Somehow I never thought they would, I thought they were one of those bands that had gone on so long that they’d just retreat into inaction rather than add a full stop to their career. I thought they’d tour again, in the past week I had reiterated my desire to see them live, indeed it was an absolute priority. I had never seen them and for a band so important to me, so ingrained it was abominable that I hadn’t yet. I missed my chance and it is crushing, never to get lost in Drive chiming out from Peter Buck’s guitar, never have heard the call to arms of These Days. They join LCD Soundsystem as a band I stupidly missed while I had the chance. They were a special band, one I remember being played a lot growing up. It was mostly albums from Out of Time onwards, when they were huge, and on regal form before they famously, and fairly mythically dipped, it was more perhaps a fashion change coinciding with a slight dip in their hunger, never the less Up and Reveal are still wonderful. Around the Sun might indeed be more salvageable had the production been less plodding. Indeed their last two albums represented an upswing, if not completely ideal, regardless their last song on their last album Blue feels a worthy full stop, like as a friend commented, if Bring me the Disco King is the full stop on David Bowie’s career, as seems increasingly probable, I can live with that.
It was only when I was searching out music myself years later when I delved back into their first phase, when they were contemporaries of The Smiths and reacting against the bombastic 80s stadium rock and inspired by Stipe listening to Patti Smith’s album Horses. They merged the jangly guitars of The Byrds into punk and new wave sound, and set about relentlessly releasing albums and touring. They were confrontational, they told audiences who frequently requested ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ to fuck off, they played everywhere and anywhere with their unashamedly arty sound. They were odd, their singer was a strange stage presence who would often mumble more than sing, it would be years since they started before Stipe had the confidence to stick his vocals up in the mix. Considering he went on to be one of the most distinctive voices in alternative rock, these were inauspicious beginnings
Still there is something to the inaudibility of the early records, the lyrics that were hard to pick up had a cloak of mystery, something haunting and mystic conjured by smoke and mirrors. Even when you could hear his lyrics later on, they never made that much linear sense anyway, except they were often a string of images which seemed to make a deeper sense than a literal one. They also, perhaps most contentiously wrote political songs, something that has been basically dead to mainstream music for a long time now. Of particular note for me was Cuyahoga, a song about a polluted river, that manages to vent fury at pollution, and be a brilliant song at the same time, something so much protest music fails to achieve.
The enigmatic oblique lyrics were only some of the appeal however, though I think very few singers anymore manage this trick of being odd without being trite, Peter Buck was also as central and a perfect foil, adding relentlessly pretty guitar lines to track after track. They also employed piano to great effect, who can forget the gorgeous Nightswimming? They were willing to change things up too, following up the pop of Out of Time, their big breakthrough with an album of fuzzy acoustic semi folk obsessed with death with Automatic for the People, which happened to have that overplayed and over covered Everybody Hurts that seems to generate a lot of hate, for not much reason. Following that was the loud guitar and rocker to play live Monster, a cracking album. The widescreen New Adventures in Hifi was a slight mess but crammed full of brilliant songs, E-Bow the Letter being a career highlight.
They have plenty of curios of albums too, their early years had a wonderful country pastiche with Don’t Go Back to Rockville. Up their dalliance with electronic textures is perennially underrated, though recently seems a lot of people feel the same about it. At My Most Beautiful is wonderful. Document is a great album trapped between the two poles of REM, the stadium rock before their success with the famous ‘It’s the End of the World as we know it’ on it. The earlier albums are full of amazing tracks, less well known than the more well stuff. Driver 8 has been described as the archetypical REM song, with its sing along but enigmatic vocals and an absolutely stunning guitar line.
Most of all they’re a band that managed to be become ubiquitous without sacrificing their outsider perspective, they never abandoned their pretentions, to all the accusations they sold out, they scaled the heights with brilliant music. It’s too their credit that after all this time they were able to do something that took me by surprise. Unfortunately it was to split up. For 10 years of their career they were a cult band who no one thought would go on to do anything, for another 10 they were world conquering giants, who could do anything and still be hailed. For the last 10 they seemed to trying to relive their glory days with varying degrees of success, and yet were by all accounts a stunning live band, with a pedigree of songs that few can match. With their career now a closed book (accepting of course they could still have a change of heart) looking back on their achievements, they are one of the all time greats. They will be sorely missed.