So, the time has come to finish our journey through the R.E.M. catalogue. In the past ten years, the band has downsized by one member (after the retirement of drummer Bill Berry, who has since become a farmer and sous chef) and released four regular albums. Alas, with the possible exception of New Adventures in Hi-Fi, these records must be considered some of the worst they have produced in their 25-year career.
New Adventures was recorded primarily during the infamous Monster tour of 1995 - either live or at soundchecks. It's a bit of a hodge-podge, no doubt reflecting the persistent health problems that then plagued three of the four band members, as well as the strain and tedium that routinely accompany year-long world tours.
A year later, Berry made his unexpected exit and R.E.M. officially became, in Michael Stipe's words, a "three-legged dog." Their subsequent CD, Up, would thus prove exceedingly difficult to produce, with the more meticulous Stipe and bassist Mike Mills often overruling the more spontaneous, leave-it-as-it-lays Peter Buck. Perhaps as a result, Up doesn't sound like it was made by a guitar band. Instead, it indulges in loops, vintage keyboards, drum machines, and other bits of vague electronica. Over it all, Stipe's voice and lyrics remain as resonant and one-of-a-kind as ever, but the overall tone is sterile and cold.
2001's Reveal seemed to be an effort to remedy this issue, and it is, in fact, a far warmer record. Still, though, keyboards and electronics are layered prominently into the songs, effectively choking them of life. Not helping matters is the fact that the band suddenly seems incapable of recording anything faster than mid-tempo. Perhaps a listen to 1981's "Radio Free Europe" single might remind them of whence they came.
Regrettably, last year's Around the Sun may well be the worst of the lot. Again, the band sounds hermetically-sealed and lifeless. Again, the keyboards overwhelm the guitars. Again, Mike Mills' backing vocals, once such a huge factor in the R.E.M. magic, are all but non-existent. And Michael Stipe's lyrics, usually so enigmatic and unique, suddenly sound phoned-in, cliched, and commonplace. Oh, the horror, the horror....
Though not an optimist, I am still somehow hopeful that R.E.M. has another great album in them. After all, it's been 13 years since Automatic for the People. They're due.
[Once again, I have chosen to skip over the singles and more obvious choices from these CDs in order to shine a little light on some undiscovered gems. Hope you enjoy them.]
[MP3] [left-click] "So Fast, So Numb" [from the LP New Adventures in Hi-Fi, 1996]
[MP3] [left-click] "Leave" [from the LP New Adventures in Hi-Fi, 1996]
[MP3] [left-click] "Walk Unafraid" [from the LP Up, 1998]
[MP3] [left-click] "I've Been High" [from the LP Reveal, 2001]
[MP3] [left-click] "Final Straw" [from the LP Around the Sun, 2004]