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The Specialist: R.I.P. R.E.M.

R.E.M., physician one of the seminal indie-rock bands of the past thirty years, announced this week that they have broken up.

Since their inception in 1980, the band released fifteen studio albums, beginning with 1983s Murmur, still considered to be one of the most innovative and significant releases of the era, and ending with last year’s mildly received Collapse Into Now. A significant proportion of the albums released in between are considered to be classics of the genre, including their sophomore release, Reckoning, 1987’s Document, and 1992’s Automatic for the People.

Despite the fact that R.E.M.’s more recent output has generally not compared favourably to their ‘classic’ work of the ‘80s and ‘90s, their break-up must still be seen as a significant occurrence in rock music. During their thirty-year career, R.E.M. came to be seen by many as the definitive American ‘indie rock’ band, and are one of the most critically celebrated bands of all time. Early in their career, after emerging from their native Athens, Georgia, they were amongst the frontrunners of the subgenre of ‘college rock,’ so-called after the style of music that featured most prominently on the emerging college radio circuit. The band toured Southern America and recorded their debut single, ‘Radio Free Europe’, which provoked ecstatic reactions, despite their shoestring production budget.  They then released the Chronic Town EP, which also received great critical acclaim. The Band went from strength to strength, and had already built up a relatively large fan base by the release of Murmur. Their tremendous early run of albums, also including 1985’s Fables of the Reconstruction, ‘86’s Life’s Rich Pageant, and 86’s Green, is inarguably one of the most influential collections of albums in modern musical history.

1991’s Out of Time, broke R.E.M. to a larger audience, outside of their core indie fan-base, partially down to a more conventional style of production, as well as the success of lead single ‘Losing My Religion.’ Their rise to prominence continued with their next album, Automatic for the People. Automatic… included ‘Man on the Moon’ and ‘Everybody Hurts,’ two hugely successful singles that ensured R.E.M.’s place amongst the elite; they became ‘stadium rock’ staples and one of the most successful bands in the world.

R.E.M.’s significance in the pantheon of great rock bands is undoubted, but this does not do them justice. Their induction into the conceptually awful ‘Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’ in 2007 continued an unfortunate trend in the band’s later years, seemingly consigning them to history, placing them as an institution with a worthy legacy rather than a great rock band. This left them  fighting an uphill battle throughout their final decade, as it seemed impossible for their output to be taken at face value. However, in the wake of their split, their work should be re-evaluated and celebrated for its genuine worth.

R.E.M. were a bracingly vital, innovative, and intelligent band, that seemingly filled the void left after the decline of punk. Their records had a sense of mystery and an elusive quality that along with lo-fi production and Michael Stipe’s cryptic and mumbled lyrics, elevated them above even the best of their peers. Even their eventual rise to stadium-rock status was not due to a commercialisation of their music, but because of the recognition of attributes that had always been there and an increase in clarity as the band grew in stature. The sense of real passion and meaning at the core of the songs gave them their anthemic, rousing qualities. The sense of longing and melancholy in R.E.M.’s songs beautifully reflected the desolate landscapes of the American South that the band traversed during their early years, and sounded as natural and timeless as to have grown from the soil of such places.

Many would argue that their early run of albums remained unmatched, and that they had already passed their peak by the time they achieved worldwide popularity. However, their longevity and sustained creativity must be saluted. It seems difficult to imagine another genuinely ‘alternative’ band equalling R.E.M.’s impact over such a long period of time, and it remains to be seen how the void their absence will entail will be filled, what’s guaranteed it that they’ll be sorely missed.

 

Daniel Nolan

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