Tuesday, April 01, 2008

So Much Younger Then

R.E.M. is back from the dead. Or so says Time Magazine anyway. For the first time in years there is a positive buzz surrounding a new R.E.M. album (Accelerate, released today). Inherent in the buzz around the album is the admission, even on the part of the band itself, that the last several R.E.M. albums have been duds.

So is the band's revitalization real, or a bunch of hype? I'd like to believe it's real, much in the same way that I'd like to believe that--with proper diet and exercise--I'll one day be able to bench press twice my body weight again, just like when I was seventeen. I don't know how good Accelerate is, I haven't heard it yet. But I guarantee you it's better than the last three R.E.M. albums, if for no other reason than it clocks in at a succinct 35 minutes.

Late career artistic revitalization is not exactly unheard of--Bob Dylan and Neil Young released some great albums after long fallow periods. But Dylan and Young are solo artists, and R.E.M. is a band (or is supposed to be a band anyway). I think it's a taller order for a group of forty-something millionaires who live in castles in different cities to get together and make a great rock and roll album. A better point of comparison is probably The Rolling Stones. The Stones have cranked out some decent, workmanlike albums late in their career, but--face it--Bridges To Babylon isn't going to make it to anyone's desert island discs list, and I predict Accelerate won't either.

Don't get me wrong, Accelerate might turn out to be a very good album, but R.E.M. is never going to sound like the hungry, driven, life force they were in their early days. They're not going to bench press twice their body weight, if for no other reason than they're older and fatter than they used to be.

Anyway, on the occasion of R.E.M.'s purported rise from the grave, I wanted to give you a rarely heard peek back at those early days. These tracks come from a bootleg called, appropriately enough, So Much Younger Then. It's a group of very good quality live recordings from 1981 composed of covers and originals that never made it onto the group's proper albums. Listening to these tracks today I'm amazed at just how vital the band sounded way back then. The ingredients that made the group such a revelation when Murmur was released in 1983 were already in place here with an added dash of rock and roll excitement and youthful energy that the group has never recaptured.

Time will tell whether the narrative of R.E.M.'s phoenix-like rebirth is more hype than reality. But these tracks are a reminder that, whatever the band does going forward, they truly once were a great rock and roll band.


Peter Hennig said...

R.E.M. in my opinion, is one of the saddest success stories in rock history. Such a great band early on and then?... 20 years of mediocrity.

Today is also the release date for April, the first new Sun Kil Moon record in five years(not including the Modest Mouse cover lp)which is getting positive press. If it's anywhere close to the quality of 2003's "Ghosts of the Great Highway" I'll be happy.

dan said...

Here are links to an REM appearance on Letterman in 1983. A very different band, back then.



Pete Bilderback said...

Dan--Thanks for pointing out those Letterman clips. I hadn't seen them before.

Peter--I agree with you re: "20 years of mediocrity." Up to a point the release of a new R.E.M. album was an event to look forward to. At a certain point (and it's probably a different point for different people) that stopped being the case.

But I wonder if there is really any correlation between their success and the onset of mediocrity. Maybe they would have gotten mediocre even if they never developed more than a cult audience. I can think of plenty of bands that became mediocre without achieving much commercial success.

Also, if R.E.M. hadn't broken through commercially they way they did--essentially becoming an industry onto themselves--they might not have stuck around long enough to get mediocre.

If Fables had tanked commercially, IRS had dropped them and the band split in 1985, R.E.M. would probably be remembered in much the same way as The Velvet Underground--as a band that could do no wrong.

Of course it is also possible that whatever made R.E.M. special in the early years simply couldn't be translated into to arena sized stadiums and multi-platinum albums. I know that is how I perceived it at the time.

Anonymous said...

Hi, thoutht I'd crash the party for a second. Hope you don't mind--I really enjoy your site. Please excuse what may be a rambling post.

I am in the minority here in believing that R.E.M. continued to be a very solid, and at times excellent band, up until the point Bill Berry left in '97, after that it was spotty at best. (In fact, the guys probably should have split up then--I have to admit that the last three albums, up through "Around the Sun" have been quite mediocre. However, I did just pick up "Accelerate" today and it is, if not great, much better than anything they've done since Bill left).

Could it be that as we as fans became older, the music ceased to be as exciting? (I'm 40, and am guessing you all are around the same age, maybe younger). I know that nothing could ever match the excitement of hearing Life's Rich Pageant or Murmur for the first time--and that may have to do with being a teenager just out of high school and entering college. That was a very special time in my life when every experience seemed fresh and exciting.

I've stuck with R.E.M through it all, and it seems that each of their albums remind me of where and what I was doing at the time. Of there post-IRS output, I still think that "Out of Time" is very solid (it helped be get through a rough spring of '91), and "Automatic" deserved (and continues to deserve) all the plaudits it has received. I also believe that "New Adventures in Hi-fi" is underrated.

So when do all of you believe R.E.M. gave up the ghost and became mediocre? Was it after "Reckoning"? "Fables"? "Pageant"? I've heard this argument many times before-- (Hell, back in '86 people were screaming sellout because they recorded with Don Gehman, who, horror of horrors, had produced John Cougar Mellencamp)-- but have never agreed with it. (Everyone's entitled to their opinions, though).

Anonymous said...

Oh heavens, please excuse my typos! I know that "there" should have been "their!"

Mark said...

Oops, forgot to sign my name to the above posts.

Pete Bilderback said...

Hi Mark. Thanks for joining the conversation. I think different people would pick different times at which R.E.M. became mediocre, but almost everyone seems to agree it happened at some point.

I think Peter H. pretty much gave up on the band with Document and never looked back--I'm sure he's not the only one. I give them a little more leeway. I liked Document okay, but found Green downright annoying. But I actually quite enjoyed Out Of Time and Automatic.

It wasn't until Monster that I really lost the faith. I usually planned to pick up the albums that followed it, but somehow never got around to it.

I did pick up Accelerate today (along with the Big Dipper Anthology). I haven't gotten to listen to it closely yet though and haven't formed an opinion.

I think there is probably some truth to your conjecture that it is partly a matter of age changing your perspective on things, but I think that is only part of the picture. Another part of it is probably a sense of indie-rock propriety, the feeling that a mass audience "stole" the band from the cult audience that "owned" it. But in all honesty, I think mediocre music is probably the biggest part of the equation.

Also, typos are always welcome here.

Mark N. said...

Hi Pete (and everyone else),

I agree that once a band or musician you love hits the big time, they no longer belong to just you, but belong to everyone--and that can be very difficult to take. I admit to feeling that way to a certain extent when "Out of Time" hit #1 on the charts.

Quite a bit of R.E.M.'s mystery and strangeness (some of the elements that made them so initially compelling) also disappeared once they were on the cover of glossy magazines. I must admit that these qualities left the music as well. As they became more popular, the weird Southern Gothic textures of "Murmur" and "Fables" (and to a lesser extent "Reckoning") were never repeated.

Having said all that, I am quite enjoying "Accelerate." Not bad for three 50-something geezers. It may not be equal to their early-mid '80s heyday, but it'll do.

Well, gotta get back to work. It's fun to discuss these things!

Pete Bilderback said...

Still haven't listened to Accelerate as closely as I'd like, but I do think it's pretty good.

Dumbek said...

First of all - So Much Younger Then is a great choice. It was the second bootleg I ever owned by any band - the first being Down South, also by R.E.M. What a treasure-trove they were at the time.

I'll preface the rest by saying I'm 100% an REM-fanboy, so I'm more than willing to forgive them a few missteps and I'm not entirely unbiased.

I'll put the breaking-point as being when Bill left. Those post-Bill records were just dull, dull, dull. They gave up. Those records are the sound of 3 lost, middle-aged men staring at their shoes, over-producing themselves to death.

Through it all though, they remained a great live band. The songs that flat-out sucked on those records had a new life in concert. That's what was so frustrating about latter-day R.E.M. I knew they still had it in them, but their records didn't reflect it.

Accelerate is a huge step in the right direction. No, it's not the five-star return-to-form all-time-classic that some are heralding it to be. But it is a damn fine record, by a damn fine band, who sounds like they're having a good time for the first time in nearly 10 years. Nothing more. Nothing less. I'm fine with that.

Easily the best thing since NAIHF, which I agree is criminally underrated.

Pete Bilderback said...

I should check out NAiHF. I never picked that one up because I sort of soured on the band with Monster.

I agree So Much Younger Then is a nice bootleg. I am not into bootlegs in general. I have a tough time with crummy sound, etc. But the sound quality on this is tolerable, and the performances are a real revelation. Worth tracking down if you are a fan of the band for sure.