So now that I’m back in grad school and once again hanging out with 24-year-olds on a regular basis, I’ve been contemplating my advancing age a bit more than usual lately. Not necessarily in a bad way, but I’m just saying. I’ve already got one backward-looking music post on tap for November and remain ever wary of nostalgia, but the passing of R.E.M. this week after 31 years deserves some comment. If you’re looking for a definitive obit, I’d recommend this terrific Grantland piece from Jon Dolan. I’m more interested in the timing of the band’s decision, which most fans seem to think came none too soon.
In the movie Trainspotting (1996), coincidentally released the same year as New Adventures in Hi-Fi, the final R.E.M. album to feature the band’s classic lineup with original drummer Bill Berry, one of the characters expounds on his theory of life—“At one point you’ve got it, then you lose it, and it’s gone forever”—before reeling off a damning list of musicians and other cultural figures who’d achieved greatness and been unable to recapture it (Elvis, Bowie, Lou Reed, etc.). It’s hardly an unfair way of looking at R.E.M.’s post-Berry output, which came on the heels of 15-plus years of uninterrupted greatness: ten albums, including two indisputable masterpieces, Murmur (1983) and Automatic for the People (1992), as well as several other excellent-to-classic works, and nary a dud in the bunch.
So we’re left with a problematic late period, five more albums including a mostly failed experiment (1998’s Up), a better-than-you-think last gasp (2001’s Reveal), an outright disaster (2004’s Around the Sun), and a pair of solid-but-unexciting workmanlike efforts (2008’s Accelerate and this year’s Collapse Into Now). I might be tempted to rank Reveal ahead of Green, the weakest of the Berry-era albums, but in general I’ll stipulate that the late work was categorically worse than the band’s pre-1998 output. It’s easy to blame Berry’s departure for the subsequent decline of this most democratic of rock bands, and it was certainly a crucial factor, but the real problem, to these ears at least, was the creeping self-consciousness of singer Michael Stipe’s lyrics and vocals as he became increasingly aware of himself as a mega-celebrity. This was beginning to become a problem as early as 1994’s Monster—unfortunately, Stipe wasn’t completely kidding when he said in an interview that he liked the album’s noisy sound because it meant the lyrics didn’t need to be as good. By the time of Around the Sun, his vocals resembled the efforts of a struggling ESL speaker reciting lyrics that he sounded like he’d never even read before, let alone written. You’ve got it, you lose it, and it’s gone forever.
All right, so that was a bit harsh. But it speaks to the heart of the problem for fans who become emotionally invested in favorite performers. Inevitably there’s a point where they become like aging relatives and we’re mainly hoping they won’t do anything to injure or embarrass themselves. I remember thinking that R.E.M. should have broken up after Around the Sun. In retrospect, I’m glad they didn’t. It would’ve been a sorry way to go out, and even though I’ve been unable to get all the way through Accelerate or Collapse Into Now more than a dozen or so times, at least it feels like the band’s leaving on its own terms now, rather than being quietly whisked out the door. But I have to admit that I greeted the release of both albums less with anticipation than trepidation and was mostly just relieved that they didn’t suck. So I’m not disappointed that there (probably) won’t be any more.
So when should a band call it quits? Setting aside the obvious fact that it’s not our choice to make, there’s the more objective tradeoff between the odd diamond in the rough on otherwise mediocre late albums and the toll that said mediocre albums take on a band’s legacy. Even the prototype for this argument, the Rolling Stones, who have now been mediocre for far longer than they were great, have had a vintage song or two on most of their late albums. I’m not unsympathetic to the view that R.E.M. should have broken up when Berry left, but what of those scattered late gems? Speaking only for myself, while I have a much easier time imagining a world without “The Lifting,” “Imitation of Life,” or “Uberlin” than one without, say, “Shaking Through,” “Driver 8,” or “Find the River,” it’s hard to see how it would be a better world. I’d rather just try to forget that “The Outsiders” ever existed. Maybe it’s better to fade away after all.