New R.E.M. Albums

Published 2008-04-02

I stood outside the door of Pickles Records, waiting for opening time, on the day of Document’s release in 1987. (It was also, coincidentally, the day before my 16th birthday.) That event began a pattern that continued through 1988’s Green (released on Election Day), 1991’s Out of Time (sometime in early spring — oh, March 12, thank you Wikipedia!), and 1992’s Automatic for the People (October 6): I would buy R.E.M.’s newest album on its release day.

Archaeological fieldwork (in the vicinity of Buffalo, Texas) delayed my purchase of 1994’s Monster (September 27), but I resumed my habit for New Adventures is Hi-Fi (September 10, 1996). The last R.E.M. album I bought on its release date was the post–Bill Berry Up (October 27, 1998). During the same year, someone at a party asked me who my favorite band was and my then-girlfriend answered for me: “Stereolab.” I recall being a little put off — where did she get off saying my favorite band wasn’t R.E.M., which was certainly the case since at least 1986’s Lifes Rich Pageant? But the hell of it was, she was right.

I bought Reveal several months after its release (May 15, 2001). I knew of its existence during the entire time, but the uneven quality of the band’s last two albums dulled my enthusiasm a little. I eventually bought it on CD — one of the last albums on bought on CD, actually.

I can’t recall when I bought 2004’s Around the Sun. I think I noticed some unfamiliar R.E.M. songs on a coworker’s shared iTunes library, which prompted me to wonder — “did R.E.M. release a new album and I didn’t even know about it?” Yup, that’s what happened. I downloaded the album from iTunes mainly out of loyalty. By that time — probably early 2005 — R.E.M. occupied the same place in my pop culture universe as The Simpsons...their early work had essentially bought them a lifetime free pass in my opinion.

I feel pretty good about being only three days late for Accelerate, which is a stronger effort than any R.E.M. album since 1996. Like U2’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, it’s a return-to-form album, with none of the electronic experimentation of Up or the soft-rock coasting of the previous two albums. So in the sense of “resembles older, better R.E.M. albums,” it’s pretty good. On the other hand, at least until 2004, the one thing you could safely say about the newest R.E.M. album was that it wouldn’t sound much like any R.E.M. album before it.

When I was 16, I wrote a screed about classic rock radio called “Fuck Radio” for a friend’s zine (the Subterranean). It used to infuriate me that a young person could turn on the radio and hear great rock and roll coming from at least five F.M. stations, but that none of that great rock and roll was newer than about 1978. I thought I was living through the halcyon years of rock and roll, which had been revitalized first by punk rock in the late 70s and then again by New Wave and the R & B–influenced pop of the early 1980s. I held especial contempt for the Rolling Stones and Eric Claption, both of whom I regarded as way past their prime, holding back rock and roll, filling the airwaves and critical attention with stuff that had already been done. This was part of a larger rubric in my head that kind of loathed the remaindered 60s culture of then-thirtysomethings. What little airspace was left for pop music seemed to be filled with execrable hair metal and junky throwaway pop.

I wonder where that screed is now? I bet it’s funny.