Music

The oblique integrity of R.E.M.

John J. Thompson

“To our Fans and Friends: As R.E.M., and as lifelong friends and co-conspirators, we have decided to call it a day as a band. We walk away with a great sense of gratitude, of finality, and of astonishment at all we have accomplished. To anyone who ever felt touched by our music, our deepest thanks for listening.”

One of the most important rock bands of the last 30 years is calling it “a day.” With the release of their latest studio album, "Collapse Into Now," as well as a career-spanning greatest hits collection and the vinyl re-issue of their classic "Murmur" album from 1983, R.E.M. is going out on a high note. The comments made by each member of the band also seem to indicate this was a friendly, careful decision and not the result of internal strife.

Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, Bill Berry and a rotating cast of supporting players were right at the fore of the post-punk/alternative rock genesis alongside acts like U2, The Clash, Talking Heads, The Smiths and Echo and the Bunnymen. Theirs was a uniquely American voice amongst artists searching for meaning amidst the detritus of 1980s pop culture. It was truthful and important music. In a world crawling with over-produced commercial pop, glammed-out pop metal misogyny and frightening political overtones, R.E.M. provoked thought and feeling, even when their lyrics were less than clear. I couldn’t tell you what Stipe meant when he sang “Orange Crush” – Wikipedia suggests it refers to the chemical defoliant Agent Orange used in the Vietnam War - but I know how it felt for me to sing that song. “Talk about the Passion” still nearly brings me to tears. “Everybody Hurts” was the song many Christian artists wish they had offered the world. Even “Losing My Religion” rang importantly true to many of us struggling to find true faith amidst the ruins of cultural religiosity we had grown up with.

The band emerged from the underground of the college rock scene in the early '90s with the multiplatinum albums "Out of Time" and "Automatic for the People." Seeming to add a more oblique and artistic tone to the soul-searching category of rock popularized by U2, Stipe and company struck an important nerve at that commercial peak that they continued to mine right through their latest project. Many critics called "Collapse Into Now" their strongest work in over a decade. Though some of their later '90s efforts seemed to push farther into “alternative” territory than mainstream fans were comfortable with, at least it was clear that R.E.M. was no nostalgia act. Their old records are still as relevant as ever. My oldest son game me an original copy of "Life’s Rich Pageant" on vinyl last year as a Christmas present. It’s encouraging that R.E.M.’s music will live on through the admiration of a younger audience.

I remember when Michael Jordan announced that he was retiring the first time. It was a shock to see someone so obviously on his game walk away at the height of his powers. If R.E.M. had decided to call it quits a couple of years ago it may have been possible to assume they had just lost their drive, but "Collapse Into Now" makes that assumption impossible. These guys were definitely still on their game. They went out on their own terms. Good for them.

“JJT” has been chasing the thread dangling between eternal truths and temporal creative experiences for nearly three decades. He is a writer, a businessman, a father, an artist and a seeker. Read more about him at JohnJThompson.com.

(Photo courtesy of R.E.M.HQ.)

Topics: Music, Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure, News & Politics, North America