Newsletter 81: Appreciating Latter-Era R.E.M.

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I’ve decided to start putting some of the best newsletter essays here on Medium, so more people can read them. You’re still better off just subscribing. This one’s from November 2017, when I tried to rank post-Warner Bros.-signing R.E.M. albums. We hosted a party last night where there was a lot of R.E.M. playing — as will happen when you live in Athens, Georgia, and are 43 — so I got to thinking about this ranking. I still stand behind it.

R.E.M’s “Automatic For the People” celebrated its 25th anniversary back in October, though the real celebration has been this month with the release of the new remastered version, which is great and you should immediately buy. All anniversaries hit me hard anymore — it has been 28 years, for example, since I was the age of Roy Moore interest — but something about that album turning 25 kills me. The first time I ever listened to it, I was working at the Cinema 1–2–3 in Mattoon as a projectionist and usher. My job was to splice the movies together reel-to-reel onto a massive platter and then run them through the projector to make sure they were in the right order. (I once screwed up “Cool World,” mixing reels two and three, not that anyone noticed or cared.) This process took about an hour and was very loud. I would listen to my Discman while splicing them together, and the day “Automatic For The People” came out, I was putting together “A River Runs Through It.” I listened to the album as loud metal plates clanged all around me, which has to be the worst possible way to listen to “Automatic For The People” for the first time. (It might have worked for a Nine Inch Nails album. I think that might have been a Nine Inch Nails album.)

It still knocked me over. I’m fairly certain I listened to that album every day for a year. Grierson and I used to listen to it on repeat while driving around the old backroads of Mattoon, talking about movies and girls and baseball and girls and movies. The album still breaks my heart every time I listen to it. It’s sad and hopeful and wise and wistful and at some sort of peace. Steven Hyden wrote a great piece about it last week, and I was drawn to this bit: “Automatic For The People represents a moment when R.E.M. was able to temporarily maintain a safe space away from the outside world. And they used that space to meditate on all of the profound, unanswerable questions that a hero must ponder the morning after he walks off into the sunset, when his dreams have been fulfilled and yet he finds that his life is still proceeding inexorably toward a dark and mysterious destination.” The album feels like it comes from a place away from all the chaos and madness of the ordinary world: It comes with its hand out to you, beckoning you to come with it, it’s going all to be all right, come with us, it will be OK. I’m pretty sure I need the album more now than I even did in 1992.

I’m not going to write an long ode to the album because I’d rather just listen to it: Unlike Hyden, I don’t trust my ability to do it justice. Instead, I’m going to punk out and just do some R.E.M. rankings. I’ve seen R.E.M. more in concert than I’ve seen any other band. I actually saw Radiohead open for R.E.M., before I knew the band well, back when I only knew “Pablo Honey.” (Christ, I probably yelled “Play ‘Creep’!”) I saw them on the Monster tour, and the Up tour, probably twice each major tour, every time they came close to St. Louis or New York. I never got to see Nirvana, so R.E.M. was the best there was, and I probably overcompensated. I was too young, and too “from a small town,” to get into their earlier albums when they came out; there wasn’t a lot of indie rock in Mattoon in 1989. I’m one of the people introduced to them by “Out of Time.” R.E.M. is a band that followed me throughout my most formative years, and thus I can only rank the albums I heard when they came out. (Though if you’re looking for my favorite pre-”Out of Time” album, I’d probably say “Document.” But “Murmur” is very close.) Thus: My ranking of all R.E.M. albums that came out after I got my drivers license.

9. Around the Sun (2004)

I like this album more than the band does — they pretty much stopped playing songs from it in concert immediately, and Peter Buck, in particular, couldn’t stand it — but it’s tough to argue this isn’t the worst of the Warner Bros. albums. That’s OK. R.E.M.’s worst album is still better than anything almost anyone else has ever done. “I Wanted to Be Wrong” is an underappreciated song, I think.

8. Reveal (2001)

Many people praised “Reveal” as a return to “traditional” R.E.M. after “Up,” an album not that many people loved. I, however, am one of those people who adore “Up,” as you will see later, so to me, “Reveal” feels too self-consciously “back to basics!” except with a little more synth, which is not my thing. “I’ll Take The Rain” is super great, though.

7. Collapse Into Now (2011).

It’s impossible to listen to this now without thinking about how it was their last album, and how they knew it while making it: Stipe is even waving goodbye on the cover. There’s a few too many guest stars for me, but it feels like a band consciously making sure it’s going out on a high note. It’s like a farewell concert, but a wistful one rather than a desperate one. I listen to this more than I would have expected on first listen.

6. Accelerate (2008).

Maybe their best album that’s not entirely essential, almost like an album that makes sure everybody knows they’re still great but isn’t going to turn anyone into a fan that already wasn’t one. It’s fun and sturdy and excellent, but unlike these final five albums, if you don’t have it in your collection, you can still call yourself an R.E.M. fan.

5. Monster (1994).

Definitely the best concert to see them: This tour was so great at reminding people that R.E.M. was a freaking rock band. Sometimes the album feels a little too self-aware that it’s “rocking,” but it’s fun to hear them pushing themselves into grittier, almost sloppier places. And sorry: I’m too much of a Nirvana fan for “Let Me In” not to get me every time.

4. Out of Time (1991).

The album that got me infatuated with the band, though I wouldn’t really fall in love with them until the next one. “Losing My Religion” is still the biggest hit, and “Country Feedback” turns me into a puddle every time I hear it. Still is a little bit of a transitional album; it doesn’t entirely hold together as a single piece the way the best three do. But just looking at this cover warms my heart.

3. New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996)

This is Stipe’s favorite album, and while I’m not ready to go that far … man, not nearly enough people appreciate this album. It’s sort of a mix of the last two albums, emotional but also not afraid to hang onto a riff. This is the greatest R.E.M. album to go on a long drive to. It actually feels a little like driving a car through a vast wide open road really fast, but not dangerously fast.

2. Up (1998).

Yep, you’ve found the album I love more than everybody else does. God does this album just kill me. It’s sad — it’s so, so sad — but it’s not despairing. It even feels optimistic in its loss. I would argue this sounds simultaneously less like any other R.E.M. album and also most encompassing of the band’s essence. I like this album more every year. It feels like getting older, and being OK with it. Listen to it now. I bet you’ve come around to my way of thinking more than you’d suspect.

1. Automatic For the People (1992).


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Writer, New York, NYT, MLB, WaPo, others. Founder, Deadspin. Author of four books, with fifth, “How Lucky,” coming May 2021.

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