R.E.M. – [Album]

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

How nice of R.E.M. to give us this career spanning collection immediately after they announce their break-up. It gives us a chance to assess their body of work as a whole, and trace the growth and development of their sound. As much as many fans may say otherwise, this collection argues that the band's sound has been far more consistent across the nearly thirty years than one might think.

There is a definite flow to this album. It demonstrates that all the changes over the years were more refinements to a consistent sound than fundamental alterations of what they did. This set contends that you can follow the band's growth from album to album, and it all makes sense.

One of the things which Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage makes clear is that they always had a talent for a good pop hook. From “Radio Free Europe” and “So. Central Rain” through “Losing My Religion” and “Man on the Moon” all the way to this year’s “Uberlin,” pop hooks abound.

On the other hand,  the album does make clear some changes they made over the years. A main one is a thickening of their sound. This set connects the dots in R.E.M.'s pattern and shows the move from jangly guitars to a hard rock crunch. Keyboards gradually become more and more important to the songs too, but the change lies mostly in the production of R.E.M.'s albums over the years. The early songs have a relatively thin production, but as time passed they fattened their sound, until they reach something close to a Phil Spector Wall of Sound on Automatic for the People. Although some of the later cuts return to a sharper, crisper sound, this remains the production standard for the rest of their career.

Of course, such consistency in a collection such as this is dependent on the song selection. And while this album in some ways expects you to accept that selection, in other ways it dares you to question it. It starts with the title: Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage, but which is which? It turns out it is the listener’s choice – everyone will have their own favorites on the list, and their own opinions on what should have been left off, what is relevant to R.E.M.’s legacy, and what is fluff.

However, there is still a sense that the choices were very deliberate. This isn’t a random selection of their songs, but a carefully chosen one. The obvious hits are all here, but where are some of the lesser ones, say “Drive” or “Bang and Blame”? More, where are the experimental cuts? Songs like “Feeling Gravity’s Pull” or “Country Feedback” or “Star Me Kitten” (or maybe even the William Burroughs version of “Star Me Kitten”).  Why no live cuts, no covers, none of the obscurities off Dead Letter Office? There are numerous songs which could have been included, which might have disrupted the flow of the album, made their career seem less consistent, but more interesting.

Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage tells a story about R.E.M. but, as I listen closely, I get the feeling that I am being told a particular version of that story; one the R.E.M. boys have chosen for their legacy. It is a story of a pop band and well-crafted pop songs. That is certainly not the only story that could be told about them, and not necessarily the one I might have expected, but it is apparently the one they want told.



Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage: 1982 – 2011
is out now. Buy it here on Amazon .


R.E.M. – [Album]

Thursday, 10 April 2008

It has been four years since R.E.M. last released a studio album and fourteen since the band put out a record that showed any sparks of rock ‘n’ roll passion or volume. The last four albums, while excellent sets of reflective songwriting, were all fairly muted and/or electronic affairs, but the one thing that R.E.M. has always consistently illustrated is that they know where home is and how to get back there. That’s what Accelerate is—a long-awaited, much-anticipated return to the form and sound of such classic records as Monster, Reckoning, and, in a lot of ways, even Murmur that has been long time coming.

Athens, GA’s favorite sons crash back in no uncertain terms with the speedy, heart-on-its-sleeve anthem “Living Well Is the Best Revenge” but, rather than recoil into tender acoustic balladry as they’ve done on records previous, the hits keep on coming through “Man-Sized Wreath” and “Supernatural Superstitions.” The pace is set at that point and the band knows they’re back. From there, the album is characterized by an unabashed, unapologetic anthemia driven by Peter Buck’s monster-sized guitar and a wall of vocal interplay produced by bassist Mike Mills and frontman Michael Stipe that, while easy to take for granted before, is always thrust squarely in the faces of listeners here.

The band pulls every trick and great sonic moment that it has developed over its 26-year career out and makes each of them work in context rather than sounding like a play to recapture old glories and old fans. The delicate but driving mandolin that sounded so cool on “Losing My Religion” gets dusted off to great effect for “Houston,” the giant and expansive landscape of acoustic guitars that have periodically appeared in great moments throughout R.E.M.’s career (most notably though in “Man on the Moon,” “Daysleeper” and “Texarkana”) creep up again in “Until the Day Is Done,” and Michael Stipe’s ability to manipulate a heartfelt mood to make it feel dark and foreboding (a previous example would be “Wolves, Lower” from Murmur) rather than simply degrading it to dour (as the band did on “Drive”) manifests again in “Sing for the Submarine.”

By reinstating all of those elements at once, Buck, Mills and Stipe have pulled together all of the loose ends left along the way in their 26-year career without sounding canny or calculated—it simply sounds like a resolution to a host of previous torments. That is just one more way in which Accelerate is gratifying and thus makes the album the single greatest comeback for a band that has honestly never suffered a letdown. R.E.M. has always been the most steadfast and reliable alt-rock band from a content-quality standpoint, but here they’ve also sealed their place as the pre-eminent underground band of their generation. Accelerate continues the tradition of R.E.M. being the yard stick by which all others are judged.

Accelerate is out now on Warner.

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