R.E.M. – Present Tense

November 1998. Quite how a band reported to have signed a $80 million record deal only two years previous has become the underdog is anyone’s guess. One of their most loyal corners of the UK media has them on the cover again with the imperative headline “Don’t Panic! It’s the all-new R.E.M.” functioning as an instruction for the band as much as the readers.  Mike Mills goofs around with his hands over his ears, Peter Buck tilts his sunglasses nonchalantly and Michael Stipe smoulders impossibly, a hand on his hip accentuating a pose eager to prove it’s business as usual.

Bill Berry? He’s not there, of course, his departure from the band having brought about the three-legged (under)dog. The band that will not tour its first record as a trio may be keeping up appearances on the front of the monthlies, but starting that album, ‘Up’, with the lo-fi buzz of ‘Airportman’ is a bold double-bluff. The poise of ‘Drive’, the arrogance of ‘What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?’ and the swagger of ‘How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us’ were assertive openers one and all. But not ‘Airportman’. Its subdued hostility hints at fragility, appears to be inviting the listener to propagate a narrative that R.E.M. have lost their invincibility. And then ‘Lotus’ kicks in and you can picture the grin on Stipe’s face, the involuntary shoulder lunge of Buck and Mills’ studied ease.

Almost two weeks after the album’s release, BBC2’s late-night music totem ‘Later with Jools Holland’ takes the unusual step of handing over an entire hour-long show to the band. On a stage adorned with artwork from ‘Up’, they are in radiant form. Peter’s body jolts and curls as it moves with his playing, Mike looks reassuringly zen as he basks in the beguiling beauty of his contributions and Michael is in his element playing to a euphoric crowd. His simultaneously endearing naivety and absolute awareness of his status manifest themselves in his between-song request – “May I have some more of this incredibly delicious apple juice, someone? Anyone?” – creating a moment that will linger long in the memory. They own this stage, they own this moment, they own my heart. As Stipe notes four minutes later, freshly filled glass in hand, “The magic of television.”

This is a reflection upon the part of a band’s life that routinely gets the fast forward treatment in biographies and documentaries. The ultimate irony that more time is always spent on the imperial phase, about which we already know the most, is endlessly frustrating. When things get complicated, when artists adapt or wither: that’s where it gets really interesting. Despite knowing the hits, such as they were, when your first proper engagement with R.E.M. was ‘E-Bow The Letter’ on ITV’s Saturday morning music video countdown ‘The Chart Show’, it’s hard to escape the latter-day suspicion that your relationship with them is formed on slightly different ground to those who joined for mandolins or muttered lyrics. I knew I was playing catch-up, despite having enjoyed those indestructable singles and even picked up a sleeveless cassette of ‘Automatic For The People’ at a car boot sale. For me, the moment where an act relocates to the ‘Favourites’ list happened with this band in August 1996.

The droning cable car momentum of that song does not scream chart smash in the context of the rest of their work, let alone alongside the rest of the UK Top 10 in that particular month. ‘Wannabe’ is still at Number One, while George Michael’s silky smooth ‘Spinning The Wheel’ and the nimble funk of Jamiroquai’s ‘Virtual Insanity’ complete the top three as new entries. Two more debutants follow, Louise’s ‘Undivided Love’ is in at five and one above sits this curious dirge. It was a chart entry generated by the faithful and not the casual daytime radio listener. For one thirteen year old it was fascinating: ballsy, but clearly not ballsy enough to actually backfire. This was a band at ease in its own collective skin and then add in Patti Smith too. This wasn’t music, some cried. No, no it wasn’t. This was an education.

In a remarkably accurate sign of what was to come, I was already reading Q at 13 and so that front cover, “Would you pay $80 million for this band?”, was my chance to fully understand what I was getting into. It situated the band at the centre of the music industry, mentioning Bono’s annoyance at them completing another album and offering tips for alcoholic drinks. It told the story of the ‘Monster’ tour and its array of medical emergencies. It foregrounded their humour, their distinct personalities and their clear love of their work. I was in. ‘New Adventures In Hi-Fi’ is a truly magnificent record, my favourite of theirs. A recent reissue generated a little more reverence but it still seems a little overlooked, despite its ability to capture the various different musical strands of R.E.M. and expand upon them. But I won’t dwell here. If you were hypnotised by them when ‘Out Of Time’ emerged, you were there for the summit. Hop on board after saving up for their lengthy (slightly misrepresented) ‘road record’ and they’re about to lose Bill Berry and head into an identity crisis. 

There was a lot of good will towards ‘Up’, a record which is actually magnificent but suffered from being oversold in much of its coverage on sentiment rather than songs. People loved this band and wanted to know they could carry on with a quarter removed. And yet, it is arguably the most adventurous album of their thirty-one year career. Synths, drones and textures abound, the pace whatever it needs to be in service to the song. As Peter Buck put it to Keith Cameron in a 2003 Mojo piece, “it is too long, but I don’t know what you would take off.” It breaks plenty of rules and ‘Daysleeper’ was an almighty canard of a lead single, but it is majestically flawed. 

Even as a sixteen year old using birthday money to buy it in the week of release, I knew I was in possession of something special. Was I confused by that opener? Of course. The slower pace of its concluding section failed to fully reveal itself in those early listens too, but this was surely the case for many. But I stuck with it, the first of their albums I could just walk in and buy immediately, if only down to a coincidence of timing. I still find new things now. Pick any song – though possibly not ‘Airportman’ or “self-immolation writ large,” as Stipe put it in that same Mojo article – and give it your undivided attention. Turn it up and notice parts that you never realised were even there. Seriously, listen to the opening of ‘Why Not Smile’ as it sputters into life. Lulling and fragile, it seems to open up before us, like a slowly burning firework. It never becomes more robust, it just manages to find myriad ways to reach your heart. 

It may have nearly broken them – as every interview for the next decade would gently paraphrase – but it was a present to us. We’re still here if you are, it seemed to say. Its shirt was untucked and it lacked the self-confidence to know exactly when to shut up, but it was raw, honest and a little wounded. I’m really looking forward to hearing how the band talk about it now for the inevitable twenty-fifth anniversary next year, as it was all a little too recent when they were still active. Indeed, in 2001, Buck told John Harris in Q, “I listen to it and I hear a whole lot of faults. We had to play it for a press meeting: it went directly from the studio at 10 in the morning, to making copies to be pressed. By the time I’d heard it a couple of times, I realised that the sequence doesn’t work at all.” Harsh. It is a little illogical, it is all over the place, but it’s ‘Up’. 

During their 2001 MTV Unplugged set, around the release of ‘Reveal’, there is a woman near the front of the audience with her hands splayed across her mouth in awestruck supplication before the gentle majesty of ‘At My Most Beautiful’. This human devotion, this involuntary gravitational pull is real and one night in Sheffield a few years later it was uniquely put to the test by circumstances eerily reminiscent of a decade previous. An icy evening was at risk of becoming truly glacial as the house lights failed to fully fall and the casually attired pairing of Stipe and Buck took to the stage with nothing but humility and an acoustic guitar. Mills had been taken ill that evening and, at the very last moment, the show was off. With an audience who had battled through unforgiving conditions to be there, it could have been a tricky situation to manage, but they delivered an impromptu four-song performance to an unconventionally illuminated arena and promised they’d be back a few months later. The collective reverence afforded our heroes that night was beautiful and mojos lost or found were not anyone’s concern.

To become a fan at the tipping point, to become obsessed as others are cashing in their chips is an unusual sensation. Even now, I will have conversations with friends who dismiss everything after the mid-Nineties as offering diminishing returns. Tell that to 2003 Stipe as he lurches and contorts before a stunned Parkinson audience, as if trying to clamber out of the screen and convey his fury about the subject of ‘Bad Day’. The suited 2008 incarnation would be similarly unconvinced, seemingly electrified performing the rebooted, route one songs from that year’s ‘Accelerate’. For those still watching on, the light was undimmed and the band’s willingness to quickly concede 2004’s ‘Around The Sun’ was a disappointment made it abundantly clear that they didn’t feel like they were owed anything from us. As Buck told Tom Doyle for Q in 2008, “Even Michael was going ‘Y’know, if we make another bad record, it’s over.’ It’s like, ‘No Kidding.’”

It seems hard to escape the sense that I might have been a little more forgiving of their nadir as their by-now sizeable catalogue suggested it was unlikely they would have actually made a bad album. Is it possible to will a good record into being, or at least train your ears to find some strengths? Anyone whose formative listening years happened at a time when each new album required saving up for a carefully considered purchase will likely argue yes. ‘Leaving New York’ was R.E.M. by numbers, but it was a thoroughly pretty first single that cast a warm melodic glow. Perhaps, just as the front of ‘Collapse Into Now’ pictured the band waving goodbye, the out of focus album cover for ‘Around The Sun’ was a more striking admission than many realised at the time.

As has since been well documented, the band paused in the middle of its genesis to work on a Best Of, ‘In Time’, and complete an accompanying world tour. Once they eventually resumed work, it was neither reassuringly close to completion nor an appealing project to evolve further. It was over-produced, over-long and, potentially, a sign of being over the hill. And yet, there are some strong songs struggling to breathe beneath the performative, apathetic micro-management. ‘Electron Blue’ continues in ‘Reveal’ territory, ‘Wanderlust’ thrums merrily with the simplicity of a strummed acoustic and prominent piano and then there’s ‘Aftermath’, with its so-bad-its-not-awful video and woozy melody.

In the way that music fans do when still (relatively) young, I felt slightly saddened on their behalf at the slide from relevance that was so pronounced around this time. The simple fact is that when somebody wants to put an R.E.M. album on, there are so many actual classics to choose from that ‘Around The Sun’ is highly unlikely to be the record they select. But, being only a decade into my obsession, it didn’t feel like a betrayal so much as a first inkling of frailty. A realisation came that, as we discover with family, these important adults were capable of failure. If this sounds fabulously lacking in a sense of proportion then I fear you have yet to grasp just how much this band mean to me.

When ‘Accelerate’ came around, its direct thrills were appreciated and somewhat disproportionately lauded. Q made quite the fuss of how they were back on form and restored them to the cover. In the accompanying interview, Tom Doyle was – entirely understandably – keen to pick over how the ship had been steadied and the momentum regained. It felt a little calculated and like it mattered more than anyone wanted to let on. Indeed, it was a little rich for Stipe to respond wearily to such questioning with, “I just don’t want this to be the only story that’s written about this fucking record,” having agreed to be daubed in gold body paint for a front page proclaiming “Rejoice, they’ve struck gold again.”

Add an accompanying band-compiled mix CD that was free with the issue and a show for briefly voguish offshoot Q Radio heavily promoted alongside it, who knows what PR wrangling had gone on behind the scenes for that particular coverage. If ‘Leaving New York’ had aimed for ‘Losing My Religion’ territory then ‘Supernatural Superserious’ switched to their other mode, somewhere between ‘What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?’ and ‘Bad Day’. Peter Buck took charge and kept things tight for much of the album. Its energy is contagious and I still leap around the room to huge chunks of it fourteen years later. It’s not a classic but I don’t need it to be to enjoy it and it massively benefits from no longer being part of the ‘is it a return to form?’ carousel. 

It is possible to both be sad that there will never again be a new R.E.M. album to anticipate and aware that carrying on would have been no guarantee of quality. ‘Collapse Into Now’ struck me as a strong final statement, but I know others were underwhelmed. It’s careful, crafted and conscious of its role, but it’s not a band fading. They’re songs about calling it a day. While my attachment to the band might render my critical faculties unreliable when it comes to those later releases, I’m long past worrying about where any album fits in some notional rank order. They took a prominent position in my life as I became a teenager and shut up shop just before I hit thirty. They taught me much about anticipation, attachment and identity. My commitment to them has arguably grown stronger in the years since they parted.

That 1998 ‘Later’ special lived on in my head, long after the VHS recording I had of it was rendered obsolete by technology. The colours, the emotions and the charm. When the ‘R.E.M. at the BBC’ boxset was announced in 2018, with that whole show included on the DVD, there was a faint creep of fear that memory may have elevated it to a level that reality would fail to reach. But it was somehow better. Their vulnerability was intertwined with the pressure of being the band with the $80 million record deal, of delivering a performance worthy of their own episode of an important TV show. Whether I bring most of that narrative to the performance myself or if it speaks similarly to others doesn’t massively concern me.

David Belisle via @REMHQ on Twitter

March 2011. Stipe shows light beard growth, though nothing like what would follow. Buck is swaying contentedly, master of all he surveys. Mills looks a little distracted, perhaps all too well aware of the significance of the performance. Having recorded parts of what would eventually be confirmed as their final album in Berlin’s Hansa Tonstudio, R.E.M. are now arranged there in their live formation with Scott McCaughey and Bill Rieflin. A spattering of friends and family encircle the band as they deliver a selection of tracks from the new record, bringing to an end a little over three decades of collaboration. As ‘Discoverer’ reaches its climax, Stipe seems lost in his band’s music for one last time. The song concludes and he drops to the floor. Their time in the present tense concludes.

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