The maturity of a great band

By Sergio Ariza

R.E.M.s eighth album came when the boys from Athens became global rock stars on the heels of their success with Out of Time. But instead of following that vein they decided to make a more somber, intimate record. A record on which the ballads play a major role and the lovely voice of Michael Stipe is especially brilliant. It is the least direct album of the band, something that can be seen from the first track (and first preview), Drive, but at the same time, It’s also their most beautiful album. It’s a record that deals with issues like mortality, or the passage of time, but where you can find space for hope in brilliant moments like The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite, or the moving Everybody Hurts. The best of a band that, at the time, hadn’t released an album that would come down from the remarkable high.   

When time came to record what was the 8th record of their career, R.E.M. had culminated their way from independent band to rock stars of the height of U2. They were the hottest band in the U.S. at the time, but just that year the explosion of alternative music and the grunge scene led by Nirvana was taking place. The easiest road for them to follow would have been to plug those electric guitars in once again and launch a record that would connect them to this new wave of which they were clear predecessors. However, R.E.M. were never going to do the easy thing, and decided to explore acoustic veins they had started with Out of Time. It can be considered the record where they matured as a band, the most cohesive musically and lyrically.     

Every detail of the record is manicured to perfection, it’s a black and white album, something the album cover attests to, with darker, more intimate material than usual, with topics like death and the passage of time. It is delightful musically with innumerable instruments adding different tones to the whole with magnificent orchestration under the guidance of John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin on four of its best songs.    

Peter Buck proves once again that he is a marvelous rhythm guitarist, along the style of his British ‘twin’ Johnny Marr. On this record he still uses a mandolin and an acoustic guitar, and also a bouzouki (a long-necked Greek mandolin) but never forgets to bring his legendary Rickenbacker 360, and throw a Les Paul into the mix, a guitar that glows on Ignoreland, where another of their influences surfaces: Neil Young. Only on Man On the Moon, one of the band’s best songs,  there are 8 different guitar bits, including an acoustic Gibson J300, which starts the song off, a Telecaster through a Mesa/Boogie that takes care of the slide part (another novelty), the bouzouki (which is also the base for Monty Got a Raw Deal), the Rickenbacker 360 and the Les Paul plugged into a Marshall on the chorus. The result is absolutely spectacular, even though as a fellow countryman of Duane Allman, he considered the use of the slide almost sacrilege.

Yet perhaps where the record is more resound is on their beautifully piercing finale with Nightswimming and Find the River, two giant songs that talk about one of the great ghosts that walk through this album: death. It is more than enough evidence for a group who knew how to mature to perfection and found the peak to an awesome career along the way.

It is not surprising that on their 25th anniversary they re-release a special edition that includes the only  live performance made for the promotion, an exceptional fact that equates this stage of their career to what happened to the Beatles when they abandoned tours to focus more on studio recording, plus several demos that go to show the evolutionary process on many of these songs.