, however. The album is bereft of weak tracks, with each song containing a catchy, well developed melody and a plethora of hooks.
Stipe's vocals are once more integral to the sound of the album, with his trademark mumbling vocals conveying a wide spectrum of emotion and sincerity while he delivers his patented cryptic lyrics. These vocals play an even larger role than the instrumental performances, as they often take center stage in conveying the melodies on the album.
The album is extremely consistent, forming a cohesive whole that amounts to more than the sum of its parts. With its dark atmosphere sustained for the duration of the album, Murmur becomes a singular experience as opposed to a traditional collection of songs.
This is not to denigrate the quality of the songs, however. From the bouncy opener Radio Free Europe to the piano driven Perfect Circle to the moody Pilgrimage to the nursery rhyme style We Walk to the menacing West Of The Fields, nearly every track on the album is a true classic, each distinctive while still preserving the overarching atmosphere of the album.
In the end Murmur is a brilliant album, a debut LP of incredible richness and scope. Creating a dark atmosphere that sounds like nothing else and marrying it to extremely strong songwriting, Murmur is a true classic, a pioneering effort in the alternative/college rock movement that would go on to influence myriad imitators that would universally come up short when compared to the original. While the atmosphere remains consistent throughout the album, the songs never sound uniform or monotonous, with each containing its own, unique identity. Murmur provides an experience that cannot be duplicated, nor would the band ever attempt to; while REM crafted a multitude of subsequent classics, they never endeavored to recreate the experience of Murmur, giving the album a special place in the band's discography.
For their sophomore effort, the band abandons the atmospheric approach employed on Murmur in favor of a more direct song oriented style. While this dispels much of the mystique that the group had cultivated on their debut, the caliber of the songwriting is more than up for the challenge of an album of more traditional college rock.
Thanks to the more conventional production style imposed on the proceedings, the album rocks considerably more than its predecessor; when coupled with more fully realized songs it makes for a more mainstream, immediately accessible listening experience.
Rather than bemoan the loss of Murmur's bewitching atmosphere, one should focus on the quality of the songs, which is universally high. The primary acknowledged classic is So. Central Rain with its simple yet unforgettable refrain, but all of the other tracks are strong as well, from the haunting ballad Camera to the moody album opener Harborcoat.
Another distinct advantage Reckoning holds over its predecessor is diversity. As a repercussion of the fact that nearly the entire album was drenched in the same hypnotic atmosphere there were only a modicum of chances to vary the sound of Murmur; on Reckoning, on the other hand, the band are free to operate through variegated styles, from rockers to ballads to even country music, preventing the album from ever growing monotonous or same-sounding.
Ultimately Reckoning is an eminently worthy successor to a brilliant debut. Rather than religiously adhering to the blueprints of Murmur the band opted to take the album in new directions, which helps give it its own unique identity in the band's canon. While it's not quite up to the same level as their epochal debut, Reckoning is an excellent album in its own right, filled with extremely accomplished songwriting and tighter performances. In all Reckoning is a substantially more energetic album than its somewhat enervated predecessor, resulting in an album with broader appeal than the cult classic Murmur.
Fables Of The Reconstruction was sapped of the energy that animated Reckoning, resulting in a lumbering, tenebrous work filled with sludge rockers and ominous atmospherics. This isn't to say that it replicates the dark atmosphere of Murmur, however; FotR has its own distinct sound, frequently incorporating folkish motives into the compositions (and rather deftly at that).
This atmosphere definitely works in the album's favor; it's when it comes to the songwriting that things start to go awry. The album starts brilliantly with tracks like the menacing, sinister Feeling Gravity's Pull and the much lauded classic Driver 8 with its unforgettable, infectious chorus, but after the first five songs the album starts to deteriorate.
This isn't to say that the remaining material is bad, however; far from it, in fact. But the drop-off in quality is still a severe issue, with the second half of the album sounding like inoffensive filler when compared to the earlier tracks.
This contrast heavily detracts from the album, constituting a sort of bipolar tendency that afflicts the material. Can't Get There From Here is somewhat catchy and Green Grow The Rushes is rather pretty (even if it lifts part of its melody from a slightly doctored version of Seven Chinese Brothers); in fact, good things could be said about all the remaining tracks. They simply fail to be as compelling as the first five songs, leaving a sour taste for the listener after the album's completion.
In the end, however, the album is still quite strong, another excellent LP from the highly consistent REM. The first five songs alone are enough to make for a very good album, while the remaining tracks are sufficiently strong that there's no chance of the album being sabotaged by them. When factoring in how well the material is performed by the ever improving band FotR amounts to another classic early period outing for the group (though Stipe's vocals are frustratingly low in the mix on occasion). The songwriting is ultimately quite strong, and the caliginous atmosphere that dominates much of the album makes the experience that much more engrossing.
Life's Rich Pageant immediately differentiates itself from the band's prior work by opening with a potent blast of rock energy in the form of fan favorite Begin The Begin. This is indicative of much of the album, as the band grows closer to actual rock and roll than they ever had in the past.
Clearer production, tighter performances and comparatively understandable enunciation from Stipe enable the album to rock far more than the group had in their past work. This was the band's first step toward a more mainstream sound, veering in the direction of more accessible, direct rock and roll.
This is not to say that the album is solely composed of rock songs, however. In order to dispel any risk of monotony, the band alternates between rockers (like Begin The Begin, These Days and Just A Touch) and moments of true beauty (such as Fall On Me, Cuyahoga and The Flowers Of Guatemala). This stylistic range helps keep the album fresh, with the scope of their diversity even allowing joke songs like their cover of Superman into the mix.
The caliber of the band's songwriting is high, as the group tackles multiple styles and are eminently successful with each one. From the moody Swan Swan H to the gorgeous Fall On Me the band penned a plethora of memorable, catchy rockers and moving, emotive ballads. The album is devoid of filler, resulting in a highly involving forty minutes that never loosens its grip on the listener.
While LRP is a transitional album to a large extent, bridging the gap between their early work and a more mainstream style, the LP possesses its own unique identity, sounding just as self-assured and purposeful as any other album in the band's canon. These weren't timid, inhibited attempts at playing rock and roll, as the band sound as if they'd operated in this mode for ages, causing the album to never betray its identity as a segue of sorts for the group.
Ultimately LRP is another triumph for the group. While it's difficult to say if the paradigm shift into more conventional rock is a good or bad thing, what matters in the end is that they do it very well, tackling the genre without sacrificing their own unique identity. LRP is simply a very impressive collection of songs, all well written and bereft of filler. Due to its more accessible sound it's a comparatively nonintimidating way of introducing a casual listener to the band, and an equally rewarding listen for fans of the group.
Generally when one acquires a collection of B-sides and rarities one's first impulse is to search for overlooked or underrated gems lost in a band's expansive discography; unfortunately, on Dead Letter Office this proves to be a futile endeavor, as its contents were excluded from the group's albums for good reason.
DLO is aimed squarely at hardcore REM fans, and they're the only market this album is apt to appeal to. The album is filled with superfluous covers that never come close to equaling the originals (their three Velvet Underground covers and their rendition of Aerosmith's Toys In The Attic proving especially egregious in this regard) and mediocre, half-baked compositions that betray none of the group's penchant for strong songwriting.
Some may consider the desultory mess that is their cover of King Of The Road to be charming in its sloppiness, or the religious new set of lyrics applied to Seven Chinese Brothers (this marriage resulting in a track called Voice Of Harold) to be humorous, but any positive reaction is likely to evaporate after a few listens resulting in mere tedium and irritation.
Nearly all of the tracks are ultimately worthless, both qualitatively and historically, shedding no new insight into the band or their inner workings or providing suitable entertainment for the listener. This album subscribes to the notion that any track by a famous rock outfit, no matter how poor or inconsequential, will inherently be of interest to the group's fan base, and while this may be accurate I can't imagine that even the most diehard REM fans will want to subject themselves to this album on a regular basis.
A good rarities collection will either contain a few standout tracks that had mysteriously eluded album release or present the material in a fashion that will help display the group's development over time. This album does neither, resulting in a product that's worthless to both diehard and casual fans alike. One may be tempted to listen to it once to appease one's curiosity, but that single listen will ultimately prove sufficient for even the most devoted REM followers.
Document functioned as the band's commercial breakthrough, in no small part due to the presence of two of the band's first monumental hits, the venomous The One I Love and the anthemic It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine). These behemoths should not, however, obscure the rest of the tracks, which are consistently excellent and eminently worthy of the listener's attention.
Part of the success of the album can also be attributed to the newly recruited producer, Scott Litt, who streamlined the band's sound to in order to add greater clarity to the mix. This style of production greatly enhances most of the songs, bringing pristine sound quality to a band that had previously often operated in the context of sludgy production and muffled lyrics. While many of their older songs wouldn't have benefited from this treatment, it complements the fuller sounding songs on Document quite well, consistently ameliorating the material and acting as an overall positive force on the album.
The quality of the songwriting is universally excellent, from the rousing workingman's rallying cry Finest Worksong to the poppy Exhuming McCarthy. As brilliant as they are, the two hits should not eclipse the rest of the material, which remains strong for the duration of the album.
What's most important, however, is that the band managed to attain mainstream success without truly compromising their sound. While the album has greater sonic clarity than before and Stipe abstains from his usual mumbling, it still leaves the group's fundamental sound intact, preserving the feel that permeates all their early work. While volatile fans may proclaim the album a sellout, this is far from the case, as the band retains their musical identity despite any aural paradigm shifts.
Ultimately Document is yet another excellent album from the band, featuring brilliant songwriting and rousing performances. The group continues to become more and more accessible with each successive album without bastardizing their style in the slightest. While I'm reluctant to cite any musical growth as I feel that Murmur was the stronger album, the band was definitely progressing in myriad respects, and these changes would bring them more and more success in the future.
After the release of Document the band were able to leverage the moderate success they'd enjoyed from the album into a considerably more lucrative contract with a bigger record label. Thus the group finally made the jump from indie rock into the realm of the more mainstream, a transition that they'd been building toward for quite some time.
To dispel potential allegations of selling out the band mocked their new mainstream status on a few tracks with pop parodies such as Pop Song 89, Get Up and Stand. Strangely enough, these are some of the songs that work the best on the album, as even though they're transparent spoofs the band had crafted solid pop melodies for each of them.
The album itself is a definite disappointment, easily their weakest album to this point (not counting the rarities collection Dead Letter Office). While there are certainly a number of strong tracks, from the rocking Orange Crush to the dark political commentary of World Leader Pretend, there is also an unhealthy amount of filler, such as the bland Hairshirt and the more ambitious The Wrong Child, an account of an ill youth that fails to be particularly compelling or moving.
These qualitative lapses can't really be attributed to the band's new big label position, and are mostly indicative of the creative exhaustion that can afflict a group that had just released a streak of excellent albums. There is a question of whether the band knew how to operate in a more polished, mainstream context, as the sound of the album is a far cry from the atmospheric minimalism of Murmur, but the problem seems more to be a dearth of creative songwriting ideas than a failure to adapt their style to a more commercial modality.
Despite the comparatively weaker songwriting Green is still quite a good album, containing enough solid tracks to render it a successful outing. The band preserved enough of their essence in this new style to ensure that they're never in danger of losing their identities and degenerating into one of the myriad faceless pop outfits that polluted the contemporary music scene.
All the same, however, it's rather telling that the pop parodies are amongst the best songs on the album. While the band was growing somewhat stagnant in their more ambitious mode, they were able to pen a few highly catchy pop songs which, intentionally vacuous as they were, were undeniably well written. Perhaps the band needed to head in a new direction, which enabled their parodies to sound fresher than some of their more traditional works.
This isn't to say that the group should be transfigured into a generic pop outfit, simply that they needed to expand stylistically, an endeavor that could be greatly aided by their newly acquired mainstream status. Lodged in a segue between their older and newer roles in the world of rock, the band seemed somewhat desultory on this album, aimlessly meandering through material that both failed to compare to their older work and failed to display any signs of creative growth or progression. Having abandoned their classic sound the band badly needed a new direction, something that this album fails to provide.
While the band had already begun to cultivate a larger following, this was the album that propelled them into the realm of super stardom, almost exclusively due to the presence of the group's biggest hit, Losing My Religion.
This is not to say that the album is only worthwhile due to that particular uber-hit; on the contrary, the album is a huge return to form after the somewhat lackluster Green, a highly consistent LP that displays a renewed sense of purpose. Whereas Green was a somewhat desultory transitional outing, Out Of Time depicts the band having reached their destination, having discovered a new direction to better complement their more mainstream sound.
Out Of Time is filled with moments of true beauty, from the achingly gorgeous Losing My Religion to the lovely harmonies of Near Wild Heaven. The band has assumed a more mellow countenance, generally focusing more on aural splendor than more edgy rocking material.
The album is bereft of filler, with each song having something to offer, from the minimalistic Low to the oft maligned Shiny Happy People, a hyper catchy pop song with vacuous cheery lyrics in the grand tradition of tracks like Pop Song 89 and Stand from their previous album.
While the new sound of the band doubtlessly alienated a plethora of embittered REM fans (while certainly attracting myriad new ones), it was definitely the right direction for the band to head in. The band had been in danger of stagnating, and matters weren't helped by the dearth of focus on Green; Out Of Time remedies the situation by providing a successful new sound for the band, one that complements their more mainstream status without betraying their past. While the mellowness of the album takes some time to adjust to, it ultimately serves the band well, offering a highly listenable sound while still providing plenty of musical and lyrical substance.
In all, Out Of Time is a brilliant album, boasting strong songwriting and a revitalized band. As the first album of a new period for the band, the LP sounds extremely confident, portraying a band with a clear notion of exactly what they intend to accomplish. While one may miss the classic sound of the band, it's difficult not to be wooed by the beauty of the album and allured by its mellow grandeur.
Often hailed as REM's best album, Automatic For The People was a veritable behemoth on the sales charts, nearly topping the exceedingly successful Out Of Time. The album plunges even deeper into the realm of the mainstream, continuing the mellow tendencies first adopted on Out Of Time.
The sales of the album also benefited from the presence of the hit anti-suicide anthem Everybody Hurts, which is sadly too bland, simplistic and over-earnest to be terribly moving. It rocketed high onto the charts, however, spawning a legion of fans who claimed that the song saved their lives, which is not a statement that could ever have been applicable to any of the band's older songs; this is indicative of the group's new direction, as they slowly progressed into deeper territories, eschewing their old rock stylistics in favor of more direct, transparent emotional leanings.
Everybody Hurts aside, the album is extremely consistent, well written and diverse, containing everything from political commentary (Ignoreland) to pop exercises (The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite) to pretty interludes (Nightswimming) to subtle menace (Drive) to eulogies for the departed (the Andy Kaufman tribute Man On The Moon). There's little in the way of filler, with only a modicum of tracks meriting that dubious distinction (like the instrumental segue New Orleans Instrumental No. 1 which fails to really go anywhere in particular).
Good as the album is, however, it doesn't quite reach the top tier of REM material. As successful as their more mellow approach is, it simply doesn't hold the same kind of impact that could be found in the band's earlier work. The songs are more fully fleshed out, but if anything this dilutes their potency, as their less fully realized tracks from the days of Murmur were able to form a more cohesive whole when placed together, imbuing them with a greater degree of power.
The group isn't to be faulted for fleshing their songs out further, however, as, given the stylistic changes over the years, the old approach would no longer have worked in this context. The band had changed, and their approach to music was forced to change accordingly.
In all, Automatic For The People is yet another excellent REM album, featuring strong songwriting and a healthy dose of diversity. The album further established that the changes the band had undergone were for the best as, rather than engaging in the futile endeavor of recapturing their old sound the band instead opted to find a new sound more befitting their new status in the world of rock. While it's not quite on the same level as albums like Murmur, it's nonetheless a true classic, a mellow masterpiece that, along with Out Of Time, marked the group's successful transition into a new era for the band.
To atone for the universal mellowness of their recent work, the band declared that they were going back to their roots and composing a real rock album. This is somewhat perplexing, as the band had never rocked much in the first place, and thus returning to their roots wouldn't actually result in a rock album anyway; furthermore, the band's memory is even hazier, as apparently, according to some obscure revisionist history, the group's an erstwhile heavy metal outfit, and it's this distortion of reality that the band were returning to.
Unfortunately, not only does this not coincide with their real past, but the reason for this is that they're rather ill-suited to the genre. Aside from the classic opener, the riff rocker What's The Frequency, Kenneth?, the rest of the album is largely composed of generic metal, featuring derivative and uninspired riffs and substituting ubiquitous loud, distorted guitars for interesting melodies.
It's possible to derive at least a modicum of enjoyment from the album if one simply zones out and lets the waves of distortion roll over them, but the truth is that while the songs rock effectively there's precious little substance to them, resulting in an ultimately hollow experience.
The band simply didn't know how to pen good metallic songs, and while they professed to have a past in the genre everything that made their early material great is conspicuously absent here.
The performances are competent enough (if somewhat rudimentary), and Stipe adapts his vocals to the genre rather quickly, but without solid songwriting everything is condemned to failure.
Few of the songs are outright offensive, they're merely so generic and derivative that they sacrifice any memorability whatsoever and blend into a long, tedious metallic suite, with each chapter impossible to distinguish from the others.
Ultimately Monster is a failed experiment, an attempt at something different that sadly proved to be in vain. The group had strayed far from their specialties, and the result is a product that betrays none of their strengths. The album can be a guilty pleasure if listened to in small doses simply to headbang to as it certainly rocks adequately, but aside from What's The Frequency, Kenneth? the album boasts no true classics, merely wave after wave of interchangeable leaden rockers.
Thus Monster is easily the weakest REM album, a mistake that hopefully the band will never duplicate. It's admirable to attempt something different (even if they were masquerading as a former metal outfit returning to their roots rather than openly trying something new), but with such a risk there's always a chance of failure, a peril that Monster succumbs to.
Rather than receiving the typical studio treatment, the band wrote and recorded New Adventures In Hi-Fi during their Monster promoting tour, alternately performing the tracks during sound checks and live in concert.
The album is primarily composed of rockers in a similar vein to the material on Monster with a few crucial differences. For one, the method of the performances infuses a kind of raw, live energy into the proceedings, something sorely lacking from the sterile arrangements on Monster. The sound of the album is far more organic than anything that could be found on Monster, and the band's attempts to rock sound much less forced in this context.
Most importantly, however, on New Adventures In Hi-Fi the band marries their hard rock sound with solid songwriting, concocting clever riffs and vocal melodies. This makes all the difference, transfiguring the inert, tedious hard rock of Monster into genuinely enjoyable material, rocking far more convincingly than the band ever had in the past.
While the sound of the album is far removed from both the band's classic style and the mellow modality adopted on the likes of Out Of Time and Automatic For The People, somehow on this outing the group sounds natural in a hard rock context, with the songs feeling like legitimate REM material rather than vain attempts at emulating contemporaneous heavy metal outfits. The songs on New Adventures In Hi-Fi never sound like hollow impersonations, enabling the band to fuse their own approach with hard rock as opposed to forsaking their own style altogether in an attempt to capture the sound of younger, less accomplished groups.
Ultimately New Adventures In Hi-Fi is a dramatic improvement over its predecessor, proving that the band didn't have to sacrifice their merits to handle the hard rock genre. While by definition a heavy metal incarnation of the band can't equal the group's past triumphs, they can certainly be quite entertaining, and New Adventures In Hi-Fi is a refreshing slice of something different from the band, an album that's everything that Monster should've been.
Prior to the recording of Up drummer Bill Berry left the group; Berry had not only been the cornerstone of the group's rhythm section but one of the principal songwriters for the band as well, rendering his departure a profound blow to the band and one not easily recovered from. Rather than disband, however, the group persevered and went on to record Up, perhaps the most experimental outing the band had ever embarked upon.
Listening to Up, there's very little to indicate that the band's two album flirtation with hard rock had ever transpired; rather, the LP feels more like a follow-up to Automatic For The People, sharing that album's notable disposition toward frequent mellowness.
There are many dramatic disparities between Up and Automatic For The People, however; most noticeably the band's shifted the focus toward sonic exploration, providing a wide spectrum of experimental aural textures. This is not something one would encounter on any of the band's previous albums, helping to distinguish Up from any other LP in the band's catalogue.
Tracks like the subdued (perhaps even tranquilized) opener Airportman most embody these experimental tendencies, slowly drifting through wave after wave of disparate textures, soothingly flowing like a proto-ambient exercise.
Furthermore, the album deemphasizes guitarwork in favor of ubiquitous synths and keyboards along with other assorted sonic trickery. Thus the album contains the trappings of electronica, yet another long stride from the band's early sound.
The reason that these changes in the band's style work is due to yet another very strong songwriting session. Even without Berry the group penned a plethora of high quality songs, from the insanely catchy rocker Lotus to The Apologist, whose repetitive refrain of the increasingly emotional line, 'I'm sorry' is one of the most powerful crescendos on the album.
In all, Up is a very good album, which is especially remarkable given the predicament that it was born from. The album's experimental nature is quite laudable, and proved to be a gambit that worked rather well. At this stage in their careers (especially after their less than successful stint as a hard rock band) the group were in danger of stagnating, and this album serves to avert that musical calamity. Up gave the group a new direction, and it can be felt in the renewed sense of purpose that's tangible throughout the duration of the album.
While Reveal continues REM's fascination with electronica it manages to be even mellower than the albums that precede it. The album cultivates a soothing atmosphere that would threaten to lull the listener into a coma were it not for the fact that the album is incredibly well-written, filled with impressive, potent hooks at every turn that transcend the album's seemingly impenetrable membrane of mellowness.
This is not to say that the album's mellowness compromises or obstructs the hooks; on the contrary, the atmosphere complements the songwriting quite well. The hooks all function within the context of the album, every bit as catchy as they'd be on a more edgy, axiomatically exciting LP.
The album is filled with moments of beauty, from the gorgeous track The Lifting to the cathartic power of I'll Take The Rain, wherein the repetition of the title is one of the most emotionally potent moments on the album.
The band makes little to no effort to rock, save on Imitation Of Live, an intentional stylistic throwback to the band's roots (all the more so due to its theft of Driver 8's vocal melody in the verses). It's quite a good number, but it conspicuously stands out as one of the more incongruous moments on the album.
The majority of the tracks adhere to the album's more mellow formula, and while they all contain a similar vibe they're each written sufficiently well so as to ensure that the album never grows monotonous, with each song having something new to offer to differentiate itself from the other tracks.
Over time the band had acquired a mastery over this more mellow style, understanding how to balance each track so that it can be simultaneously serene and yet just as compelling as a traditional rocker. On previous mellow albums the band worked their way around this problem by inserting some rockers into the mix to dispel the uniformity of the mellow dynamics, like Lotus on Up or Drive on Automatic For The People. In this regard, Reveal is the first album to be nearly completely mellow throughout the duration of the LP, and the fact that it works as well as it does is a testament to the expertise over the form that the band had accrued over time.
Ultimately Reveal is a very good album, one that, despite operating in a limited context, manages to be fresh and engaging all the way through. The songwriting and performances are tight, as the band crafts melodies that are enhanced by the mellowness rather than impeded. While this isn't necessarily a direction that one would want the band to go in, it's still evident that the band had perfected this style, making for an album of very high quality.
Around The Sun continues in much the same direction as Reveal, only without the strong songwriting, and thus without a compelling reason to listen to it. Without inspired hooks to animate it mellowness swiftly degenerates into tedium, exacerbated by the fact that the album practically radiates blandness.
There's nothing offensive about the songs per se, and there are no tracks that I'd describe as actively bad, but on the whole the sound of the album is so uniform, and the songs so generic, that there's nearly nothing memorable about the album in the least, and nothing to raise it above a mildly pleasant listen.
Because the songs are, indeed, pleasant enough. The mellowness of the album can be relaxing, and the songs are all well produced, making for an album that sounds nice as you listen to it. But rather than draw you in, it's music to zone out to, allowing the songs to sound like one long suite to wash over you.
If one attempts to pay attention to the individual tracks then the problems begin, as there's little to distinguish one song from another, rendering the experience an exercise in monotony. Some songs are certainly stronger than others, but the album's wholly devoid of anything approaching classic status, by REM's standards or anyone else's at that.
By smoothing out all the rough edges the album becomes criminally bland, decent background music at best. There's nothing present to really engage the listener, and bereft of any rough edges the album becomes a lifeless, sterile experience.
Ultimately Around The Sun is an album that the band had deftly avoided making in the past; it's what one might have feared an album like Up or Reveal would have been. Unfortunately this time the band was unable to avert this crisis, resulting in an album that contains all the flaws and few of the merits of the last few albums.
It may be the least interesting album by the group yet, as at least Monster was intriguing from a novelty perspective, offering listeners something different (albeit not something good). Ironically the album would have been more interesting if it were actively bad; as it stands, Around The Sun is simply a dull, enervated listen that drags on lifelessly for close to an hour, leaving little rewarding in its wake.
The year 2008 found REM in a rather dire predicament; their last album, Around The Sun, had been excoriated by critics and fans alike, and the band had settled into a mellow style that was anathema to much of their original audience. If Stipe and company were going to survive in the arena of modern rock then it was clear that they'd have to make a drastic change in their approach to music, or else be torn asunder by the vicissitudes of a constantly shifting medium.
The group's solution was to release an old-fashioned, straightforward rock album. This was hardly a novel idea, however, as the last time REM was concerned that their mellowness could be off-putting to some their maneuver was to employ precisely the same remedy, manifesting itself in the form of the hard-rocking Monster. Thankfully Accelerate is vastly superior to that distortion drenched fiasco, and while it's not the answer to all of the group's problems it's at least a diverting enough stop-gap until some real changes are made.
Accelerate's chief liability is simply that it's clear that it wasn't the album the band wanted to make; rather, it was merely a tool to temporarily placate a frustrated fanbase and save REM from utter critical and commercial ruin. Accelerate is the right album at the right time, but that doesn't signify that it's in any way the artistic direction that the group wanted to pursue.
Even if Accelerate doesn't reflect the creative ambitions and aspirations of REM, however, it's still quite a solid album, if only because the band are so skilled at delivering this kind of energetic, immediately gratifying rock and roll. The group might not have invested all of their passion into the recording sessions, but an album of this nature doesn't demand that kind of dedication in order to work, as Accelerate is far more about visceral thrills and axiomatic entertainment than anything approaching emotional or intellectual depth or complexity.
Accelerate is simply a fun album, filled with catchy riff rockers and basic but effective hooks. The only candidates for the dubious distinction of filler are the tracks that deviate from the pure rocking norm, namely attempted ballads like Until The Day Is Done which interfere with the adrenaline rush that was the flow of the album.
And Accelerate is indeed an adrenaline rush, a relentless juggernaut that charges forward for its brief 36 minute runtime. Rockers like Living Well Is The Best Revenge may be somewhat generic and familiar, complete with a doubtlessly recycled primitive riff, but that doesn't change the fact that they're immensely entertaining and exciting, and this excitement is, for the most part, sustained throughout the entirety of the album.
Highlights include the moody Houston and the riff rocking title track. The song that's easily my favorite on the album, however, is one of the few numbers that differentiates itself from the parade of interchangeable arena rock anthems that constitute the bulk of the track listing with its eccentric lyrics and dynamic melody, namely Sing For The Submarine.
Nearly every track works, however, and those that don't hold up to intense scrutiny on an individual basis still do their part by contributing to the energetic rush of the album. Even when the songs blend together Accelerate remains thoroughly enjoyable, a conglomerate of similar parts that work together and can thus be entertaining when taken as a whole.
Thus Accelerate is a very fun, if flawed, album. It lacks the ambition that characterized REM's recent output, as it probably wasn't the album they wanted to make, but that doesn't dilute the excitement created by this procession of faceless but uniformly compact and enjoyable rock songs. While Accelerate won't work as a long term solution to cure the band's woes, as a one time affair it accomplishes all of its goals with ease, offering an experience filled with all of the energy and excitement that was conspicuously absent from REM's last few albums.
"This is not a show," Michael Stipe announces to the considerable bewilderment of the sell-out crowd of Dubliners who had been operating under the erroneous impression that they had congregated at the Olympia to see a show. Whether or not Stipe's declaration is accurate is a matter of semantics, but at least from his perspective REM's five-night engagement at the Olympia didn't consist of 'shows,' but rather something altogether different.
The year 2007 saw REM imperiled as never before. Reveal was by all accounts quite an accomplished album, but its chronic mellowness had alienated a large portion of the band's fan-base who preferred their REM in a more aggressive mode. On Around The Sun, Reveal's perpetual mellowness degenerated into blandness and tedium, costing the group much of their remaining audience.
It was clear that a change was needed. Either REM would reinvent themselves or fade from pop-culture consciousness, just another pack of dinosaurs whose inability to change with the times led to their ignominious extinction.
The group knew what needed to be done, namely returning to conventional, axiomatically gratifying rock and roll, but implementing such a paradigm-shift was no simple matter. What it required was a 'rehearsal,' and this is where the five-night 'tour' of Dublin came in.
Stipe didn't make cryptic allusions or drop hints; he openly stated that REM's engagement at the Olympia was envisioned, by the band at least, as a rehearsal for their upcoming album, Accelerate. The band would become reacquainted with their grittier side by performing many of their classic standards that had been omitted from recent set-lists after the colossal success of albums like Automatic For The People. In other words, the Dublin shows represented a 'return to their roots' for the band, likewise affording a perfect opportunity to practice and refine their new material for Accelerate.
The band's long awaited return to rock and roll fundamentals wasn't only reflected in REM's performances of their new songs, but rather extended to the other tracks as well. A palpable rock and roll energy animates nearly every song on Live At The Olympia, as even the band's older tracks that had already rocked receive an additional adrenaline boost.
Many rock outfits seem to believe that live performances demand their temporary metamorphosis into heavy metal bands, as if the only way to 'rock' is to barrage the audience with crushing, dirty riffage at a painfully high decibel level. Veteran acts like REM know better, however; rather than succumb to metallic excesses, they retain their established identity and still manage to rock more convincingly than many of their illustrious peers.
REM don't rely on massive distortion or sloppy metallic onslaughts to rock. Instead, on Live At The Olympia there's a certain crispness and cleanness to the group's sound that perfectly complements their material. REM don't sound meek, timid or mild because they abstain from forays into the depths of sludge-guitar tones, they simply sound like 'REM rocking' as opposed to 'REM trying to rock like a heavy metal band.' They preserve their essence without sacrificing anything in the energy or adrenaline department, and the crystal clarity of the production ensures that every note can be appreciated. This is a far cry from a typical rock concert, wherein most notes would be lost, muffled or merged together in an endless sea of sludge.
One of Live At The Olympia's greatest assets is its track-listing, which has to be considered nearly as daring as any shift in the band's playing style. REM's more recent albums are barely represented, save for the obligatory run-throughs of future Accelerate tracks. Even the band's greatest successes are largely ignored, with Automatic For The People contributing only a stellar rendition of Drive and Out Of Time yielding no tracks at all. One would assume that a double live album from REM without Losing My Religion or Everybody Hurts would be unthinkable, but the band were committed to their new approach and bravely adhered to their principles, even with the knowledge that the lack of radio classics could adversely affect Live At The Olympia's sales.
The performances are nearly flawless (though Stipe's rather overt mistake on Drive constitutes at least a minor blemish), as the tracks are tight, energetic, and faithful to the source material without sounding like carbon copies of the originals.
Much like with Accelerate itself, the only time the album really falters is when the band cover their less-rocking material. REM seem to understand this, as they keep their ballads to a minimum, but songs like Until The Day Is Done do little to distinguish themselves on either Live At The Olympia or Accelerate.
One's selections for highlights will invariably simply reflect one's favorite works from REM's entire canon, as each song is adroitly handled and a credit to its original. The fact of the matter is that Stipe and company did such an impressive job with the track selection that the presence of certain songs that no one would ever have expected to encounter on a live album is nearly as exciting as the amount of energy poured into the performance of each number.
Thus Live At The Olympia is a tremendously enjoyable live album with a near-perfect marriage of strong material and impressive execution. REM recognized that they were in quite a rut, and this album is a testament to how dedicated they were to turning their recent fortunes around. Live At The Olympia shows that the band were more than capable of doing exactly what needed to be done, and this makes for a product that's a terrific companion piece to Accelerate. This is natural, as Accelerate is very much the product of all of the work and effort displayed on this live double-disc set, making a strong case for the concerts' 'rehearsal' status.
While Accelerate may have saved R.E.M.'s reputation after the debacle that was Around The Sun, it still didn't quite feel like the album that the band wanted to make. Favoring catchy, instantly gratifying rock tunes over R.E.M.'s usual cerebral, ambitious and more nuanced fare, the CD lost a large part of what makes the group unique and rewarding, transparently catering to a younger and less patient audience who had likely never heard the name Murmur.
When it came to Accelerate, R.E.M.'s chief concern seemed to be to make the anti-Around The Sun rather than simply making a good album. Where Around The Sun was mellow and enervated, Accelerate is fast and exciting, providing axiomatic, viscerally charged thrills.
There's nothing wrong with that stratagem. Around The Sun was indeed bland and tedious, marking the nadir of the band's canon. Accelerate had to be made, if only to prove that R.E.M. are still a rock band. While creating Accelerate demanded certain artistic sacrifices, Accelerate is still a highly entertaining album. Even if it betrays the band's identity, it's hard to fault Stipe and company for wanting to erase a mistake that nearly cost them their coveted and hard-earned spot in the world of rock music.
Nevertheless, the success of Accelerate placed R.E.M. in a rather precarious position. Crafting more music in the vein of Accelerate would surely cost R.E.M. their artistic identity, but eschewing conventional rock and roll would risk alienating the fanbase they had worked so hard to woo and appease.
A balance had to be struck, and that's precisely what R.E.M. have done with Collapse Into Now, their latest commercial venture. While the band abstain from rocking on a good portion of the tracks, there are still more than enough rockers to placate head-bangers the world round.
More importantly, the non-rockers are by no means throwbacks to Around The Sun's hazy mellowness. Instead, they're more akin to the edgier acoustic work that could be found on masterworks like Out Of Time and Automatic For The People. Tracks like the darkly atmospheric Uberlin recall moody classics like Drive.
While R.E.M.'s current aversion to mellowness may prove dispiriting to fans of Reveal who remember that soothing calmness is by no means an inherently bad thing, it's natural for the band to want to distance themselves from Around The Sun in any way possible, even if it means that there'll be some sacrifices along the way.
The truly ironic thing is R.E.M.'s continuing insistence that it's the hard rockers that depict the band in their old mold, when Collapse Into Now makes it abundantly clear that it's the acoustic tracks that are a return to the group's past. Murmur and Reckoning are hardly known for their testosterone-pumping thrills, and even the adrenaline rushes on Life's Rich Pageant are a far cry from the standard hard rock that can be found on Accelerate.
While the acoustic numbers on Collapse Into Now could never be mistaken for R.E.M.'s earliest work, they still share more in common with Chronic Town than whimsical nonsense like the rocker Alligator-Aviator-Autopilot-Antimatter.
Yet it's neither the pseudo-nostalgia of an acoustically-oriented R.E.M. nor the rock and roll delights of the likes of Mine Smell Like Honey that make Collapse Into Now such a resounding success, but rather the merger of these two elements. There are no single tracks that attempt to fuse the two genres, but even in their compartmentalized form such differing elements make for a truly refreshing listen after far too many one-note albums.
Thankfully the songwriting is strong enough to support these disparate styles. Collapse Into Now opens with a pair of superb rockers. Of these two Discoverer is particularly noteworthy, an excellent riff-rocker that manages to earn the title of 'best track on the album.' All The Best is no slouch either, though. Together, these numbers are strong enough that after a mere two tracks the album has already outdone Accelerate in the 'rocking' department.
The reason that these two songs surpass much of the content on Accelerate is simple: they retain more of the true R.E.M. feel than the rockers on Accelerate ever did. While Accelerate had been bandied about as a return to the classic R.E.M. sound, on Collapse Into Now the group remember what the R.E.M. sound really is, and this is reflected just as much on the rockers as it is on the acoustic songs.
As far as these acoustic songs are concerned, nearly all of them deliver. Uberlin stands out with its tenebrous atmosphere, but it's far from being the only attraction. In particular, Oh My Heart is genuinely moving, hardly the sentimental treacle that one would anticipate from a song with that title. Even a more basic track like Walk It Back is quite charming, proving that when they want to R.E.M. can still toss off a minor classic with relative ease.
The only real misfire on the album is the closer, Blue. When one factors in its grating spoken monologue, its pompous arrangements and its irksome guest female vocals, the track simply gives way under its own pretensions. Even a brief return to the album's best track Discoverer isn't enough to curry favor with me after its bloated excesses.
Featuring but a single misfire is impressive for any album, but especially for an R.E.M. album at this stage of their careers. After the success of Accelerate it was a given that Collapse Into Now would have to retain elements of its predecessor, but the band have outdone themselves by taking the best traits from Accelerate and adapting them into a new context. Much of Collapse Into Now is a radical departure from their comeback album, and when aspects of Accelerate do resurface R.E.M. incorporate them in clever and effective ways.