Let’s Talk About: Why The F*** am I listening to R.E.M.?

Music has been a big big part of my lockdown, one of the few real bonuses of having more time. I’ve been able to play more, and listened significantly more. And over the months since March two things have emerged as cornerstones of my listening: Lauren Laverne on 6Music, and R.E.M..

Screenshot of Spotify screen showing album cover of "Green" play "Orange Crush"

Whilst I’ve long enjoyed Laverne’s show, the R.E.M. has come out of nowhere. I can’t put it down to a nostalgia thing. I was born in 1987 when the band were at what many call the height of their powers, but of which I have no memory. Though as a growing child in the early ’90s, “Losing My Religion” has been long burned into my mind. But beyond that their place on my musical landscape had been minimal.

The musical tribalism of my teenage life was often very specific about what was and was not acceptable, and R.E.M. didn’t fit the bill. Old bands were included if they were recognised as ‘legends’ – a category which R.E.M. didn’t seem to fit. In hindsight this was probably because they were still going, but by our time with the narrative that (fairly, it turns out) they were a band in decline. Who wants a piece of that? Legends ended, leaving behind only legacies of greatness*.

Especially when we didn’t have a stake to begin with: they were never ‘ours’. R.E.M. belonged to our older brothers and sisters, or (worse) even occasionally parents, who might own a copy of Automatic For The People. Even now when I’ve told people within a year or two of my age about my newest fixation the responses have been bemused. Apparently many of us still carry some traces of those teenage formed years ago about what’s cool and what’s not. Of course we do – they’re a fundamental part of your self-definition at a crucial stage, keystones of an identity you’re just starting to build.

So why has a band who have played a minimal part in my consciousness beyond a couple of songs suddenly become so significant? Like, a one-album-every-two-days kind of significant?

But I’m sitting here typing this the day after the Tories voted against protecting the NHS from control from outside the UK, effectively selling it off. On the day of the release of the Russia report where the main story seems to be that the government didn’t bother looking into it and that even the ISC think its release was delayed as a political tool and, oh, just fuck it. This sense of absolute despair with politics has gone on for so long now and only seems to ever get worse.

Especially since Covid, when the forces that have been orchestrating the destruction of the systems of everything I hold dear – art, music, education – have put their foot on the gas and are just tearing through them. I’m tired, ground down by this sense of bleakness. Its been at least six months since I had a political conversation with anybody talking with any sense of optimism. Even the Tories I know seem to have run out of responses beyond “mmm”. And then I add into this mix a constant festering of environmental terror that the world is going to sink, or maybe burn, or perhaps smother itself, and that nobody in power cares and nothing will stop this.

No wonder that I got thinking about the Doomsday Clock, which until now I’d thought of as a relic, associated with the the Cold War countdown to nuclear oblivion. In the 1980’s, the closest it got to midnight was 3 minutes. The closest it had been was 2 minutes, back in 1953. Know where it is now? 100 seconds. Closer than ever because of political isolationism and climate denial. Those who set the clock think we’re closer to self-destruction than ever before. And that’s before a sodding global pandemic set in.

Despair needs an outlet to be survivable. And whilst I was busy during lockdown, I think most of my activities were less an outlet than a supression. Language practice, useful as it is, also happens to squash all other thoughts in the pursuit of committing to memory the distinction between сохранение and сокращение**. And I thought at first that running would work it out, but it just chased it away for a short while. No, a proper outlet needed to come from somewhere else. And that’s where R.E.M. have come in.

It may be significant to note that the albums I’ve had on heavy rotation are the 1980s ones – the period 1984-1991, from Murmur to Out Of Time. Now, I read a Twitter comment a few months ago which argued that the 1980s was more akin in spirit to our time than any decade since. It stuck with me as something to ponder – simplistic, but there may be something in it. Right-wing governments wreaking social havoc in the UK & US; consumerism, greed and the stock market being sold as the flashy solution to the economy in the face of enormous social inequality; existential threat looming large. Covid-19 is the first time in a long time that such a powerful sense of personal and societal annihilation has been so widespread in the West – since at least September 11th, and before that the Cold War in the 80s. It’s perhaps not so surprising that I’m finding resonance with music which is concerned about such times.

In R.E.M.’s music and lyrics I find this concern and engagement. By some stretch the album I’ve engaged with the most it 1986’s Lifes Rich Pageant – one of the most ‘political’ R.E.M. albums alongside Document. Document probably wears its politics more openly – titles like “Welcome to the Occupation” and “Exhuming McCarthy” lay out a position before you’ve even hit play. Lifes Rich Pageant is arguably more political, but offers a different kind of energy. It’s not simple straightforward, tub-thumping protest, which is often boring, whoever’s singing it. In fact though its the apparently (according to the Internet) most famous song is “Fall On Me”, the track is so specifically about its contemporary nuclear situation that I resonate with the least.

But other than this, Lifes Rich Pageant is actually an album that I hear as overwhelmingly guided by the optimistic possibilities that something better can take shape. On opener “Begin the Begin” Michael Stipe promises that the revolution is there, if we want to look for it. By “Cuyahoga” we’re given clear instructions to ‘put our heads together/ and start a new country up’. Of LRP’s 12 tracks I consider 7 of them to be about precisely this sense of defiance. Most of the other tracks are musings on political and environmental inhumanities. And as a bonus it’s even got a short, Tom Waits-esque song about being trapped inside for an indeterminate period – an idea which would be a dystopian vision in any year before 2020.

Lifes Rich Pageant offers the message my tired mind needs to hear, a reminder that there is hope. R.E.M. are upset, but not tired. instead of getting lost in the mire of gloom where my thoughts reside, they offer a way out. It’s voicing the same wish of positive change that shaped the Corbyn campaigns, which succeeded in bringing Obama to power. But unlike these real-life waves which eventually break into greater or lesser levels of disappointment, optimism on a record is eternal. The songs didn’t fix anything in the real world then, and they won’t now, but that doesn’t mean the feeling and promise is meaningless. It has to mean something, promise something. Else that mire really would have no end in sight.

I knew, having absorbed from somewhere along the line, that R.E.M. were a political band. I also knew, from the inescapable mega-hit that was “Everybody Hurts” that they could be kind of emotional. So what I didn’t know, which has been a joy to discover, is how richly their albums explore the whole gamut of human emotions. When you’ve been stuck inside for months, it’s worth being reminded about that a range of feelings do exist. R.E.M. rawly vulnerable at times, unrepentantly silly at others. “You Are The Everything” from Green might be the most direct and emo of all their pre-“Everybody Hurts” repertoire, but its plaintive reminder that beautiful things can still be found in the haunted times when we’re ‘very scared of this world’ hits a nerve. Over on Document, it’s hard to listen to the delirious energy of “It’s The End of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” without a smile on your face. And Out Of Time’s “Country Feedback” is a song to believe the hype about, exhausted and desperately longing.

All of this had got me to recall one other thought I had about R.E.M. in those teenage years, which is that they were too subtle. Emotion was good, but sadness was best painted on thick. No surprise that one of my favourite bands were The Cure, with whom I could wallow in my angst. Have you ever heard Faith? The only word to describe it is bleak, a record of minimal and relentlessly grey expanses which reverberate with hopelessness. It’s still an interesting record – but it no longer hits the spot in the same way. What it offers now seems too simple. Wallowing doesn’t feel like a solution. Faith permits despair without offering answers. R.E.M. feel and acknowledge despair, but to them it’s only one part of of a great big world. A present in which it’s possible to feel all the things – anger and sadness yes, but also joy and community. At a time when such community seems physically far away, I really think this is why I’ve suddenly needed this band in my life.

*yes, we really were this stupid at 14. So were you, probably.

**conservation/ reduction

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