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Behind The Albums

R.E.M. – The Final Years

So was it really the end of the world as we knew it when R.E.M. split? Maybe, but as this overview of the band’s phenomenal catalogue proves, there’s still the music.

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Despite the medical emergencies, assorted crises and rescheduled shows on 1995’s ill-fated Monster tour, R.E.M. emerged refreshed with ’96’s New Adventures In Hi-Fi: a sprawling but frequently essential waxing which suggested their best was yet to come.

Up to this stage in their career, the Athens, Georgia, outfit had always appeared as an enviably harmonious quartet and had previously stressed that they would split if one of their core members quit. However, that resolve was severely tested in the fall of 1997, when drummer Bill Berry announced he was quitting the band.

Berry had previously survived the worst of the medical scares to befall R.E.M. during the Monster tour, when he was taken ill with a ruptured brain aneurysm in Switzerland. He’d played his usual active part in New Adventures In Hi-Fi, but decided to quit just before the band embarked on the sessions for their next LP.

“I’m just not as enthusiastic as I have been in the past about doing this anymore,” Berry told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in October 1997. “I have the best job in the world but I’m kind of ready to sit back and reflect and maybe not be a pop star anymore.”

Initially, Berry’s bandmates seriously considered splitting altogether but, after some soul-searching, eventually continued, with Berry’s blessing. His amicable departure, however, left a hole which proved difficult to fill. The band eventually recorded their next album, Up, using drum machines along with contributions from Beck’s touring drummer Joey Waronker and The Screaming Trees’ skinsman Barrett Martin.

Even prior to Berry’s departure, R.E.M. had been keen to update their sound by experimenting with drum loops and electronica. With help from new producers Pat McCarthy and Nigel Godrich (Radiohead, Beck), they pursued this new direction on the underrated Up: an introverted, slow-burning record which included a brace of gems including the dissonant ‘Airportman’, the beautiful, The Beach Boys-esque ballad ‘At My Most Beautiful’ and the sassy, celebratory ‘Lotus’.

To underline the fact the band had entered a new phase, R.E.M. decided to print Michael Stipe’s lyrics in full in the new album’s booklet. When it was issued in October 1998, Up was greeted by the now-customary positive reaction, including four-star reviews from Rolling Stone and Q. Though it couldn’t quite match the commercial heights of New Adventures In Hi-Fi, the album nonetheless climbed to No.3 on the US Billboard 200 and performed strongly in the UK, where it earned a platinum disc and peaked at No.2 after its lead single, the plangent, circadian ‘Daysleeper’, charted at No.6.

Buck, Mills and Stipe hadn’t originally intended to tour the album, but after a series of warmly received promotional shows, the band agreed to a four-month arena tour of Europe and the US during the summer of 1999, beginning in June, in the Portuguese capital of Lisbon, and ending in Mansfield, Massachusetts, in September. This last show featured a fantastic, career-spanning set including the tour’s only performance of the band’s first single, ‘Radio Free Europe’.

Instead of immediately embarking on a successor to Up, R.E.M.’s next venture found them detouring into the film industry, composing the score for Czech filmmaker Milos Forman’s Andy Kaufman biopic Man On The Moon, starring renowned US comic Jim Carrey. The soundtrack also reprised the original ‘Man On The Moon’ from Automatic For The People, along with a shorter, orchestral reworking of the same track, plus an excellent, freshly penned R.E.M. cut, ‘The Great Beyond’, which rewarded the band with their highest-charting UK success (No.3) when released as a standalone single.

Still riding high, the band reconvened to record their 12th LP, Reveal, over the summer of 2000, with sessions taking place in the Canadian city of Vancouver and the Irish capital, Dublin. Pat McCarthy again remained in the producer’s chair, while the sessions also featured contributions from drummer Joey Waronker, The Posies’ Ken Stringfellow and the band’s touring alumnus Scott McCaughey.

Reviewing the LP in Rolling Stone, Rob Sheffield astutely clocked Reveal as “an album of woozily sun-struck ballads”, and while it rarely rocked, the LP showcased R.E.M. at their most sumptuously seductive, with Peter Buck reconnecting with the Rickenbacker jangle that originally made his name, and Stipe producing some of his finest vocals of his career on the likes of ‘I’ve Been High’, the yearning ‘I’ll Take The Rain’ and the lush, Jimmy Webb-inspired ‘All The Way To Reno (You’re Gonna Be A Star)’.

Reveal received a warm reception from the critics, with Q awarding it five stars and the Los Angeles Times’ Robert Hilburn suggesting it represented R.E.M.’s “return to its signature sound after a lengthy period of sonic experimentation”. The band’s fanbase also gave the record a hearty thumbs up, and Reveal’s overall worldwide sales eventually hit an extremely healthy four million, with the LP’s sturdy lead single, ‘Imitation Of Life’, going Top 10 in the UK and providing the band with their very first Japanese No.1.

The group next returned to the studio to record two new tracks for 2003’s self-explanatory In Time: The Best Of R.E.M. 1988-2003. An astutely compiled anthology collection, with selections culled from 1988’s Green through to Reveal, the tracklisting also reprised ‘The Great Beyond’ alongside the two new songs: the brisk ‘Bad Day’ (originally considered for 1986’s Lifes Rich Pageant) and the soaring, psych-tinged ‘Animal’.

In Time was initially issued as a double-disc set with a second CD of rarities and B-sides, and with liner notes annotated by Peter Buck. Unsurprisingly, it did good business, topping the UK charts and going platinum in the US, where it peaked at No.8 on the Billboard 200. In support, R.E.M. undertook a worldwide tour, with the European dates featuring a headlining slot at the prestigious Glastonbury Festival and the lengthy US itinerary including a show in Raleigh, North Carolina, wherein Bill Berry briefly reunited with the band.

Sessions throughout 2004 produced the band’s 13th studio set, Around The Sun, which was released in October of that same year. The album split many, though it featured several notable tracks, including the gripping ‘The Outsiders’ (featuring a decisive cameo from rapper Q-Tip), the angry, anti-Iraq War protest song ‘Final Straw’ and the majestic ‘Leaving New York’, which later breached the UK Top 5. Following the album’s release, R.E.M. set out on another lengthy world tour, their line-up this time augmented by Scott McCaughey and a new drummer, ex-Ministry mainstay Bill Rieflin.

Despite worldwide sales totalling over two million, the band later expressed their dissatisfaction with the album. Speaking to Q magazine, Peter Buck declared, “I hated the fact [Around The Sun] wasn’t as good as it should have been. Even Michael was going, ‘Y’know, if we make another bad record, it’s over,’ It’s like, ‘No Kidding!’”

Determined to make a rip-roaring return, R.E.M. played a five-night stand at Dublin’s Olympia Theatre in the summer of 2007, during which time they debuted a lot of the new songs they’d written in earnest the previous winter. Satisfied with the response, the band hooked up with new producer Jacknife Lee (U2) and knuckled down to recording their penultimate album, Accelerate.

A vintage return to form featuring some of the most urgent, aggressive rock’n’roll R.E.M. had alchemised since New Adventures In Hi-Fi, the album featured a slew of fantastic, throat-grabbing singles, including ‘Supernatural Superserious’, ‘Hollow Man’ and ‘Man-Sized Wreath’, and was rapidly lauded by the critics, with Rolling Stone’s David Fricke summing the album up as “one of the best records R.E.M. have ever made”.

Aside from topping the UK LP charts, Accelerate’s release marked something of a renaissance for R.E.M. in the US, where the LP peaked at No.2 on the Billboard 200 during its first week of release, and eventually sold over 350,000 copies in the States alone. The band rammed the message home with another lengthy tour taking in most of Europe and both the North and South American continents.

No one was in any doubt that Accelerate had brought R.E.M. right back into focus, yet even while touring the album, the group’s three founding members were discussing calling time on the band. Eventually, however, a mutual decision was made to reconvene with producer Jacknife Lee and record one more album, with the intention, as Mike Mills put it, of “going out on a high note”.

That R.E.M. had achieved this aim became all too apparent when fans got their first taste of March 2011’s Collapse Into Now. Recorded in a series of sessions in Nashville and New Orleans, and winding down with an emotional final session in Europe, at Berlin’s famous Hansa Tonstudio, the album was a fantastic, eclectic epitaph which ran the gamut from pumped-up Accelerate-esque rockers (‘Mine Smell Like Honey’; The Who-style power play ‘All The Best’) through to the ‘Drive’-esque melancholy of ‘Überlin’ and the heart-stoppingly beautiful ‘Every Day Is Yours To Win’. Naturally, it left fans wanting more.

Collapse Into Now debuted at No.5 in the US Billboard 200 and also peaked at No.5 in the UK Top 40, where the record went on to go silver. However, while the band conducted a series of promotional interviews, they remained true to their word about not touring the record. On 11 September, six months to the day of the LP’s release, R.E.M. officially announced their amicable split, with Mike Mills telling Rolling Stone, “There’s no disharmony here, no falling-outs, no lawyers squaring-off. We’ve made this decision amicably and with each other’s best interests at heart. The time just feels right.

The band still had one collaborative project up their sleeve: the compilation of the 2CD career anthology Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage 1982-2011, which also included three new, previously unreleased tracks. Yet when Michael Stipe and Mike Mills conducted a series of promotional interviews to celebrate its release, they ruled out the possibility of R.E.M. ever reforming.

That the Athens quartet have cast the longest of shadows across the music of the past 30 years, however, is undeniable. After the band’s 2011 split, The Atlantic categorically dubbed them “America’s Greatest Band”. It was a fitting addition to the plaudits that had poured in over decades, with Spin magazine at one stage referring to the band’s integrity-fuelled modus operandi as “the R.E.M. Model”, and Rolling Stone’s post-split tribute declaring: “At a time when ‘indie rock’ didn’t exist, R.E.M. basically invented it as we know it, more or less overnight.” As to the myriad bands from both sides of the Atlantic who owe them a debt, the late Kurt Cobain perhaps said it best when he told Rolling Stone, “I don’t know how that band do what they do. God, they’re the greatest.”

So was it really the end of the world as we knew it when R.E.M. split? Maybe, but as this overview of the band’s phenomenal catalogue proves, there’s still the music. Indeed, it’s heartening to know that enough of R.E.M.’s elusive genius has been captured to wow future generations, but it’s also more than a little sobering to think that we probably won’t hear their like again.

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