October 22, 2018

Pioneering Sounds: R.E.M.

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The band R.E.M. for many has become so commonplace that we rarely stop to consider how groundbreaking their music actually was. For those of us who grew up in the 90s, we associate them with catchy pop tunes like “Everybody Hurts” or “Man on the Moon.” In some cases, we may even do them a disservice by letting the missteps of the later part of their career overshadow the brilliance of their earlier work. I’ll be the first to admit committing that particular sin with bands like U2 and Aerosmith on a regular basis. Lackluster albums at the end of a band’s career don’t negate or tarnish the genius of their landmark work. If anything, in the case of R.E.M. it speaks to the power and influence of their music that they were able to maintain a successful recording career for 31 years. That being said, despite whatever the reactions of some were, it is worth noting that R.E.M.’s final album did reach the number 5 slot on the US Billboard 200 chart, which is no small feat.

Before R.E.M. was formed in 1980, there was literally nothing that had ever sounded like them. Listening to them today one would be hard pressed to identify the origin of their sound. Of all places, R.E.M.’s sound actually grew out of 70’s Punk Rock, of all places. While their music doesn’t overtly thumb its nose at authority and society (though Stipe did eventually use their music as a political platform) like one would expect from a Punk band, their music does ignore the conventional rock scene. The attraction to Punk for many, including the members of R.E.M., was its barebones, DIY nature. While mainstream rock was getting bigger and more obsessively and excessively produced, Punk stripped rock bare back down to its roots. R.E.M. took the “Punk” approach to music making, ignored what everyone else was doing, and just did it their own way. Their sound even spurned a new genre: Alternative Rock.

Both the singing and lyrical style of Michael Stipe and the guitar approach of Peter Buck further set R.E.M. apart from what their contemporaries were doing. Even if you compare R.E.M. to the punk scene you will struggle to find anyone with a similar vocal approach. Michael Stipe’s singing is simultaneously melodic, moody, and understated. Lyrically, he’s no Dylan. Yet, his poetry is masterful. Rather than use Dylan’s rambling play on words, or Springsteen’s epic storytelling, he uses the vague brushstrokes of an impressionistic painter.

Fans have often had a love hate relationship with his singing and lyrics. While adored, much of the time the listener can barely make out what Stripe is saying and when he was understandable the lyrics made no sense. Is it ironic that their debut album was titled Murmur or was that by design?

Just like Stipe’s singing, Peter Buck’s guitar style is hard to pin down. It is deceptively simple, which one could point back to Punk again. But, unlike Punk his playing is sparse, clean, and tasteful. At times his playing resembles Folk Rock much more than Punk. He will give you moments that make clear that he is a monster guitarist, but only if it fits the song. He’s a little like George Harrison from the Beatles in that way. George is considered a pioneering god of the rock guitar, but his guitar work never overextends itself and always fits the song. Buck’s minimalism is almost a further affront to the mainstream rock scene. As if saying, “No, I’m not going to do that rock guitar ‘thing’.”

While the singer and guitarist often steal the spotlight, the contributions of the other members of R.E.M. shouldn’t be overlooked. Their bass player, Mike Mills, and drummer, Bill Berry, had the most musical training of the group and were crucial in elevating everyone’s ideas and making them fit better. Together they gave the sound a very “composed” feel. In 1997, Berry quit the band after tiring of the rock-n-roll lifestyle. Reluctantly, the band soldiered on but the audible change in their sound make it clear how important he was. Berry was clearly more than just the drummer.

R.E.M.’s debut album, Murmur, was released in 1983. While critically acclaimed at the time it was not a commercial success. It was not the success of their albums that drove their career and artistry through the 80s, though. Their growing fan base propelled them forward and made each consecutive album a bigger success. The quality of their music had always stayed the same and it was just us, the listening public, that needed to catchup.

Massive commercial success didn’t occur for nearly ten years until 1991’s release of Out of Time and 1992’s Automatic for the People. These two albums define the R.E.M. sound for the majority of the listening public. What sets R.E.M. apart from other groups is they made no compromises in order to achieve mainstream success. A different group might have had to dumb down their sound to make it more palatable for a broader audience. They brought the audience to them rather than bring their music to where they thought the audience was. While these albums are their most popular, they have such integrity that is hard to argue that they aren’t also among their best work.

If you’d like to check out the music of R.E.M., the Seekonk Library can get any album you might be interested in. Locally we can borrow from over 70 libraries in the SAILS Network and, if need be, we can try other Massachusetts networks and beyond. You can even try out our digital music service: Freegal!

Pioneering Sounds is a music discussion group at the Seekonk Library. Join us on January 23rd at 6 PM for our discussion on R.E.M. and their debut album, Murmur. For more information visit www.seekonkpl.org or contact us at library@seekonkpl.org

This program is offered FREE to the public, no registration required.

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