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

Music has been a big big part of my lockdown experiences, one of the few real bonuses of having more time and less real work. 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’s show 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 (unsurprisingly) 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 has, to date, been minimal. The musical tribalism of my teenage life was often quite specific about what was and was not acceptable, and R.E.M. didn’t quite fit the bill. Old bands had to either be ‘very old’ (60s-70s) or generally recognised as ‘legends’ (Joy Division, Nirvana). R.E.M. didn’t fit into any of these categories, instead sitting in a kind of generational middle space. They certainly weren’t ours – older brothers and sisters, or worse, even occasionally parents, might own a copy of Automatic For The People. And they were still going, but by this time the narrative was (mostly fairly, it turns out) about a band in decline. Who wants a piece of that? Especially when we didn’t have a stake to begin with. 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 I’m not the only one to carry forward those ideas formed years ago about what’s ‘cool’ and what’s not – they’re a crucial part of your self-definition at a crucial stage, and seem to stick fast. 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?

Then 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 be getting worse, not better. 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 few 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, feeling that the world is screwed and apparently uninterested in changing.

When I started writing this I got thinking about the Doomsday Clock, which I really associate with the 1980s and the countdown to nuclear oblivion. In that decade, the closest it got to midnight was three minutes. 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 the pandemic set in.

This despair needs an outlet. And while I was busy during lockdown, I think most of my activities were less an outlet than a repression. Language practice, useful as it is, is also a chance to suppress all other thoughts in the pursuit of committing to memory the distinction between сохранение and сокращение*. And while I thought at first that running would chase it out, turns out it was only chasing it round the corner, from where it would saunter back before long. No, my outlet needed to come from somewhere else. And that, I think, is where R.E.M. have come in.

For the purposes of the possible answer I’ve arrived at it’s 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 closer in spirit to our time. It stuck with me as something to ponder – for whilst simplistic, 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 its times.

In R.E.M.’s music and lyrics I find this goes beyond sloganeering. 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. Straightforward, tub-thumping protest is usually boring – in fact though its the apparently most famous and popular song is “Fall On Me” the track is so specifically about the contemporary nuclear situation that I resonate with the least. You can see where it came from: 1986 was the year that the number of nuclear weapons in the world reached the highest it had been before, or has been since, and when that three minutes to midnight had been set for two years. But 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 – 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 isn’t real. It has to be real, somewhere, else that mire really would be endless.

I knew, having absorbed from somewhere along the line, that R.E.M. were a political band. I also knew that they could be a tad emotional – “Everybody Hurts” was big on late-night MTV2. Maybe this is another reason the band passed me over, because although the later albums sold a lot, they’re less about the things I’ve described as loving. They’re the sound of a superstar band writing about the experiences which come with superstardom – and that’s understandable, but less easy to connect to. So what I didn’t know, which has been a joy to discover, is how richly the albums I’ve discovered explore the whole gamut of human emotions, which it’s worth remembering exist when stuck inside a house. They’re rawly vulnerable at times, silly at others. “You Are The Everything” from Green might be the most direct and kind of 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. “It’s The End of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” is sung with a delirious energy that’s hard to listen to 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. Whatever the mood, every instrumental part buys in and you never sense that the band aren’t all on the same wavelength with where a song’s going. Stipe’s voice has always been easily recognised, but it has so much to give that doesn’t get space in the two songs I knew before. They know how to write harmony and backing parts which are genuinely interesting.

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 for me. Emotion was good, but sadness was best painted on thick. No surprise that “my” 80s band were The Cure, with whom I could wallow in sounds like the grey and minimal expanses of Faith. Nowadays this doesn’t often hit the spot because it’s too simple. Wallowing doesn’t feel like a solution anymore, maybe because I’m older and know myself better, know that I need a different boost. Faith would just enable my despair. With R.E.M. I feel like there’s com-passion – a shared feeling which it’s OK to have. But it’s only one part of of a great big world of possibilities and through it all we can sing, and have fun, and fight, and we will feel all the things. At a time when this all seems far away, I think this is why I’ve suddenly needed this band in my life.

*conservation/ reduction

**which obviously I can’t find now that it might be usedful to refer to

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