R.E.M.’s Reckoning


On Wednesday, the pioneering jangle-pop band R.E.M. announced that they were breaking up, some 30 years after the release of their first single and a mere five months after they’d put out their 15th album, Collapse Into Now. Impassioned eulogies for the Athens band pinged around the Internet almost immediately after the split became public; bloggers posted YouTube links to the band’s earliest performances and memories of their favorite shows. Some jokers even went so far as to sneeringly list other long-in-the-tooth bands that should break up ASAP.

It seemed appropriate that R.E.M. chose to call it a day during this month, which has been a particularly nostalgia-soaked one for fans of post-classic rock. Much of the focus on these looks back has been the 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s Nevermind coming out; the Seattle band’s 1991 breakthrough has been reissued and repackaged in a superdeluxe, four-CDs-and-a-DVD edition, a thousand think pieces have been launched, and surviving Nirvana members Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic have been quizzed by no less an interviewer than Jon Stewart.

But while much of the chatter has surrounded Kurt Cobain and his former bandmates, September 1991 is being revisited for other reasons. Weeks before Nevermind‘s release, R.E.M. cleaned up at MTV’s Video Music Awards with their cinematic clip for the haunting Out Of Time track “Losing My Religion.” And there were other milestone rock albums released that fall as well: Guns N’ Roses’ ambitious if overreaching two-disc set Use Your Illusion; Primal Scream’s polyglot triumph Screamadelica; and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ funk-metal opus Blood Sugar Sex Magik—which, if we’re going to be frank, was a triumph of masculinity that probably went on to define the alt-rock landscape a lot more than Kurt Cobain’s body of work ever did.

The irony of this nostalgic hoopla is twofold. First, it’s being pushed by a generation that was famously sick of the constant self-canonization put forth by those people who were alive when Woodstock happened. And second, it’s, for the most part, focused on albums—those collections of songs that have been pushed further and further back in the shops that could at one time call themselves record stores, that have been shuffled into the homemade DJ sets called “playlists.” Even the tributes to R.E.M. had more than a few people recalling the nights that they lined up outside record stores as the clock struck midnight, so they could be the first to acquire the band’s newest releases.

Acquiring music has, in the ’00s, become more of a casual event and less a social one; there are fewer destinations to visit should one venture out of the house in order to buy records, to the point where Jay-Z and Kanye West set up a pop-up store/shrine to their combined fame when they released the heavily gilded Watch The Throne last month. Instead, in 2011, the term “social music” has become synonymous with finding out what one’s Facebook friends might be listening to at a given time. When R.E.M. released Collapse Into Now last spring, it was paired with an ambitious promo campaign—each song was accompanied by a video directed by the likes of James Franco and Albert Maysles. “The way technology is right now; it’s possible to present something in any way you want to,” R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe told NME at the time. “I basically wanted to explore the idea of what is an album, and how do we present it with everything that we have available.”

But even the resources available to one of the past 30 years’ higher-profile bands can’t result in the sort of cultural dominance that inspired Warner Bros. Records to sign R.E.M. to a five-record, $80 million deal back in 1996, when Tower Records and the Virgin Megastore still existed. In fact, quite a few people expressed genuine confusion at the breakup announcement, having thought that because the band hadn’t released any songs that possessed the monocultural traction of the spare “Everybody Hurts” or the goofily philosophical “Stand” in the past few years, they’d been done for a while. It was hard not to wonder if the diminished pop landscape, where a few superstars hog all the gossip-page space, and lesser musicians get rewarded for trolling gullible bloggers with news of phony side projects, forces artists who just want to keep making records to fade out of the consciousness—even those with grand ambitions and the money to realize them.

The night R.E.M. announced its split, the Olivia Tremor Control—also from Athens—played their first New York–area show in years in the subterranean lair of (le) Poisson Rouge. Part of a loosely knit group of bands known as the Elephant 6 Collective, the Olivias in the 1990s didn’t loom as large as R.E.M., but they were one of the more well-known bands on the pre-blog “indie” circuit. During the back end of the ’90s, they put out a pair of albums—Dusk At Cubist Castle (in 1996) and Black Foliage: Animation Music Vol. 1 (1998)—that balanced glorious sun-drenched melodies and optimistic, smell-the-roses lyrics with long, buzzing drones and warped-cassette experiments. Their body of work sounded like the result of a common realization that even the hardest days had a sense of possibility about them, and, more importantly, that the potential for the unexpected to absolutely blow one’s mind always lurked underneath something as basic as a C chord.

In the run-up to the show, the band released its first song in years, “The Game You Play Is in Your Head Parts 1, 2, 3”; it’s a curling track that shifts through its three movements like an expertly sequenced seven-inch, with hooks woven throughout. As the group’s many members and instruments crowded the stage, playing a set where the brief foray into new material didn’t inspire a mass exodus to the bar as it might have with other artists approaching the comeback trail, the room vibrated with a less self-reflexive type of nostalgia—one tinged with not just sadness for what might have been but also with hope for how the past could positively affect the future.