2011 in Review #3 - REM
And then there were three. Oh, and then there were none. The hardcore would argue that REM never really recovered from the departure of drummer Bill Berry in 1997 and there may be some mileage in that. Certainly their efforts as a trio (their recordings and live shows fleshed out by a string of anonymous helpers) were accomplished but too close to tasteful by half.
Despite the platitudes thrown their way when they finally called it a day this year, those of us who were there from day one shed no tears. REM had run their course and we were (quietly) glad to see them go. And what was their crime ? Well, no-one could deny that they ventured into middle age with as much integrity as we'd come to expect from them. But, all their ambitions achieved, having written themeslves into the history of rock 'n' roll and - crucially - done it in line with their own, goofball manifesto, they'd become the indie rock equivalent of your favorite pair of slippers. Earlier this year, we enthused about their early work when we gave album #5 Lifes Rich Pageant a perfect (and, for TMF, rare) 10. But that was 25 years ago. Can any act that sparks when "young and full of grace" really keep those fires burning for a career as lengthy as this one?
No. So we applaud them for keeping going against the odds. We admire the fact that, even though record sales dipped, their live rep ensured they still needed to play most of their gigs outdoors. We offer a polite nod to their work over the past decade which, though far from essential, was never poor or embarrassingly influenced by new trends. We believe them, for once, when they say that this is most definitely it. We breath a sigh of relief when Michael Stipe promises he won't record a solo album. But we'll choose to remember them for, if you will, their 'middle' phase, a five album body of work that began in 1987 with the proto-grunge of Document, led to the all-conquering orchestral pop of Automatic for the People and ended with the uncompromising noiseworks of Monster. Yes, they trudged on for far, far too long but it's doubtful, in how they emerged from the underground and took hold of the mainstream on their own terms, we'll see their like again.