REM might be one of the last enormous rock bands to emerge. Sure, U2 are still kicking around and the Rolling Stones will seemingly never die. But they were around before REM and their endurance is kind of freaky. But REM is one of the last bands to have achieved the absolute critical mass of radio and mainstream audience success all over the world before downloading music gave us all infinite choice, fragmenting the audience to buggery. Sure, that immense access to different music is amazing, but it’s also kind of a shame that there’s probably never going to be another number 1 hit that dominates seemingly the entire globe, and becomes a household hit, regardless of age, genre tastes or radio station preference.
That was REM in the 90s with albums like Out of Time and Automatic for the People. But before that, they grew slowly, dominating college and alternative radio, before sneaking up on the top 40. For all my nostalgic whimsy about this band, REM is also one that I couldn’t be more ambivalent about. I never hated any of their hits, and I can even sing along word for word to several of them. But I also never loved any enough to pay them any real attention. I bought Monster in the mid 90s, but that was only because they tricked me into thinking they’d gone heavier. Now, it’s time to give them some of the attention they deserve. But instead of going for one of the mega selling super hits, I thought I’d go for what I see as their college / indie breakthrough, Green.
Pop Song 89 is a great example of my entire experience with, and attitude toward, this band. It’s a song I’ve heard hundreds of times, but I never would have been able to name it until right now. Michael Stipe has one of the most distinctive voices in modern rock, and it sounds exactly the same here as it has for the decades since. So it’s also a good early indicator of whether or not there’s any chance of you actually like REM. If you’re on board with his voice, carry on and dig deeper. If not, save yourself the torture.
One of the most recognisable songs from this band, and from the 80s, Stand is a song that has fluctuated in my own opinion a lot over the years. I used to think it sounded like dated, overplayed 80s crap that’s everything wrong with the decade. But in recent years, I’ve started to appreciate it more and more for its ability to be so different, and also be such an enduring hit at the same time. It’s a guitar based pop song, but it’s a guitar based pop song like no other band would have ever made then or now.
There was nothing that ever would have prepared me for the slide guitar country sounds of World Leader Pretend. Even Stipe’s voice finds depths I’ve never heard it reach before. The mandolin heavy, vocally layered dreaminess of The Wrong Child is experimental in all the wrong ways. Never finding its feet, it’s frustratingly floaty and impossible to pin down in any satisfying way.
The opposite of Stand, Orange Crush is one of those songs that I think I’ve always loved and recognised as a timeless classic. Sure, I probably didn’t describe it that way what I heard it as an eight or nine year old, but I do know I’ve always liked it. And I have to assume it was the radio friendly unit shifter that got Green and REM on a few more radars.
After listening to Green, I realised something. I like REM at their least ambitious, most middle of the road. Give me a solid pop / rock tune with a regular beat, driving guitars and Stipe belting out is vocals with a little oomph. Because once Peter Buck busts out his mandolin, or Bill Berry’s drumming gets a little weird with the time signatures, I immediately lose interest. There’s something to be said for staying within the rules of well written, but simple pop tunes. And when REM flex those muscles, I find them much more interesting than when they’re trying to be “interesting”.