It was 20 years ago (believe it or not) that Athens alt rock heroes R.E.M. delivered their final record with drummer Bill Berry, New Adventures In Hi Fi. Many R.E.M. fans see this as one of the group’s strongest and most fulfilling efforts; unfortunately, the thirteen post-Berry years simply do not get the recognition they deserve. In honor of this mostly overlooked time period, here are some of the band’s strongest tracks from the years 1998 thru their breakup in 2011.
- All The Best
The second track off of R.E.M.’s swan song, Collapse Into Now, removes all doubts anyone may have had about the band’s ability to rock at the end of their career. There is definitely some Accelerate influence, but the trebly lead guitar part in the verse echoes back to some of the earlier days of the band. Meanwhile, Michael Stipe delivers the song with an unquenchable urgency, with some of the lyrics clearly hinting at the impending breakup. “Let’s sing it and rhyme/let’s give it one more time/let’s show the kids how to do it fine, fine, fine, fine/I just have to get that off my chest.” This performance from 2011 shows that they never lost it live either.
After already potentially alienating listeners opening the first record without Bill Berry with the ethereal “Airportman”, the trio had no plans to take listeners back to their comfort zone with the second track and second single from 1998’s Up, “Lotus”. Built off of a simple keyboard part and distorted guitar riff, the track almost feels like a window into Stipe’s world, and the accompanying video reinforces that. Stipe is a fan of the video too, stating at the time, “I look very, very foxy in this video, which is why I chose it; it shows off my incredible stomach muscles.” R.E.M. had never done anything like “Lotus” before, and never really did anything like it after. But as they tended to do when they would reach outside their comfort zone – they mastered it.
- The Great Beyond
This four and a half minute epic is a perfect transition between Up and Reveal. Written for the soundtrack for the film Man On The Moon, Stipe has described this song as R.E.M.’s “Ashes To Ashes”, his attempt at one-upping himself on a topic he had already written about – Andy Kaufman, in this case. While I don’t know if the track succeeds at one-upping 1992’s “Man On The Moon”, it’s a classic in it’s own right. The unedited version is especially powerful and uplifting at the end of the song. The lyrics also have some extraterrestrial references thrown in, such as the Uri Geller reference on the line ‘I’m bending spoons”.
- Living Well Is The Best Revenge
2004’s Around The Sun left a bad taste in many people’s mouths, including some of the band members (I will never understand why, as I believe it’s one of their strongest efforts). After four years of uncertainty, R.E.M. returned in 2008 with Accelerate, and just seconds after pressing play, it was clear that this album was not going to feature the slower experimentation that the previous three records were laced with. “Living Well” is R.E.M. at their most powerful, and most raw. It also features some of Mike Mills’ best bass work and Buck’s best guitar playing on any track. Whether or not you see this track as a return to form, or just a continuation of the band’s greatness, the fact is that Accelerate would be seriously lacking without this blistering opener.
Just like Up and Around The Sun, Reveal is often subject to much scrutiny, and “Disappear” in particular tends to receive mixed reactions overall from fans. To me, the chorus alone makes the track worthy of radio play and is one of the best musical moments on Reveal. The imagery in the lyrics also add an entire new element to the track, something that Stipe can do like no other. “Before I learned to see/the vanishing point appeared.” Stipe also mentions Tel Aviv and Agadir, perhaps to give the listener an idea of where Stipe finds himself within this song. The 2001 unplugged performance might be even better than the studio version.
- Until The Day Is Done
Like all great songs, this track premiered on Anderson Cooper’s show in October of 2007. Despite that, it really is a great song, and a nice return to R.E.M.’s stripped down sound after the predominately loud and fast opening sequence of Accelerate. Buck’s eloquent acoustic work and Stipe’s aching and vivid lyrics make this one of the group’s strongest post-Berry acoustic efforts. Not known to shy away from politics, Stipe’s lyrics indicate clear frustration with the American government at the time of its release, and like so many other songs, the lyrical content of this track will probably stay relevant for many years to come.
- Imitation Of Life
This is perhaps the most R.E.M. sounding song of all of the post-Berry compositions. It wouldn’t be hard to believe that they were feeling pressure to write a radio-friendly song, and they definitely succeeded. It’s a cross between the classic R.E.M. sound and the spacey effect-laden sound that soaks itself into most tracks on Reveal. The genius of this song is in the lyrics, which are rather surprisingly deep. I interpret it as a narration of the over sensationalism of fame and the false belief that famous people are not regular people. At the surface, the song sounds like a summer singalong, but beyond that the track paints a much more complicated story, one that is not entirely positive. As the title suggests, an imitation of life that celebrities are thought to lead.
- At My Most Beautiful
This track represents R.E.M. once again finding themselves in completely new territory for them on Up. It was their first straightforward love song, which Stipe has since said was incredibly difficult for him to write. It’s also meant to pay homage to Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys musically, as Buck, Berry, and Mills are huge fans. Released as the third single from Up, this pretty love song remains one of the strongest overall pieces of music ever recorded by the band. It’s simplicity almost makes it minimalist at times, yet by the same token you could also say it is one of their most intricate songs. As I mentioned with “Lotus”, they never really went for this exact sound again. They just came, and they conquered.
- The Lifting
“The Lifting” is said to be a followup to “Daysleeper”, though musically to me it almost sounds more like a followup to “The Great Beyond”. R.E.M. was clearly trying to modernize their sound on this track, and it was one of their most successful efforts at it. While I do really like Reveal, I feel it would have been even stronger had the rest of the record had a few more songs similar to this and “All The Way To Reno.” The song is called “The Lifting” and both the music and the lyrics evoke real feelings of elevation, like you are floating through some dreamland and Michael Stipe is narrating (whether or not that is a good thing is up to you).
- The Outsiders
One of the most underrated songs off of Around The Sun is “The Outsiders”. Featuring what are possibly some of Stipe’s most thought-provoking lyrics, I interpret them as referencing a sort of revolution or rebellion. I believe the idea of a revolution begins when Stipe recites the line, “when you told me what you knew”. From there the revolution begins. “The Outsiders (the revolutionaries) are gathering, a new day is born.” Musically the mid-paced tempo is aided by Buck’s haunting guitar work and a superb bass line, giving the track a strong backbone from Mills. The song’s climax is when rapper Q-Tip comes in. “Who says what changes may come/who says what we call home?,” he asks before quoting a rather famous outsider, Martin Luther King Jr., as he and Stipe together repeat “I am not afraid”.
After “Lotus” brings things up a notch on Up, it’s quickly brought back down with “Suspicion”, a psychedelic and hazy ballad that exudes tension throughout but manages to hold together. The atmospheric mood brings the listener out of whatever setting they may be in and into the studio with R.E.M. The music in this track evokes just as much imagery as the lyrics. Stipe is perhaps singing from the perspective of someone who is not feeling quite fulfilled in life, so he is using his imagination to makeup for what he is lacking in real life, whether it be a relationship or something entirely different. A very hypnotizing song.
Collapse Into Now is a bit of a mixed bag for me, as it has a couple rather weak tracks, but it also has greats such as ‘Uberlin”, which stands up there among so many other R.E.M. classics. This is definitely one of the best songs off of Accelerate and Collapse combined. While it doesn’t sound particularly like anything they have done before, musically it combines a lot of typical R.E.M. song elements, from the dreaminess of the guitar solo, which could fit on Reveal, to the open picking of the acoustic guitar, more reminiscent of Buck’s classic early style. The lyrics are a strong point once again. The verse takes the listener through a dull and dreary daily routine in Berlin, while the chorus finds the narrator uplifted, as the city is transformed by night. By the end of the track the narrator has found a friend to take with him, and it appears that he has finally found a sense of purpose.
- Man-Sized Wreath
One the most energized songs post-Berry, the accompanying music video makes it quite obvious that “Man-Sized Wreath” is a scathing critique of the American government under the Bush administration. Stipe’s unforgiving and almost mocking tone is one of his best vocal deliveries since Automatic For The People. As he finishes off each line with “wow” or “ow”, it sounds almost as if he is both mocking the government and putting himself in their shoes at the same time, as they mock the people with their empty promises and the knowledge that they are hurting people but “just don’t care”. “Turn on the T.V./and what do I see/a pageantry of empty gestures all lined up for me, wow!” Just genius. The musicianship on this track is outstanding as well, with perhaps one of the best bass lines Mills has ever come up with, along with outstanding harmonies between Stipe and Mills.
- Boy In The Well
“Boy In The Well” is classic R.E.M. It has a grim, dreary verse as the narrator describes a scene that takes place in Tennessee, likely about being forced to take part in the strong religious culture that prevails in the southern United States. The pre-chorus begins to show signs that the narrator is ready to move on, and by the chorus he has discovered a new life. This is a track where some of the musicianship is more subtle, but the song really lets itself go by the climax during the final chorus. A great track that is often overlooked.
Up’s lead single is a gloomy ballad, invoking feelings of isolation and detachment from the outside world. As Buck put it, “I think this song perfectly captures that woozy, sea sick feeling you get during the daylight hours when you haven’t slept.” Imagery of “fluorescent flat caffeine lights” and “headache gray” prevail, and the constant droning keyboard that accompanies Buck’s acoustic arpeggios elevate this from a typical R.E.M. ballad to a fascinating trip through the life of an individual completely detached from the real world during the day.
- It Happened Today
While it’s difficult to interpret the exact meaning behind the words to this song, it’s pretty clear that there are some references to the band’s end. “Yes I will rhyme that after/after all I’ve done today/I have earned my wings.” It’s not so much the lyrics in this track that make it so great, though, but rather the incredible trio of vocal harmonies from Mills, Stipe, and Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam that lift the track to an entire new level. To add to the coolness of this song, Pearl Jam used it as their walk on music for their 2016 tour, and they covered it in Canada the night that R.E.M. announced their split.
- Around The Sun
Probably the most uplifting song on the album, the title track is easily one of the best in the R.E.M. catalog. The lyrics are positive and simple, but there are some political overtones in lines like “I wish the followers would lead”. Overall it seems to be a message that despite grim political conditions, a brighter future is still ahead. “Hold on world cause you don’t know what’s coming/hold on world cause I’m not jumping off.” The outro is one of the best things R.E.M. ever did musically. A fantastic end to a criminally underrated record.
- All The Way To Reno (You’re Gonna Be A Star)
Easily the best track off of Reveal, “Reno” perfectly captures the feeling of excitement and innocence one feels when dreaming of something new and exciting for the first time. It has a sense of naivety to it. It’s difficult to interpret whether or not Stipe is being ironic in the lyrics with lines like “you didn’t have to go so far/you didn’t have to go,” or if he is really just writing about someone who is a little naive chasing their dreams. The usage of Reno as the final destination leads to me to believe there may be some irony. The opening guitar riff is Buck’s favorite to play according to Stipe, and it is without a doubt one of his best. The bassline is equally as captivating. A beautiful song that could have helped Reveal be one of R.E.M.’s best records had there been a few more songs as strong as this.
- Leaving New York
This beautiful track serves as the opener and the lead single to Around The Sun. Buck’s opening guitar riff sets the tone for a song that sometimes feels hesitant and uneasy, yet breathes a sigh of relief as Stipe lets out his thoughts in the chorus. Leaving New York appears to be a metaphor for leaving someone or somewhere that you have always known for your benefit, whether or not it seems that way. “It’s easier to leave than to be left behind.” It’s a truly bittersweet song, and it’s one of R.E.M.’s best.
“What’s the big deal?” Stipe cries in the opening lines of this rare early 2000’s R.E.M. rocker. This track proved that if they wanted to write a loud rock record in the 21st century, they were certainly capable of doing it. Released as a single to accompany the release of In Time: The Best Of R.E.M. in 2003, it soon became a staple in the live sets for good reason. Stipe’s commanding vocals reach a climax in the chorus as he once again exclaims, “what’s the big deal?/i’m an animal.” Meanwhile Mills’ powerful bass line and backing vocals take a front seat, while Buck’s classic jangly sound meshes perfectly. I don’t think that R.E.M. wanted an album full of songs like this, but had they done that, it probably would have been pretty damn good.
R.E.M. is re-issuing 1991’s Out Of Time this November, it is available for pre-order here: https://store.remhq.com/