Things I’m Supposed To Love, But Can’t Stand: REM

Yeah, yeah, I know – most important American band of the last twenty years, bla bla bla.

Save it.

REM – Michael Stipe, Pete Buck, Mike Mills and the long-departed Bill Berry – have been critical darlings and, for the most part, commercial powerhouses for a generation now (it used to really bug my stepson that after a jag of feeling hip that he’d gotten the new REM record, I pulled out my copy of Murmur from my sophomore year of college. Psych).

Well, good for them.

Here’s the maddening thing about REM; I can scarcely listen to a single one of their albums all the way through.  Pete Buck once described the band’s is-it-a-stereotype-or-is-it-a-cliche style:”Minor key, mid-tempo, enigmatic, semi-folk-rock-balladish things. That’s what everyone thinks and to a certain degree, that’s true.”  REM’s music is all oblique this and badly-enunciated enigmatic reference that and sophomore poetry-class the other thing, and always, always Michael Stipe prancing around going “hreydee-yo hree murrup” and “and nuh freyn konnukter fez, ryever ape, pake a mape”…

Mind you, I don’t mind oblique, enigmatic and sophomoric per se. And I can’t knock the band itself; Mills and Berry were an excellent Watts ‘n Wyman-style rhythm section; Mills has a distinctive yet perfect backing vocal style; Pete Buck is…well, perfectly functional given his chosen limits. And Michael Stipe is a good singer with an excellent (albeit not Bono-like) and distinctive voice.

But most of REM’s music invariably bores me stiff…

…except that every album (that I bothered listening to, which hasn’t happened since 1998’s Up, includes one, and only one, song that I just absolutely love, love love – which always comes out after  the dreary, minor-key mid-tempo southern-mythology-sodden ballad.


Album by album:

  • Murmur – was entirely dispensable – except that life without “Radio Free Europe” would be a lot poorer.  But it’s more a visceral thing – the rhythm section’s tight snap, the cool (if inscrutable) hook line, the zing of the thing.  Certainly not the lyrics, as delivered by Michael Stipe  “Sigh this elf if radio munna slay/Reason it muld paw ish utta pray/poodat poodata poodta up your wah/Mrs. Islecumfray ah haul.  Raving station, be fly…”
  • Reckoning led off with the “South Central Rain (I’m Sorry)”, or as Stipe pronounced it, “Um Hawry”, which makes me nod off a bit 25 years later – but followed up with “Don’t Go Back To Rockville”, which was a really good song.
  • Fables of the Reconstruction – Produced by Joe Boyd, who produced Richard Thompson’s classic “Shoot Out The Lights”, Fables breaks the pattern only slightly: lead-off single “Driver 8” didn’t suck, and follow-up “Can’t Get There From Here” is actually IPod-worthy.
  • Lifes Rich Pageant – Not even Don Gehman – who’d just produced John Mellencamp’s classic Scarecrow, could make most of this album less tedious – except for the gorgeous “Fall On Me”.
  • Document – “The One I Love” almost made me pound my ears out with a potato masher.  And “Exuming McCarthy” may have been the dumbest anti-Reagan song in a decade full of standouts.  But “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It” jumps in at last minute and staves off self-mutilation.
  • Green – What if the Brill Building was in Athens, Georgia in 1988, instead of Philadelphia in 1962?  You’d have gotten “Stand”, and most of the album.  Except “Orange Crush”, which, dude.
  • Out of Time – I used to wonder if “Losing My Religion” was a self-parody; if I were going to write a spoof of REM, it’d sound just like LMR, and have just about the same lyrics.  But I still love “Shiny Happy People”, although having Kate Pearson on board helps.
  • Automatic for the People – Small breach of protocol: “Everybody Hurts” and “Man In The Moon” don’t suck.
  • Monster – Bla bla bla “What’s the Frequency KennetH” bla bla bla.
  • New Adventures in Hi-Fi – Broke the pattern again – all of it sucked.
  • Up, Reveal, Around the Sun, Accelerate – never heard any of ’em.

But as with most of these “things I should love but don’t” pieces, it’s not so much the artist as the artist’s fans. And it’s not just that REM fans are just this side of Grateful Dead fans in terms of worshipping.  No, it’s the damage they did.

An alt-rock radio program director I once knew summed up alt-rock in the late eighties: “There are two types of music”, said the learned sage; “Noisy rock, and Jangly rock”.  The poles of his universe were Dinosaur Junior on the one hand, and REM on the other.  And this program director was hardly alone.

So for a couple of years in the late eighties and early nineties, alt-rock diverged into two miserable paths: sludgy, mopey glop that eventually morphed into grunge, and jangly, folky music in a zillion nearly-identical permutations (The Connells, Wednesday Week, Aztec Camera, Let’s Active!) that eventually morphed into…

…well, landfill.  Nobody remembers any of it.  Not even – be honest! – most of what REM did.

Well, some of it, we do.  Only we can’t make out the damn words.

20 thoughts on “Things I’m Supposed To Love, But Can’t Stand: REM

  1. For a minute there, Angryclown was about to “dude” you. But when Angryclown read the rest of the post, he recognized that your real opinion is something short of “can’t stand REM.” Cause I mean, dude.

  2. Here’s the maddening thing about REM; I can scarcely listen to a single one of their albums all the way through.

    Me neither. But if you have one of their songs come up on shuffle, it will usually work well. And that’s the way to deal with REM. Put “It’s the End of the World As We Know It” between, say, “Still Crazy After All These Years” by Paul Simon and “I’ve Got the World on a String” by Sinatra and you’ve got something. Those were the songs on either side of it the last time it played on my computer at work.

    I feel the same way about James Brown, who is infinitely greater and more important than REM. Still, I can’t listen to 10 James Brown songs in a row.

  3. The band is emblematic of why the music business is tanking. One good song per album worked when CDs came out — you had to pay about $15 to get that CD and that one good song.

    Then iTunes came around and you could buy that one good song for $1 and the music industry watched all the profits evaporate. And that was for the folks who actually got the stuff legitimately.

  4. Saw them at Roy Wilkens on the Life’s Rich Pagent Tour.

    You missed “DEAD LETTER OFFICE” a bunch of B-sides and the orginal Chronic Town on one CD. This disc they did covers of old Lou Reed tunes “Femme Fatal” and “Pale Blue Eyes” which are some of favorite cuts.

    Like many bands, listen to the music and when the speak in public or print, turn them off.

    I love the jangly guitar of Pete Buck.

  5. Don’t Go Back To Rockville is a pretty good tune. That song about Andy Kaufman makes me cringe. Yeah yeah yeah yeah.

  6. Clown: Most of these “Can’t Stands” aren’t things I, y’know, can’t actually stand. They’re just things I’m ambivalent about for some reason or another.

  7. Don’t you think a more accurate headline might be: “Things People Might Think I’m Enthusiastic About, When In Fact My Attitude is one of Ambivalence, For Some Reason or Another”?

  8. Shiny Happy People (and the associated Furry Happy Monsters), and Man in the Moon are the only REM songs I’ve liked. Agreed, Kate Pearson helps on SHP, and MitM is helped by the story and aura of, and little known references to, Kaufmann.

  9. REM was the fist “cool” band I listened to as a youngster (non-country, non-pop, non-hard rock, non-oldies (think Beatles or Stones)).

    I just took almost all of my REM CD’s to Half Price Books three weeks ago (to sell). Keep Murmur.

  10. “Crush with Eyeliner” isnt too shabby…. and Stipe appears to be expressing an intelligible, if not exactly profound or original, idea.

  11. You have got to be kidding, Bill C. I agree that “Shiny Happy…” is a good tune, much to the credit of the estimable Kate Pierson. But if you can watch REM sing “Furry Happy Monsters,” surrounded by Muppets, without an intense sensation of the douche chills, there is something very, very wrong with you.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zkHM8xG6i8o

  12. Kate rocked that song, she deserves all the credit.

    I will take your word about “douche chills”, AssClown.

  13. I’m an REM fan, but I’m not going to try and persuade you that up was one of the best albums of the 90’s. (The song you like is “Lotus,” right?)

    But as a music fan, I can’t believe you like “Shiny Happy People.” Even the band doesn’t like that song.

  14. The band hates that song. Though I think it’s more cause the song so poorly matches the stated inspiration for the song, which had something to do with the Tiananmen Square massacre. I mean, come on, the song isn’t any sillier than “Stand.”

  15. I always liked Eponymous. That plus Oddfellows and Shiny would be enough REM for me. Since they were competitors with the Replacements at the time, REM seemed like an example of what could have happened to the ‘Mats if they’d been luckier or better or just had that one song that really kicked the door in. The closest they got was You Be Me, and that wasn’t exactly their best song. Ah well.
    Buck had some great riffs on Eponymous, anway. I thought he was a great “for the song” kind of player.
    Actually REM had great chemistry.

  16. The band hates that song.

    Right. But if the band’s opinion on these things were dispositive to me, this post would have been called “REM Is The Greatest Band Ever, And Mom Agrees”.

  17. I simply can’t take rock seriously enough, in any of its variants, to be worth this sort of intellectualizing over.

    There’s no “there”, there.

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