The second half of R.E.M.’s discography began with 5 years of worldwide mega-success. In the US alone their next 3 albums all went quadruple platinum, and they were a permanent fixture of 1990’s radio-waves, as huge hits like “Losing My Religion”, “Shiny Happy People”, “Everybody Hurts”, “Man On The Moon” and “What’s the Frequency Kenneth?” were ubiquitous to the point of annoyance. As pop radio tilted towards the alternative, R.E.M. was the perfect avenue for the masses to safely dip their feet into this pool of music. Even the parents of college-aged kids were now hip to R.E.M.’s music. Their songs were catchy and the band’s image remained squeaky-clean, even if they did indulge in a few scattered F-bombs on a couple of tracks. Undoubtedly, their universal acceptance by the masses turned-off the college crowd, which may have led to their rather rapid decline in sales as the millennium turned. Or perhaps it was the decline in overall quality of output as the band’s carousel of ideas slowed down. We’ll let you be the judge as we take a look at the back nine of R.E.M’s career.
Out of Time (1991) – DJ
Out of Time was such a drastic departure from anything R.E.M. had done previously. At the time there were songs I loved and songs I did not, and currently, those songs are reversed. “Losing My Religion” and “Shiny Happy People” were songs I loved upon release. “Religion” has been so overplayed that I just can’t listen to it anymore. “Shiny Happy People” is even less tolerable (see our post on Songs We Hate By Bands We Love). I think what put this over the top for me is when they appeared on Sesame Street and sang “Shiny Happy Monsters”. To me, this was R.E.M. selling out. But I digress.
Let’s talk positives. I still love “Radio Song” but can do without the rap, the song is good enough without the gimmick. The second half of the album works better for me. Overall this as an extremely mellow album and uses too much mandolin but generally, it works. “Belong” is a great track, with Stipe talking through all of it with Mills singing background. I love “Half A World Away” – Stipe’s lyrics talk about someone who is missing home and just wants to get back. This was how they were feeling at the time recording overseas and it’s one of their more personal tracks on the album. “Texarkana” is a decent Mills song and “Me In Honey” is actually a better Kate Pierson duet than “People”. My favorite song though, and one I despised 25 years ago, is “Country Feedback”. I love the lyrics and it’s one of my favorite songs when I am down or I feel beaten. It actually helps me cope, believe it or not. “It’s crazy what you could have had, I need this” is one of my favorite lyrics, Stipe repeats it over and over again. I know this song must come from something based on his performance and he lists it as a favorite. Out of Time is not one of their top albums, rather middle of the pack, but worth pulling out once in a while.
MG: Of all their albums that I purchased, this is probably my least favorite. Between my own overplaying of the disc, and the radio play of the hits, I tired of it and basically stopped listening to it for a long time. I even hated the generic album cover art, and flipped it around to the back cover of the CD booklet. Listening to it again, I can now re-enjoy “Losing My Religion” again, as well as a few other songs like “Belong”. “Radio Song” is good as well, but the lyrics of the rap part are pretty cheesy. I wish there was a version without it.
Automatic for the People (1992) – Mike G
This album feels the most like a Michael Stipe solo album. I like a number of the tracks here, but it was disheartening to hear the contributions of Mills, Buck and Berry take a backseat to prominent string arrangements on at least four songs. The lead-off single “Drive” is one such song, but at least it has some drumming from Berry, as the other three basically have no drumming at all. I wonder if this is when Berry first contemplated leaving the band. The video for “Drive” has to be one of the more annoying of theirs – it is in B&W and just shows Stipe crowd-surfing over and over, with occasional shots of the band being sprayed by water. No wonder the age of music videos died in the 90’s. As an album, I will say it is pretty cohesive and there aren’t really any bad tracks on it, even if “Star Me Kitten” is a bit of a head-scratcher. “Ignoreland” is the only song with a harder edge, and its railing against American political apathy resonates even stronger today. I like when Stipe shouts in frustration “I know that this is vitriol/No solution spleen-venting/But I feel better having screamed/Don’t you?”. Although it is still overplayed to this day, “Man on the Moon” is a brilliantly written and performed song (and the video is actually enjoyable to watch). I get that musical artists want to experiment with different sounds, but when I hear a song like “Sweetness Follows” with its reliance on cello’s and organ, it feels like a Stipe song and not one from the band. I think it would have been a better album if there were less music from the 15 session musicians and more from the three original musicians in the band.
DJ: I pretty much agree with you on this one. It definitely feels like a Stipe solo album. He may have been believing the hype but R.E.M. was always a band, it wasn’t one guy. I pretty much love “Try Not to Breathe” and the last three songs and that’s it. “Find the River” is my favorite although feels like the opening rips off Lisa Loeb’s “Stay”.
Monster (1994) – DJ
Monster was the last R.E.M. album I bought when it was released. I still don’t know why I stopped. When I first heard Monster I was raving about how R.E.M. is back rocking like they did in the 80’s. I was right about the rocking part, much more upbeat than the last two albums. The first, bizarrely titled, single “What’s the Frequency Kenneth?” was blistering. Stipe wrote it based on a strange Dan Rather mugging incident. It hooked me immediately. “Star 69”, my favorite track, is another hook-laden song. “Strange Currencies” sounds like nothing on the rest of the album, and sounds like a cut from Out of Time or Automatic for the People. It’s beautiful and another one of the standouts. As I listened to the album multiple times, I actually realized there were only a few songs I actually liked. Maybe it was too much guitar distortion. A couple of the songs sound the same. The last four songs are completely forgettable. I compare it to INXS’s Welcome to Wherever You Are: a few good songs, a tolerable album, but spotty, and came out around the same time. This also marked the start of their decline in popularity. Currently what sticks out to me about Monster is that this is the only tour where I got to see them in concert, and it was a damn good show.
MG: This is my favorite album, by far, of their post-Green career. I love the more aggressive sound of the album, especially after the mellow Automatic For The People, and it felt like the band was back to form. I’m glad that Buck was able to let loose with the electric guitar on a number of songs. “Crush With Eyeliner” and “Star 69” are my favorites, but slower songs like “Strange Currencies” and “Tongue” are great as well. I agree that the last 4 songs are not as distinctive, but the first 8 songs make a solid album. The concert was great and one of my all-time favorites.
The New Adventures in Hi Fi (1996) – Mike G
Reportedly, this is Stipe’s favorite R.E.M. album and the point where he considered the band at its peak. I wouldn’t go anywhere near that far, but upon recent listens I’ve discovered this is a very solid album. Like DJ, I also don’t know why I jumped off the R.E.M. train around this time. I listened to this album a bit when it came out, but I can’t recall if I even purchased it at the time (I know I no longer have it – perhaps a victim of several CD purges of the early 00’s). The sound of this album is a bit of a blend – plenty of electric-guitar reverb leftover from Monster, but a few songs also harken back to earlier albums. “Departure”, “Wake-Up Bomb”, and “Undertow” all carry the edgier, guitar-driven sound of Monster. “New Test Leper” is one of the more interesting tracks – kind of a non-religious musing on Jesus Christ’s teachings, at least that’s my interpretation. I know she’s a legend and all, but I’m not a fan of Patti Smith’s contribution to the oddly titled “E-Bow The Letter”, and “Leave” is an otherwise good tune, if they didn’t overwhelm Stipe’s vocals with the industrial-drill sound throughout (reminds me of Van Halen’s awful song “Poundcake”). One of the themes of their second career phase is an increase in production, which allows for experimentation, but sometimes it sounds like unnecessary over-production. If I long for the simpler arrangements on the earlier albums, “Bittersweet Me” is refreshing as it reminds me of something I’d hear off of Life’s Rich Pageant, and I am reminded of Reckoning with “So Fast, So Numb”.
DJ: I agree a pretty solid album that I paid zero attention to when it came out. All the songs you mentioned are good, I would also add “Electrolite”. “How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us” is my favorite song off the record and a great lead song.
Up (1998) – DJ
So now I am listening to full R.E.M. albums I had never heard before. I have no clue why I stopped. It could be that they were no longer having radio hits, or I didn’t want to spend the money, who knows? I will say Up is the first album without Bill Berry, as he retired to be a farmer and take care of his health, and it shows. Overall I do not love this album. The opening track “Airportman” is not a good start – it’s a rough track and most of the first half of this record is pretty generic. “Lotus” isn’t too bad, and it actually sounds like a Crowded House track circa Woodface. Some of R.E.M.’s best latest songs seem to be more beautiful quiet Stipe-driven ballads and “Sad Professor” and the last track “Falls To Climb” are the two standouts on Up. My favorite track is the only one I knew previously “Daysleeper” written about a sign Stipe had seen. I love the lyrics and how he uses the term “circadian rhythm”. This is not an album I will listen to completely but there are a few solid tracks that are really good. Not listed on here, but didn’t want to leave it out, in 1999 R.E.M. released “The Great Beyond”, a single from the film Man on the Moon about the comedian Andy Kaufman. This may be the best single of their later stuff. I consider it a sister song to the older “Man on the Moon” single.
MG: On the first track I can hear the influence of sound engineer Nigel Godrich, who produced for Radiohead. It’s a bit jarring, to be honest. Again, I understand band’s want to explore new sounds, but why try to sound like another band when you have a good thing going? Having different people do percussion/drum programming does a poor job of replacing Berry’s drums. They should have just brought in another accomplished drummer. Speaking of soundtrack songs, they had a decent song called “Revolution” on the soundtrack to the dreadful Batman and Robin.
Reveal (2001) – Mike G
I saw that a few critics claimed that this album was a return to the band’s classic sound. It isn’t. Compared to Up, this might be more R.E.M.ier, but there is still the prominence of synthesized sounds and keyboards throughout the album. This is odd to me, because I find the keyboards often intrusive, vs. enhancing the songs in a meaningful way. A good example is the single “Imitation Of Life”, which mostly sounds like classic R.E.M., but the last third of the song has a rather weird keyboard solo. The very first sounds you hear on the album, on the song “The Lifting”, are these 1950’s-era futuristic noises, that sound like something you’d hear in the queue line for Space Mountain. Let me be clear, I’m not some rock purist who is anti-keyboard. Believe me, I love New Wave, Rick Wakeman, and many a song with synthesizers. However, R.E.M. once made an effort on early albums to keep the vocals at the same mix level as the music, and in the liner notes listed Stipe as playing the “Vocal Instrument”. So it’s a long way from where they started to this album, with a ton of layered production, computer-generated sounds, and I suspect auto-tuning of Stipe’s voice. I noticed his voice seemed different on this album, and I thought maybe it was just changing due to age, however, his voice returns to normal sounding on a later album. In any event, this album isn’t terrible, but after the semi-upbeat “The Lifting”, it settles into a rather maudlin groove and never really comes out of it. The other single off the album, “All The Way To Reno”, is at least distinctive and catchy, but other tracks like “Saturn Return” and “Chorus & The Ring” are sleepy and bland. Lastly, where are the guitars on this album? There is a good use of acoustic guitar on the intro to “She Just Wants To Be” until once again the keyboards overwhelm the chorus, but electric guitars are either just absent or muted/low-in-the-mix when used on this album. I was interested to listen to “Disappear”, which was reportedly written about Radiohead singer Thom Yorke’s struggle with depression and paralyzing stage fright, but I just couldn’t get much out of it, even as I tried to extract meaning from Stipe’s lyrics. Overall, this album is fine to play in the background if I’m doing something else, but it doesn’t feel like R.E.M. to me.
DJ: I don’t hate this album but I don’t like it, it’s just generic. Like you said it’s fine for “in the background” music but nothing is distinctive. It feels like they were starting to run on fumes. I do want to mention in 2003 they released a “Greatest Hits” collection and included a new single “Bad Day” which is pretty good and has an “End of the World” feel to it.
Around the Sun (2004) – DJ
I have listened to Around the Sun a bunch of times and it’s a slog to get through. It could easily be R.E.M.’s worst album and it’s not even close. The band itself hated the album they thought it sounded like a band who was tired and quite frankly bored with performing. The songs sound like Stipe is just trying to go through the motion, the songs are completely uninspired. The album made zero impact in America. I don’t remember it being released and probably thought R.E.M. had broken up or went into seclusion. From what I hear that was pretty close to what happened. Despite not enjoying this album there are a couple of good moments. “Leaving New York” Stipe’s love letter to his second home gave me hope that this album would be a gem. “Electron Blue” well not as good as Lou Gramm’s “Electric Blue” or Badfinger’s “Baby Blue” is still a good piece of pop music and the only other tolerable song here. Sorry I have no plans to revisit this one in the future.
MG: By the way, it’s Lou Gramm’s “Midnight Blue”. It was the Aussie band Icehouse that sang “Electric Blue” (one of my favorite 80’s tunes). My reaction to this album isn’t quite as violent as yours. In some ways I’m tempted to say this is better than “Reveal”, in that I can pick out at least 3 decent songs: “Leaving New York”, “Final Straw” and “I Wanted To Be Wrong”. There are definite stinkers too: “Wanderlust”, “Electron Blue” and the title track. All in all, with the last 3 albums, it certainly seems like we are hearing the band’s death throes, that is until….
DJ: Lou Gramm? Icehouse? doesn’t matter both those songs are better.
Accelerate (2008) – Mike G
The last thing I expected to discover on this Anthology journey was another great R.E.M. album, but that’s what I found here. Right from the opening electric guitar riff, I was hooked, and unlike their previous 3 albums, this is chock-full of up-tempo, rock-heavy tracks. It’s tempting to call it a throwback, as I can see this fitting in right after Document, but it also has a fresh sound to it. Perhaps this is due to a new producer Jacknife Lee, a recommendation from U2’s The Edge, who finally helped them ditch the synthesizers in favor of a lot of electric guitar. I also feel a certain determination from the band to craft almost an angry response to their previous material, as if they were desperate to prove they could make a great album again. Either way, it works remarkably well – so much so that I actually went to Newbury Comics while I was at the mall and tried to buy it (alas, they did not have it and I had to go to Amazon). I love all of the first 7 tracks, with “Man-Sized Wreath” and “Hollow Man” as standouts. The musicianship is inspired and Stipe’s voice and lyrics are back in top form. “Until The Day Is Done” really does feel like classic R.E.M. The closing track “I’m Gonna DJ” reminds me of the fun, whimsical nature of the band that we used to hear long ago on songs like “Underneath The Bunker” and “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It”. The only thing that would have made this album better would have been the return of Bill Berry. If this had been their last album they would have gone out on top.
DJ: When this came out, the critics raved about it so somehow I picked up a copy, I actually think I burned it from a borrowed disc from the library – I still wasn’t trusting of R.E.M. yet. But this album is really strong and clearly the best post-Monster release. Honestly they should have pulled a John Elway and left on top cause it sounds like they went all out here.
Collapse Into Now (2011) – DJ
Collapse Into Now is R.E.M.’s last studio album before they parted their separate ways. I was really hoping we would at some point see a return of Bill Berry but it was not to be. This is another album I listened to for the first time writing this article and like most starts out great. “Discoverer” is a great start but unfortunately the album is pretty spotty with most of it a thumbs down although better than Around the Sun. “Oh My Heart” is okay and it’s actually a prequel to “Daysleeper” which is interesting, and the only slower song that works. R.E.M’s best songs here are its rockers. “Mine Smell Like Honey” harkens back to old R.E.M. “Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter” is a fun song that has a poppy new wave 80’s feel to it not R.E.M. at all. The album completely loses me at “Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando And I” and “Blue”. “Blue” could be one of the weirdest R.E.M. tracks of all time, it’s just strange. This album is all over the place, I am not sure I know what it wants to be. I did like Accelerate a lot but I can’t really praise this album. Accelerate should have been their swan song, they pushed out one too many. That being said I wouldn’t mind seeing what they could do today with some time away from each other, would they be recharged?
MG: After the awesomeness of Accelerate, and having retained the same producer, I got tricked into hoping for good things from this album, but got let down hard. I guess the band used up the last of their good ideas on Accelerate and should have called it quits then. I have a hard time picking out any songs that I like on this album, and think I’d prefer to listen to “Around The Sun”. On a good note, I really enjoyed going through their whole catalog for this blog. Their discography on the whole is an amazing body of work. I do hope they tour again someday and/or make a new album, especially before they get too old. I’d pay the crazy-high ticket prices to see them live one more time.
Dead Letter Office/Chronic Town (1987/1982)
We debated including Dead Letter Office, but it is material not found on other full-length albums, and we’d also be remiss not to address Chronic Town, the EP where it all began (the two albums are often packaged together now). B-side collections are always a hit-or-miss prospect, but I listened to DLO quite a bit in my younger days, mostly to enjoy as an album vs. an interest in individual tracks. I don’t dislike the Velvet Underground, but similarly have never been a big fan, but I like R.E.M’s take on their three cover songs. I also like their cover of “Toys In The Attic”, even more than Aerosmith’s original. “King of the Road” always put me in a good mood – another example of their whimsical side, which I kind of wish they had let fly a little more on their albums. Like most B-Side albums, this one is for the ardent fans and certainly, this collection is less of a “lost gems” compendium and just more of a fun side diversion.
I’m not a huge fan of Dead Letter Office. I guess I didn’t love the original material either. “Toys in the Attic” may be the only song I can tolerate. I really always looked at this album as a throwaway. Chronic Town, on the other hand, is brilliant. Outside of Murmur, it may be my favorite anything from R.E.M. “Gardening at Night” ranks as one of my favorite overall R.E.M. songs. This EP is the jangly R.E.M. that I have missed. “Wolves Lower” is a great song with an awesome chorus. I like every single song here the weakest one being “Stumble”.