In the Wilderness is a feature in which a group of Strange Currencies contributors examine an overlooked period of an artist’s career. While originally intended as a podcast, “social distancing” has necessitated a different approach. For the time being, In the Wilderness has taken shape in the form of a “Slack chat.”
For this installment of In the Wilderness, I am joined by my friends J Long and Bert. This week’s conversation is based around the later years of my all-time favorite band, R.E.M. From 1980-1987, the Athens, Georgia-based group grew a rabid cult following while recording five albums for the American indie label, I.R.S. Records. In 1988, R.E.M. signed a deal with Warner Bros., where they would ultimately become one of the biggest bands in the world, after the massive commercial success of 1991’s Out of Time and the following year’s Automatic for the People.
In 1995, while touring in support of Monster , drummer Bill Berry suffered an aneurysm while onstage in Switzerland. Berry would record one more record with the band – 1996’s underrated New Adventures in Hi-Fi – but left R.E.M. in 1997. Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, and Mike Mills would continue on as a trio, releasing five more albums before their breakup in September 2011.
The albums that R.E.M. released after Berry’s departure were met with varying degrees of commercial success. Coming off of the heights of their early/mid-nineties peak, a decline in sales was all but guaranteed, but perhaps more significant was the mixed critical reception earned by these records. Berry’s exit had forced the famously democratic band to reinvent itself, and while reinvention had always been a part of R.E.M.’s DNA, some of these experiments worked well, and others less so. In our Slack chat, J, Bert, and I discussed our thoughts on these albums.
MR: Alright, maybe we can start with where we were at with R.E.M. when this era started.
JL: I had most of their previous albums up to then, but not all. I bought Up within a few weeks of it coming out. I was 21, last semester in college. Probably November-ish. I liked how New Adventures in Hi-Fi had all these little experimentations. I liked that development.
NB: Automatic for the People was the last new record of theirs that I bought when it came out. I had everything they had ever made until Monster, which I bought on CD for the first time about two months ago. I obviously knew the hits from Monster. I came across New Adventures some time in college though. Probably around the time Up came out.
JL: Man, there’s a lot of CD copies of Monster in the used stores. They all smell kinda weird too. My copy still smells like new car smell, or something. Some of my discs are just like that.
NB: …or like incense.
JL: Yeah, like that. Wonder what that is.
MR: I was in my first semester of college. I had kept totally current up to that point. R.E.M. were definitely the “respected elder statesmen” for most of the bands that I cared about at the time. I’ll acknowledge that eighties R.E.M. is the best, but in a way nineties R.E.M. is my favorite. There are definitely a lot of fans who jumped off at some point in the nineties. What made you stop keeping up with them, Bert?
NB: It’ll sound ridiculous, I’m sure, but their fame made them popular in social circles I looked upon with scorn. They had been my band before Out of Time.
MR: I’m not sure if some of it came from being young, but it seems like every friend circle had a lot of politics in the nineties. Ours certainly did, and we were all very concerned with “selling out,” but R.E.M. escaped unscathed – at least for me.
NB: The nineties were like that. The other big reason for me was that I was falling in love with the newest wave of punk rock and the indie bands that emerged at the end of eighties (Pixies, Pavement, Face to Face, Fugazi, Mudhoney, Screaming Trees, Helmet, etc.).
JL: I’ve definitely done that. I’ve gotten away from things I followed religiously, because I got too busy following something else religiously.
MR: I spent a lot of time in the nineties listening to bands that probably peaked in the eighties (R.E.M., Meat Puppets, Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, Frank Black).
NB: Same for me. I wore out my Green Mind [Dinosaur Jr.’s 1991 major label debut] tape so bad I could imitate the warp sounds.
MR: So, Up. This must be a somewhat “new” album for you Bert, since it didn’t have a lot of radio presence when it came out.
NB: I have been listening to the two big ones (“Daysleeper” and “At My Most Beautiful”) for years, but as for the rest of it, yes!
MR: I bought it on release day. I must’ve heard “Daysleeper” as an advance single, but that one is kind of an outlier, in that it could have been on pretty much any of their nineties albums. I remember the reviews being pretty positive at the time; at least mainstream outlets like Rolling Stone.
NB: Me too. My brother had it. I heard it a bit through him.
MR: I remember that there were a lot of OK Computer mentions in reviews. I know that album dominated a lot of the rock criticism conversation from 1997-2000, but I don’t see it as being all that similar. I mean, I would’ve loved for it to have sounded like OK Computer, I just never really saw it.
JL: I wonder how many of those comparisons seem silly this far down the road.
MG: Same with Monster. Everyone wanted to lump that in with the grunge thing, but that’s a straight-up glam album.
NB: It’s definitely not grunge. “Let Me In” is almost shoegaze.
JL: OK Computer was such a singular point of reference for any rock music that indulged electronics that weren’t guitar amps. Critics jumped at the Radiohead comparison really fast. I think I would have appreciated Up a little more had I bought it about six months later.
MR: Why do you think you would’ve appreciated it more six months later?
JL: Personal reasons, ultimately. There’s an underlying sadness to the album that I couldn’t really relate to as well in 1998, because I was pretty exuberant at that time in my life. By 1999 I was a miserable son of a bitch, and was finally starting to move away from the requirement that music had to have loud guitars most of the time.
NB: I would’ve dug it at the time and wish I’d grabbed a copy.
MR: I loved it. It was a “nightly listen” album for at least a couple weeks. What are the highlights from it?
JL: “Sad Professor” is the ultimate sad bastard tune, so that’s a standout for me. I liked the singles Bert mentioned a lot. Also “Diminished” and “Falls to Climb,” I like a lot. The lyrics, when read, look almost like Jawbreaker lyrics. There’s a certain similarity in cadence.
MR: I’ve already included “At My Most Beautiful” in the A Century of Song project. It’s definitely my favorite, and as I mentioned in that entry, it led me to get Pet Sounds about two months later. I love the arrangement on “Suspicion.” It’s sort of a minor track, but I’ve always really liked “Why Not Smile.” That song sounds like a kaleidoscope that adds another color with every rotation. Probably sounds stupid, but I’ve always felt like it belongs in a museum or something.
NB: I think songs like “Lotus” would be a lot better with Berry banging on the drums.
JL: I can see that. This is the album where the lack of percussion was most notable. I actually remember “Lotus” being heavier. Was there a “radio version” with more drums and guitars?
MR: Not that I’m aware of, but I wasn’t listening to much radio in ‘98.
JL: It’s probably like phantom limb syndrome. My mind wants to hear drums and heavy guitar. So it created the false memory.
MR: I’ve always found the sequencing interesting. J, you mention “Sad Professor.” That’s part of a pretty dark middle section of the album. I can definitely see people mentally checking out at that point.
JL: Yeah, it’s pretty dark. When I listened to it again earlier, I could still dig it.
NB: I agree, but melancholy Michael Stipe is usually my favorite, which is why I’ve always liked Fables of the Reconstruction.
MR: I actually really like that it spends a lot of time in a dark mode. It makes that eventual breakthrough – which I feel comes when the drums start up in “Walk Unafraid” – really pay off.
JL: Yeah! There are points in other later R.E.M. albums, usually within the songs individually, where I wanted that to happen, and it didn’t quite. And now I gotta go listen to Fables.
MR: Final thoughts on Up?
JL: It’s my favorite unless its follow-up is my favorite instead.
NB: Decent effort. It’s too long.
MR: I can appreciate that position. I can see where it’s coming from, but I’m not sure what I would be okay with cutting. Hence my question on sequencing. I feel like the way it’s paced helps to offset the length. But I can see why some people would see it as a drag.
NB: I think that’s true.
MR: I think it’s a legitimately great album. We talked a little bit about contrarianism in our Meat Puppets conversation last week, and there are times where I want to say that Up is my favorite album of theirs. There are even some times where I actually believe it.
NB: Wow. Really!?!
MR: I definitely don’t think it is their best, but it is perhaps the most singular of their albums that I consider to be great. R.E.M. have been reissuing all of their albums in 25th anniversary editions. I have been anxiously awaiting a critical reappraisal of this one for years. Its Rate Your Music score (3.27) is a joke.
NB: RYM ratings are low for a bunch of R.E.M. albums.
JL: Yeah, it’s way better than that.
MR: Alright, let’s move on to Reveal.
JL: When I listened to it today, I thought I heard clear Yankee Hotel Foxtrot [Wilco’s 2002 album] influences. I had to remind myself this album actually came first.
NB: I don’t really like “All the Way to Reno (You’re Gonna Be a Star).”
MR: I really like the guitar parts on “Reno.”
JL: I like “Reno” too. Some parts of it scan as kitsch to me, and I usually hate that, but it doesn’t bother me here. And yeah, that spaghetti western guitar rocks.
NB: I’m gonna get glares for this, I’m afraid, but “Imitation of Life” doesn’t really grab me either. I’m not terribly fond of these songs. I don’t hate those two hits from the album, I just don’t ever feel like I need them.
MR: Definite glares. I think that’s the last great R.E.M. song. I’ve always seen Reveal as the “summery” counterpart to the “wintery” Up. They both came out at the beginning of their respective seasons, so that helps.
MR: Some of the tracks that I like less from Reveal are the ones that don’t fit that narrative. I don’t care for “Saturn Return,” but I like everything else pretty well.
JL: I like the weird corroded Mellotron/keyboard sounds around the edges. I think that’s what reminds me of YHF.
MR: Yeah, there are some cool little glitchy elements that I appreciate. They’re not obstructive.
NB: I sometimes confuse “Imitation of Life” with “The Great Beyond” [R.E.M.’s single from the 1999 film Man on the Moon].
MR: Oh yeah, that one came between Up and Reveal.
JL: “I’ll Take the Rain” stood out for me on my last listen. I haven’t listened to this album that many times. That would be true of all these records though.
MR: This was another day-of-release purchase for me. I listened to it a ton, and it soundtracked a really great summer for me. I’m certain that a lot of my fondness for it is nostalgia-based, but I think it is a pretty strong album. Not anywhere near as good as Up, but a really good counterpart to it.
MR: Let’s move on to Around the Sun.
JL: Confession time: I heard this album for the very first time about three hours ago.
NB: Man, I don’t know this one well at all. The appearance of Q-Tip [from A Tribe Called Quest] is unsettling.
MR: Yeah, the Q-Tip appearance is a bit awkward. I have some very complicated feelings about this one. It was definitely not well-received, by critics or fans. While I think some of that was a little bit of an overreaction, this is absolutely their worst album. A lot of these songs are really kind of lifeless. In your limited listens does anything stand out? Good or bad?
NB: Honestly, several songs I was not-so-patiently waiting for them to end. This has a 2.61 on RYM.
MR: Yeah, some of these really drag, particularly the middle portion of the album. I think it starts off okay. “Leaving New York” is fine, though it’s a bit of an R.E.M.-by-numbers song.
JL: I didn’t dislike the album. Their other discs are better I think. I liked “Wanderlust.” I kept thinking a more revved up take of that Frank Black could have done and put on Pistolero.
MR: That’s funny, because I think “Wanderlust” was probably my least favorite at the time, but I can actually hear the Frank Black thing now that you mention it, partially because of the weird time signature. Frank’s into that stuff.
JL: There’s a decent run towards the end of this album.
MR: Yeah, I always thought that it picked up some momentum at the end too. I have a hard time pinning down some of what I don’t like about it, but it seems very labored over. I think you could say that about the previous two albums as well, but it worked better there. This one just feels like the life has been sucked out of it.
JL: “High Speed Train” through “The Ascent of Man” were less “by the book.”
MR: There are a lot of people who really don’t like the “yeah yeah” vocal thing in “The Ascent of Man,” but I find it kind of endearing, and I like the low vocal part underneath it. It was at least memorable, where a lot of the other stuff was forgotten as soon as it was over. I was kind of hoping you guys were a little more familiar with Around the Sun, so that we could hit on some of the political commentary. This was an election year album, but I feel like the political stuff seems a bit forced. I found it a bit “clunky,” which was disappointing, because like them, I was pissed off in 2004 as well, and they had been a really big part in the development of my political conscience.
NB: For sure.
MR: Weird as it might sound, they were some of the first articulate liberal voices that I ever really listened to.
NB: Same. Well, I did have Dead Kennedys tapes by middle school. Minor Threat too. But, that’s obviously more in your face.
JL: You were ahead of me on that curve. I think I had Poison tapes back then. By which I mean: I know I had Poison tapes back then. At the end of the day though, it sounds like what you’re both saying is, if I had an album to be 16 years late on, I picked the right one.
MR: I was definitely disappointed in this one at the time. I’m okay with it now, knowing that it wasn’t how they ended things.
MR: So, around halftime we’ve usually done a conversation about album artwork, but I’m not sure anything really stands out here. Any opinions?
NB: Reveal and Up are alright, but the others are kinda lame. The cover of Reveal actually reminds me of Stipe in the eighties, taking photos and filming stuff.
MR: I think Reveal is probably my favorite cover of these five, but nothing special. I miss Bill Berry’s unibrow.
NB: Big time!
MR: In all honesty, I think Murmur (and to a lesser degree New Adventures in Hi-Fi) are the only R.E.M. covers that I really like all that much. Reckoning is kind of cool.
NB: I used to stare at Reckoning and Life’s Rich Pageant in my brother’s room as a little kid.
JL: Document is kind of a cool cover. Fables‘ cover looks like 4AD.
NB: Murmur is great. I don’t dislike any of them, really.
MR: Okay, Accelerate. Billed as a “return to form.” Is it?
NB: But, wait… in between was the release of the fairly classic (to me) “Bad Day,” written in the eighties, of course…
MR: That’s a decent non-album track.
JL: Accelerate is definitely economical, in the way that The Strokes were often described in the earlier part of the decade.
MR: Yeah, it seems like they responded to the argument that the previous few albums were too long: eleven songs in 34 minutes. Accelerate was hyped as a “back to basics,” but it’s not exactly a return to the classic R.E.M. sound.
JL: The songs waste no time getting where they’re going.
MR: That’s true. It gives a few of them a sense of being unfinished, in my view at least.
JL: I think it suits them well on this album.
NB: I think “Until the Day Is Done” is a classic!
MR: Yeah, that’s a pretty good one. I think “Living Well Is the Best Revenge” is a great opener. The bass line in “Man-Sized Wreath” is awesome. One of Mike Mills’ best – very McCartney-esque.
JL: That song has a good bit of Lou Reed swagger c. 1972, I think. It’s a standout for me.
NB: I know that “Supernatural Superserious” is the hit, but it’s only okay for me.
MR: It’s another by-the-numbers one, but I think they pull it off better than they did with Around the Sun. I like that it sounds like Peter Buck is actually playing through an amp on this album. I don’t know definitively that he didn’t on Around the Sun, but I have my suspicions. He’s my neighbor. I’ll ask next time I see him.
NB: Is he seriously? He does live here…
MR: Same quadrant at least.
JL: See if he has a flotilla of Line 6s in the garage.
MR: I was hoping that we’d work the word flotilla into this chat.
NB: Buck was making a lot of records with The Minus 5 at the time.
MR: He seemed to be the leader of the direction on this album. I’ve read some interviews where he talks about wanting to get back to a more “organic” process. I really like that “gross” organ sound in “Houston.” That’s a cool track that actually benefits from the economic approach.
JL: I’ll have to go back and listen closely to that particular organ. I’ve been enjoying recognizing the different types of organ sounds on these records.
NB: It is an odd sound. Although odes to Texas are usually…
MR: It’s about Hurricane Katrina, so it seems a little more justified than a typical Texas ode.
NB: Indeed. Awful moment for The Big Easy and others.
MR: I feel like the political stuff works a little better on this album than it did on Around the Sun.
NB: It all works better here.
MR: Here’s the difference for me. They sounded like they knew Bush was going to get reelected on Around the Sun. Maybe that explains some of the weariness. Here, they seem to be pissed, but somewhat optimistic. It’s a better look for them. Can’t say that I love “I’m Gonna DJ.” It’s a bit of a throwback to the old “goofy R.E.M.” singles – “Stand,” “Shiny Happy People” – but it doesn’t really work for me.
JL: I didn’t enjoy that one. A bit too jokey, even for me.
NB: A flop.
MR: But other than that, it’s a pretty solid album. Really consistent.
JL: The Germans probably have a single noun for this, even if it has 96 letters, for “the feeling of appreciation you get from a particular album, simultaneously recognizing that you’re glad a band doesn’t have 16 more albums that sound exactly like it.” That’s the feeling I have about this album.
MR: Okay, Collapse Into Now.
NB: I like “Blue” and “Überlin” a lot.
MR: “Überlin” is probably the highlight for me. I like the return of Patti Smith in “Blue.”
NB: How much does “Überlin” come off like “Drive.”
MR: Definitely reminiscent of “Drive.” I like “Walk It Back” as well.
NB: “Walk It Back” is great.
JL: I also liked “It Happened Today” and “Blue.” I like how the album does that thing where it ends like it started. I can usually dig that.
MR: Yeah, that’s a cool touch. I find myself enjoying most of this album when it is on, but forgetting a lot of the tracks when I haven’t listened to it in a while. I feel like the album stumbles with a few of the “rockier” tracks.
NB: I think that is true on most of these records.
MR: Yeah, though I tend to like the louder ones on Accelerate. Some of these ones are a bit too gimmicky. This is another pretty solid album. Like Accelerate, it’s reasonably consistent throughout, but it has to carry the weight of being their last (rather than being a follow-up to a disappointing album).
JL: It has a lot of the same economy as Accelerate. A little less energy though. Not that it has to be all on, all the time. But for mid-tempo R.E.M., I’d prefer the almost narcotized sound of Up to something more MOR as this.
MR: Agree wholeheartedly. At their peak, R.E.M. were a band that thrived on changing directions. For them to end on a couple of albums that were kind of retreads seems like a bit of an overcorrection following Around the Sun. With that said, they certainly were aware at this point that they weren’t exactly on the forefront of the music scene in the way that they were a couple of decades prior.
NB: How about their swan song, “We All Go Back to Where We Belong”?
MR: Yeah, they put out three new songs right around the point of their breakup. “We All Go Back” was definitely the keeper of those. I think I like it more than anything on Collapse Into Now.
MR: Were either of you paying much attention to the band when they announced their breakup?
NB: I read about the breakup, but didn’t own anything released in this millennium. Well, not entirely true… I had Accelerate digitally, but had never listened to it.
MR: I bought all of these albums on the release dates – and liked all of them to varying degrees – but I started to think of them as more of a “legacy act” at the point of Around the Sun.
JL: I can tell you exactly where I was, and what I was doing, when I heard Bill Berry had collapsed of an aneurysm. But I don’t think I could say the same of when they announced their retirement.
NB: Same! Honestly, it took me some time to come around to them without Berry. It didn’t feel like them anymore to me and I treated the music differently.
MR: I definitely remember where I was/what I was doing when I read about the breakup. I had really mixed emotions about it. I mostly was frustrated that I never saw them live.
JL: Where did you read it?
MR: On Pitchfork, between classes at work. Probably let out an audible “oh, shit” when I read it. My band played a show the next night. We opened our set with “7 Chinese Bros.” even though we never rehearsed it once. It was choppy, but I viewed it as necessary. I probably still would have picked up a guitar without R.E.M. in my life, but it would’ve resulted in a very different outcome.
JL: I hear that.
MR: I’ve thought about this quite a bit, but as fans, if you had the ability to pull the plug on R.E.M. at any point before they did, would you have done it? If so, where?
JL: I wouldn’t, probably couldn’t have done it.
NB: Well, after Up they don’t really break into much new territory in my mind. If they could have released some songs the next year and called it quits… I mean, they released five albums without Berry over fourteen years, and ten with him in only thirteen. It’s almost like two different bands, two different stories.
MR: I have a theory that with every album from New Adventures forward, they had an “exit strategy.” Look at the ending tracks of each album, and their themes (“20th century, go to sleep,” “I’m out of here,” “Who cast the final stone, who threw the crushing blow”).
MR: “Beachball” is where – if I had to end it somewhere other than their real end – I would. It’s a nice sendoff. Perhaps I’ve spent too much time analyzing the closing tracks of late-period R.E.M. albums… Okay, favorite and least favorite albums of these five? I’ve already tipped it off, but Up is my favorite. Around the Sun is my least.
NB: Same for me.
JL: Up is my favorite, although Reveal is close on its tail. Least favorite is Around the Sun, I guess, although it suffers from a lack of familiarity – it’s not competing on the same ground. I never heard it before today. Ask me again in a year, but I doubt my opinion will change.
MR: Our last task is to build a playlist. We each pick five songs, in a “fantasy draft” format. Bert, since you’re a first timer, you get the first pick.
NB: “Until the Day Is Done,” since it’s truly from this period.
JL: “I’ll Take…
MR: I’ll take “Imitation of Life.” Round two:
JL: “Sad Professor”
MR: “At My Most Beautiful.” Round three:
NB: “We All Go Back to Where We Belong”
NB: “Reno.” I don’t think Bert will mind.
MR: “Living Well Is the Best Revenge.” Round four:
NB: “Bad Day”
MR: “Suspicion.” Last round:
NB: “The Great Beyond”
JL: How about “I’ve Been High”? Don’t think we talked about that one yet. It’s one of those “R.E.M. is playing in the other room” songs, but it works for me.
MR: Yeah, I like that one. Okay, I feel obligated to include one from Around the Sun with this last pick… but, I’m gonna go with “Überlin” instead.
NB: Only choice!
MR: Alright. Thanks for doing this, guys.
NB: Yea, man!
JL: Word. Thanks dudes!