To mark R.E.M.’s recent retirement, we selected the group as our next PLAYLIST band. The idea is simple enough: make a playlist centered around one artist or band with a deep catalog, but with a catch: only one track from each album can be included. We’d be lying if we said compiling this list was easy. Indeed, no album had a runaway consensus pick and we at Spectrum Culture could have continued the debate indefinitely; in the end we bowed to majority rule in making these selections.
The recent Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage 1982-2011 compilation did an admirable job of providing a broad overview of a band whose remarkable catalog simply cannot be adequately summarized on only a couple discs. It’s not an overstatement to say that almost every one of R.E.M.’s albums is essential listening, and that even the later, critically-undervalued releases have at least several songs that showcase the band at its finest.
We hope this PLAYLIST not only motivates you to revisit everything from Chronic Town to Collapse Into Now, but also encourages you to come up with your own lists! We’d love to see them in the Comments section.
Spectrum Culture is very proud to present PLAYLIST: R.E.M. - Eric Dennis
“Wolves, Lower” from Chronic Town (1982)
With their premier EP Chronic Town R.E.M. proved to be one of those rare bands that arrived with their sound nearly fully formed, via a punchy little debut stretching across five short tracks. The first and best is “Wolves, Lower,” a vague incantation that incorporates many of the elements the band would flesh out and improve upon later. The lyrics are obscure and mysterious, a series of repeating words that means fundamentally nothing at all, but retains enough entrancing authority, and earns enough power through repetition, to suggest that there’s some implicit meaning lurking beneath all the wolves and suspicion invoked. Michael Stipe’s vocals, which rush along with close-lipped assurance, butt up against whispery backing vocals and dissonant sound effects, courtesy of producer Mitch Easter, who would go on to produce the group’s next two albums. It’s all linked up by the guitars, with a looping, hypnotic riff and a hard, bouncy bassline providing the requisite spine.
The track was the album’s only single, and R.E.M.’s second in total, actually released after their Hib-tone-produced version of “Radio Free Europe,” which got them signed to the I.R.S. label. “Radio Free Europe” would appear again on debut full-length Murmur, and despite the similarities between the two, “Wolves, Lower” feels like the better symbolic start to the group’s career, simultaneously more raw and more developed. Due to its EP status, Chronic Town has been barely available for years, showing up piggybacking on other albums, and as part of 1987′s Dead Letter Office. The obscurity is unfortunate, considering how fundamental these five songs prove toward decoding the band’s early work. - Jesse Cataldo
“Talk About the Passion” from Murmur (1983)
Murmur was R.E.M.’s first fully fledged artistic statement. While Chronic Town introduced the world to the jangly guitars, cryptic lyrics and understated vocals that would characterize the band’s early sound, Murmur proved that Stipe and company could create a longer work with consistent themes and sounds. While “Radio Free Europe” showed that the band could be commercially viable, “Talk About the Passion” demonstrated that the group could effectively tackle heavy themes in its work. With this song, R.E.M. became known as a band that had something important to say.
“Talk About the Passion” is about the weighty subject of world hunger. Unlike later, more didactic songs such as “Everybody Hurts,” Stipe obliquely addresses his topic. There’s a certain amount of mystery to his lyrics. His inclusion of the French phrase “combien de temps?,” which means “For how long?,” invariably sends modern-day listeners to Google Translator. The bilingual lyrics emphasize hunger as an international problem, one that transcends any one locality. “Talk About the Passion” is notable for more than just its sociopolitical theme, though. The track begins with a melodic, folk-inflected guitar riff, one that clearly inspired the Decemberists on their latest LP The King Is Dead. The verses feature a sparse texture, but the choruses explode with the kind of resonant, open guitar sound that would define the band’s sonic approach. With “Talk About the Passion,” R.E.M. established a clear musical and thematic identity that would carry them through the first phase of their long career. - Jacob Adams
“(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville” from Reckoning (1984)
While Murmur remains the album that many rock critics and R.E.M. fans cite as the band’s gold standard, it was their sophomore effort Reckoning that truly gave the first signals as to how dominant the band would be in the fickle realm of indie fandom. Released almost exactly one year after their vaunted full-length debut, Reckoning was more ubiquitous on college radio than the syllable “um,” winding up as the most played album of the year according to CMJ, the trade journal that focused on student-run broadcasting. Important as it was, the album is sometimes overshadowed by both its predecessor and the amazing efforts that followed. Some listeners have also downgraded it as a mere extension of Murmur’s distinctive sound. Certainly, it spotlights a band still experiencing the glory and pain of early growth, but there’s also a sense of emerging possibility. They no longer needed to stick to the formula that got them gigs outside of Athens bars.
That newfound freedom is best heard on “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville,” which was primarily the handiwork of Mike Mills. He’d been dating a University of Georgia student and fellow toiler in the local music scene whose parents had demanded her return to Rockville, Maryland for the summer. As she told it, this inspired Mills to openly lament, “I finally meet a girl I like and she’s got to go back to Rockville.” Puzzling lyrics were already an R.E.M. trademark, but “Rockville” was straightforward: “But something better happen soon/ Or it’s gonna be too late to bring me back.” It also set aside the chiming, moody mist of the band’s other songs in favor of an ingratiating country music romp that was itself a sort of lark, recorded in that style as a jokey gift for the band’s lawyer. Though everyone liked it, R.E.M. were initially resistant to releasing it because it didn’t seem especially representative of their style. Sidestepping self-imposed boundaries and including the song on Reckoning was arguably the first instance of R.E.M. embracing the incaution of trying something different. There would be far more of that to come. - Dan Seeger
“Driver 8” from Fables of the Reconstruction (1985)
Though R.E.M. avoided the sophomore slump with Reckoning, many consider the band’s third record, Fables of the Reconstruction, to be its “difficult” album. Hopping to London and working with producer Joe Boyd signaled a new direction for the band. However, Fables is still grounded in the mythology of the creeping South, even tipping its hat to American colloquialisms and the folk artist Howard Finster. Released as the second single from Fables, following the atypically jaunty “Cant Get There from Here,” “Driver 8″ also keeps its eyes trained on the Southern obsession that haunts the record. Though the song is about the Southern Crescent, a Southern Railroad passenger train that still exists in a more limited form as the Amtrak Crescent, on its surface, Stipe’s cryptic lyrics create an entire milieu in its brisk running time of three and a half minutes.
Written as if a passenger gazing out the windows of that mighty railroad, “Driver 8″ offers up images of power lines, ringing bells, tree houses, barns and the GO TELL Ministries Crusade. Kicking off with a Peter Buck riff, the song is as propulsive as the locomotive Stipe sings about with its choogling rhythm. For those seeking deeper meaning in Stipe’s lyrics, “Driver 8″ was written during a period where the singer improvised, seeking to create a mood rather than tell a compelling story. But “Driver 8″ isn’t anything less than evocative, especially during its bridge where Stipe mumbles, “Way to shield the hated heat/ Way to shield myself to sleep.” You can just feel the sticky hot seats, taste the melting popsicles and watch as the hay bales and decrepit barns file by outside the window. - David Harris
“Fall on Me” from Lifes Rich Pageant (1986)
Early R.E.M. albums are musical mythologies; you can interpret them as idyllic transfusions of historical fact or an invented nostalgia for things that may never have been. After the Southern Gothic revivalism of Fables of the Reconstruction, R.E.M. went on to release Lifes Rich Pageant, an album that at once regrets the past and summons the will to correct the future. Like Fables, Lifes Rich Pageant is preoccupied with land, though the texture here is the gritty gray-green clay of the fronded riverbank as opposed to the sepia dust of railroad ties. The mood is sacrosanct, pastoral, ancestral. “Cuyahoga” asks us to retain stewardship for an unremembered past (“This is where they walked, swam/ Hunted, danced and sang/ Take a picture here/ Take a souvenir“) while “Begin the Begin,” “I Believe” and “These Days” inspire as calls to action, from personal (“Example: The finest example/ Is you“) to theoretical (“And change/ Is what I believe in“) and collective (“Happy throngs take this joy/ Wherever, wherever you go“). Burning, burying, beginning, believing: Lifes Rich Pageant cycles us through and departs at a hopeful place, one where there are possibilities of rebuilding – literally – from the ground up.
“Fall On Me” sounds like it wants to be the love song of Lifes Rich Pageant and in some ways it is, if a heartsick elegy to the sky can be considered romance. One of Stipe’s admitted favorites of their catalog, the meaning behind “Fall On Me” has specificity in that it’s long been believed to be about acid rain. But as is nearly always the case with Stipe-ian lyricism, alternate readings exist that are deep and subjective. The concept of a falling sky implies any number of tragedies; environmental toxicity, the weight of subjugation, the inevitable crush of what had heretofore been a crumble. There is anguish when Stipe alters the second chorus to add, “bleed the sky” and a penitent resignation in the final chorus as he recommends to, “Lift your arms up to the sky/ And ask the sky/ And ask the sky.” Hinting to Galileo’s experiments about the acceleration of free fall, Stipe crafted a poem of bereavement for the complex consequences of simple machines. Whether these “weights and pulleys” are meant to be literal images or suggest mechanics of a metaphorical sort, “Fall On Me” is a tender plea to the grandest of forces, and remains one of R.E.M.’s finest moments. - Stacey Pavlick
“Welcome to the Occupation” from Document (1987)
From defiant peals opening “Finest Worksong,” it’s clear why one of Document’s working titles was File Under Fire. Brazen and unyielding up to the squealing fade-out of “Oddfellows Local 151,” it was R.E.M.’s most political but also most commercially accessible record to date. Harboring a suite of protest odes while also home to their breakout hits – “The One I Love” and “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” – Document walked a wavering line, like the band itself in leaping from underground to major label icons by signing with Warner Bros. after Document’s runaway success. Almost 25 years later, “It’s The End” and its streaming pop references remain instantly identifiable, even as it and Document, well-crafted in its insouciant, off-the-cuff character, bucks convention. But it’s “Welcome to the Occupation” that is Document’s jewel; tinged with a twang and opening in a sonorous Buck strum matched only by “Disturbance at the Heron House,” Stipe’s fracturing vocal delivery and muscular backing instrumentation from Mills and Bill Berry leave little room for anything but appreciation for the somber juxtaposition of pop structure and politics.
Pop lurches belie another Document working title: Last Train to Disneyland. In addressing the album’s milieu, an era of selfish sheen – the tail end of the Reagan era – “Occupation” is exceptional within the album’s general iconoclasm. By 1987, the Carter Doctrine was well-entrenched and contras were receiving clandestine aid from the Reagan administration. Stipe clearly had banana republics in mind: “Fire on the hemisphere below/ Sugar cane and coffee cup/ Copper, steel and cattle,” intending more overt statement in the scrapped lyric, “Hang your collar up inside/ Hang your freedom fighters.” “Occupation” remains relevant given chillingly similar forms of occupation (economic, militaristic and tent-centered) occurring today; the verbiage has changed, but their meanings are the same. The Cold War, Iran-Contra, contradiction in combating “evil empire” by propping up autocracies; today, endless wars, Operation Fast and Furious, hypocrisy in supporting dissent abroad while quelling it here. Stipe said in an interview at the time, of the moral bankruptcy that tore (and still tears) at our social fabric, “In America, if you can’t make money, they think it’s because you’re a failure.” In Steinbeck’s terms, half the poor believe they’re temporarily embarrassed millionaires and the other half must be freeloaders. In this ethical vacuum, this “welcome” still applies. - Joe Clinkenbeard
“World Leader Pretend” from Green (1988)
Green found R.E.M. in a state of flux. Leaving behind I.R.S. at contract’s end in ’87 and hitching up with Warner Bros. for the remainder of their time as a band, there was immediate creative need to grapple with the stardom that greeted them after immense radio play and the million units of Document sold. Staying true to the aesthetic that had already earned them high status, though, rather than let all that make a difference they carried on with the existent project: producing material of a high songwriting standard and naturalistic character that also departed from what had come before. In pursuit of that dynamism, the experimental bent permeating Green represented an outlook of the band’s that would eventually yield both Out of Time and Automatic for the People in the subsequent four years. “Pop Song 89″ was just the sort of cheeky send-up that could be expected of the leadoff track on their major label debut; single “Stand” had an upbeat perk that indicated their growing comfort with constructing unconventional pop tunes; while “Orange Crush,” with Vietnam War overtones, proved they had not left behind the fiery politicisms figuring so prevalently on Document. Added to that was increasing focus on new sounds: soft mandolin stands Buck brings on “The Wrong Child,” idyllic “You Are The Everything,” the yowlingly gentle “Hairshirt,” darkened tones approaching menace on “I Remember California” and uncouth keyboard flavors on “Turn You Inside-Out.”
Into this atmosphere of novelty, “World Leader Pretend” fits essentially. Beginning with a throw-away keyboard phrase that gives way in pause to dual electric-acoustic accompaniment, lowing cello, a dash of lap steel and Berry’s staggered, stumbling percussion, Stipe’s directly-delivered vocals are all introspection: “I sit at my table and wage war on myself,” “I decree a stalemate/ I divine my deeper motives,” with the barest lip service given to the non-solipsistic: “You fill in the mortar/ You fill in the harmony.” It’s not a complicated track, but in its simplicity prefigures the Southern Gothic folk of 1992′s Automatic in all the very best ways. In Stipe’s own words, “This is my mistake/ Let me make it good.” - Joe Clinkenbeard
“Losing my Religion” from Out of Time (1991)
Probably one of the few hit singles constructed around a mandolin riff, “Losing my Religion” was the lead single off Out of Time, and probably the best, helping to complete the band’s transition from college-radio upstarts to a legitimate force in pop music. It also righted the ship on Out of Time, following album opener “Radio Song,” with its embarrassing mash-up of Michael Stipe vocals and weird interference courtesy of KRS-One.
Despite the title and the mood suggested by Tarsem Singh’s famously evocative video, there’s really nothing religious going on here, with Stipe adopting a Southern patois to delve vaguely into relationship issues or some other vague emotional ailment. The lyrics, like many penned by the band, especially in their early years, are maddeningly general and unspecific, and the flow of the music is also familiar, borrowing the same jangly guitars and tumbling progression used as early as “Driver 8.” But something about the way these elements combine, and the emotional power of the track’s faint but powerful orchestral touches, resonated both with listeners and critics, with the song nearly topping the Pazz & Jop poll for the year, falling only behind Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” It also charted surprisingly well, reaching number four in the US and achieving gold certification, making it the most successful single of the band’s career. Stylistically it stands out as a mile marker on the path to the band they would become in later years, developing from fast, frenetic tempos a more mellowly attuned style. - Jesse Cataldo
“Man on the Moon” from Automatic for the People (1992)
It’s admittedly odd to note that R.E.M. was somewhat in need of a rebound after the considerable success of Out of Time, but there was definitely a sense among the faithful that Automatic for the People was a sort of make or break record. Though Time was well regarded upon release, some of that affection faded with surprising speed (saturation airplay for “Shiny Happy People” will do that). For maybe the first time, the band was making an album that carried both significant commercial expectations and the burden of pleasing the longtime faithful. That dual challenge may or may not have been on R.E.M.’s collective mind, but, by their own reporting, they were definitely feeling a little disconcerted by the passage of time. By this point, every band member had crossed into his thirties and they’d watched many of their most significant peers – Hüsker Dü, the Replacements – fall apart only to be replaced by upstarts like Nirvana, borrowing from their ancestors while rewriting the playbook in every way conceivable. In just a blink, everything R.E.M. knew about the music world and their place in it had changed in such a way that concentrated introspection was practically required.
The result was simply an album that makes a legitimate claim of being the band’s true masterpiece and their last release that provoked nearly universal acclaim. Much of Automatic operates with an elegiacal tone as it seemingly considers a past and present haunted by deception. “Man on the Moon,” one of the very last songs completed for the album, bundles up this theme in almost hopeful tones. It very title leans on the conspiracy theory about the moon landing being a perpetrated fiction and the song builds many of the lyrics around the late comedian Andy Kaufman’s penchant for ingenious fakery. But the litany of potential falsehoods isn’t cause for anger or dismay. As Stipe concludes, “If you believed there’s nothing up his sleeve/ Then nothing is cool.” Maybe the difficulty of grasping the truth was part of the appeal of being in this mixed-up world. - Dan Seeger
“Bang and Blame” from Monster (1994)
Judging by its ubiquity in used record bins everywhere, it would seem that Monster is R.E.M.’s most unfairly maligned album. At the time of its release, the album undoubtedly must have been seen as some kind of betrayal, like the group was trying to cash in on this “grunge” fad with fuzz pedals and gigantic hooks. But Monster is more than that; it’s the sound of a veteran band letting loose and having fun, or in the case of “Bang and Blame,” exorcising some demons that can only be conquered through tremolo and power chords.
Mixed for maximum audio space, “Bang and Blame” is midnight driving music at its finest, haunting and anguished but still full of enough momentum to make those last few miles seem conquerable. The guitar reduced to ghostly chords for the verses, the meat of the track is left to Berry’s drums and Mills’ tense bassline, while Stipe provides one of his clearest vocal performances. Even in the song’s climactic, punchy chorus, there’s an air of loneliness that empowers the music further, Stipe calling back to that runaway guitar like it’s the lover that did him wrong with that “Secret life/ Of indiscreet discretions.” Monster may have found R.E.M. adopting the posturing and distortion fetishism of a Big Dumb Rock Band, but “Bang and Blame” is in a way its Rosetta Stone, a key to the intelligence and mystique that was still there if you looked at it from the proper angle, magnified to outrageous proportions through the juxtaposition of those aesthetic elements. - Nick Hanover
“E-bow the Letter” from New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996)
It’s no secret that Michael Stipe nurses a Patti Smith obsession. Smith may as well have been Stipe’s career aspiration, a lanky, sometimes androgynous gutter poet who turned the mysterious musical connections between words into a rock ‘n’ roll institution. All of which could have easily made the Smith/Stipe collaboration “E-bow the Letter” a fanboy disaster instead of the righteous pairing it turned out to be.
A standout on the sorely underrated New Adventures in Hi-Fi, “E-bow the Letter” is R.E.M. in Western mode, coated in desert dust and obsessed with the pioneer spirit. Smith’s vocal presence is key but minimal, her voice near subliminal in its placement below Stipe’s in the mix. There’s a reason for that, as Stipe confesses, “I don’t want to disappoint you/ I’m not here to anoint you;” instead Smith’s additions are more obvious elsewhere, from the overly ambitious, moody garage band majesty of the instrumentation to Stipe’s decision to forsake a traditional chorus or any straight melody at all. The freewheeling structure enables “E-bow the Letter” to be perhaps the clearest offering of Stipe as poet of the South, the band’s songwriting chops minimized in order to best present Stipe’s lyrical ambitions. It’s an exceedingly brave choice from a band that was facing some terrifying obstacles at the time and that it works at all is incredible. That it works this well is mystifying. - Nick Hanover
Up will always retain its notoriety for being the first non-Bill Berry R.E.M. record. It serves as a clear demarcation for some R.E.M. fans, as does the band’s jump from I.R.S. to Warner Bros. a decade prior. And while the record does show some signs of the three-legged dog learning to walk, especially as the band experimented with electronic music, it is not without its pleasures. While lead singles “Daysleeper” and “Lotus” both received votes from our staff, its third single “At My Most Beautiful” and deeper cut “Walk Unafraid” that take the honors for being Up’s best tracks.
A direct homage to the Beach Boys, “At My Most Beautiful” is Stipe’s stab at writing at his most romantic. Filled with images of reading poetry into answering machines and counting a lover’s eyelashes, the song uses Wilson brother harmonies, Pet Sounds strings, even sleigh bells, eschewing the signature guitar riffs and monster feedback of past R.E.M. staples. It is also atypical of Up, a record where most of its songs are drenched with heavy fuzz. At their most clear and inspired, R.E.M. has created a song that feels different than anything they did before, yet so fitting in their canon.
I’ve long called “Walk Unafraid,” the record’s other standout track, “Michael Stipe’s Patti Smith song,” and it’s telling that the singer was putting together his photo book on the legend at the time. A song about pride and stepping away from a path prescribed by others, Stipe’s voice adopts a higher register and different cadence as if emulating his idol. Coupled with a gorgeous Mills harmony in the third verse, “Walk Unafraid” is Up’s most urgent track, one that has grown into a tremendous anthem during live shows. Though it would take Stipe another 10 years to officially come out of the closet, “Walk Unafraid” could serve as the singer’s unofficial debut. And that takes a good dose of pride. - David Harris
“Imitation of Life” from Reveal (2001)
Departing from the aqueous, electro-vibraphone compositions of Up, R.E.M. traditionalized the material in their first record of the new millennium, Reveal. Welcomed by many as an antidote to post- Berry nervousness exacerbated by Up’s experimentalism, Reveal was favorably reviewed and, it seems, promptly forgotten. Perhaps some of this is due to the fact that Reveal comes off as an inoffensive record, Beach Boys melodies and bossa nova clacks lending a barefoot feel to the effort as if everything came together over a particularly casual summer. Lyrically, too, the men of R.E.M. communicate self-actualizing reassurances: “Beachball” pledges, “You’ll do fine,” “Beat a Drum” finds inner peace with its chorus of, “This is all I want/ It’s all I need/ This is all I am/ It’s everything,” and “All the Way to Reno (You’re Gonna Be a Star)” gives self-conception a boost by title alone.
Lead single “Imitation of Life” was the pop starlet of this collection, its chorus as tasty as the sugarcane and cinnamon it names, its message shining a friendly flashlight into your dark hiding place. Stipe builds a connection here, singing at times about himself and at others about you, as if they’re as good as one and the same. “C’mon, c’mon/ No one can see you cry,” he promises, holding his hand out to you as you step forward towards your fear. The bridge lists objects at first benign (sugarcane, lemonade) and then natural occurrences that are increasingly threatening (from lightning storm to avalanche). Unaccompanied but for some zappy multi-beat electronic pitches, Stipe asserts, “I’m not afraid,” at first parking himself in a comfortable register and upon repeat gathering the wind and the courage to ascend with purpose into his upper limits. The concluding choruses go farther to acknowledge something that sounds general but is so essential: “That’s who you are/ That’s what you could.” It’s existential relief in 10 words or less. In “Imitation of Life,” Michael Stipe sees you, recognizes you and shepherds you; it’s an unassuming anthem broadcasted for those who fear the appearance of trying as much as the humility of failing. - Stacey Pavlick
“Leaving New York” from Around the Sun (2004)
Around the Sun, the third R.E.M. album following the departure of drummer Bill Berry, was derided by some critics as an inconsistent effort. Indeed, many of the tracks are inferior copies of past glories, attempts to reconnect with the band’s origins while transcending the jangly sounds of their early works. Album opener “Leaving New York,” though, manages to stand up with the band’s best tunes, a bright moment of legitimate pathos and skillful song craft on an otherwise spotty record.
“Leaving New York” has been described by Stipe as a love song to New York City. The minor guitar arpeggios that open the song imbue the tune with a melancholy tone from the start. Stipe’s first vocal line, “It’s quiet now/ And what it brings is everything,” depicts the songwriter’s feelings while viewing the New York skyline from an airplane, supposedly the context in which Stipe wrote the tune. The band creates momentum by casting the verses in a minor key and the choruses in a major key. The change in tonality reflects the speaker’s emotional trajectory. The verses project uncertainty and despondence (“Loneliness it wears me out, it lies in wait“). The chorus offers a feeling of release with the aphoristic line, “It’s easier to leave than to be left behind.” With this universal, wistful expression of the emotions associated with leaving a place you love, R.E.M. proved late in their career that the magic hadn’t worn off completely. - Jacob Adams
“Living Well Is the Best Revenge” from Accelerate (2008)
Accelerate has come to be seen as a much needed rebound for R.E.M. after the critical and commercial drubbing Around the Sun received. That characterization is a bit too simplistic in hindsight, ignoring several standout songs on Around the Sun, especially “I Wanted to Be Wrong” and “Leaving New York,” the latter of which is discussed above. Accelerate instead met with widespread praise as it found the band returning to the type of rock-oriented approach it hadn’t consistently employed since Document.
The lead song from Accelerate is also the album’s best. “Living Well Is the Best Revenge,” its title the same as a line by the poet George Herbert, is one of the band’s most vitriolic songs, a guitar-fueled rant that thematically plays like a later-period “Ignoreland.” It’s largely been interpreted as a critique of the second Bush administration and a complicit or incompetent media. By this interpretation, the song rails against that regime as it cleverly turns the former president’s religiosity and self-righteousness upside down. It’s not difficult to speculate who those “sad and lost apostles” are, while W’s repeated claims that history would prove him right are refuted by Stipe’s assertion that “history will set me free.” Regardless, someone’s in the crosshairs here, and the band makes it clear that whoever it is clearly deserves such treatment. In interviews, R.E.M. often described “Living Well” as a “state of the nation” song. It’s true the band could sometimes over-proselytize – diving into politically-themed music in a way that likely would have shocked their early 1980s selves – but this time around they got it right, crafting a song that, though inspired by a specific time and place in American history, will likely never lose any of its urgency or relevance. - Eric Dennis
“Überlin” from Collapse Into Now (2011)
Recorded intermittently on two different continents and in four different cities, Collapse Into Now marked – presumably marks – the end of R.E.M.’s recording career on a respectable note, generally receiving positive reviews and suggesting that Buck/Mills/Stipe still had plenty left in the tank. The band’s retirement a short while later would ultimately put an end to such talk. Some listeners have complained that parts of Collapse Into Now limped to the finish line – especially its last two songs – but the old spark that R.E.M. had maintained for several decades still showed up enough to do the band’s legacy proud. The second single from the album and easily among the most melodically beautiful songs in the group’s canon, “Überlin” is a sincere and musically straightforward ballad, featuring up-front vocals from Stipe, that often-imitated R.E.M. guitar sound and backing vocals from Mike Mills that, almost a decade earlier, would have fit it nicely on Automatic for the People.
Stipe has described the song as the tale of an outsider in a foreign country, but in the lyricist’s typical fashion, “Überlin” works because it manages to be somewhat abstract without being entirely incomprehensible. Were it not for Stipe’s helpful hints, I’d swear the song is “about” the drudgery of daily life and the desire for transcendence; how else to read the references to taking pills, eating breakfast and marching off to work vs. lines about flying on stars? But that’s exactly why R.E.M. was so damn good for so many years: at their best they offered the listener a way to interpret these songs however the listener wanted, while retaining a sense of mystery and meaning known only by the four – later three – artists who created them. - Eric Dennis