Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Patient Isn't Breathing: R.E.M.'s Live Album, Stipe's Preening, and Keeping the Faith

Think back to those heady years of 1981-1996, when declaring yourself an R.E.M. fan was a sign of true musical taste, and not an open invitation to ridicule, mockery, and verbal humiliation. In those days, the band delivered great album after great album, some of which are still timeless kick-ass classics. They seemed to tour constantly; great bootlegs confirm that the band live was truly something extraordinary. Hip music critics and the fledgling college radio movement loved them. Michael Stipe wasn’t bald and didn’t present himself as some sort of pixie space alien. Mike Mills wasn’t donning sequin jackets. Peter Buck wasn’t getting into drunken altercations with flight attendants on airplanes. And Bill Berry was in the band. Even when the band signed to Warner Bros. and senior citizens were humming the melody to “Losing My Religion,” Berry/Buck/Mills/Stipe had managed to achieve mainstream success (and a major label payout) without losing much of their indie credibility or initial fan base.

However, at some unknown point in 1997, the space-time continuum veered horribly off course and the mighty beast known as R.E.M. was replaced by a vacuum-of-suck imposter. After the awesome New Adventures In Hi-Fi, what followed over the next decade was a series of the patient-isn’t-breathing albums like Up, Reveal, and Around The Sun. The albums were long on pseudo Brian Wilson melodies, bleeps, blops, zips, zeeps, and other little noises; it sounded like the band had listened to OK Computer constantly and could only produce pale imitations of the Radiohead masterpiece. Mysterious and textured lyrics were replaced by overly-direct lyrics that were either painfully mundane (“Why not smile/you’ve been sad for a while” from, you guessed it, “Why Not Smile”) or complete nonsense (“It’s easier to leave than to be left behind/leaving was never my proud” from “Leaving New York”). What exactly is a “proud?”

All of this contributes to make the creatively titled Live album a truly puzzling and ultimately another non-essential entry in the R.E.M. catalog. After a decade in the desert, fans searching for signs of life from the band must still keep wandering. Consisting of two audio discs and one DVD of a 2005 show in Dublin, the release is long on vacuum-of-suck R.E.M. songs and short on the good stuff.

It’s not that the performance itself is bad; even though Stipe’s preening and posing as shown on the DVD gets obnoxious after a while (Michael, we get it already. You’re short, bald, and you wear some sort of makeup mask across your eyes for unknown reasons). As a live act, R.EM. has been around long enough to know what works in a live setting. The songs included are performed well, though few of the renditions stray too far from the album versions. Nevertheless, the album is disappointing for a few reasons.

First, as the first complete R.EM. show to be released on CD, the choice of a concert from 2005 is bizarre. It’s like showing someone a clip of Willie Mays at the end of his career; there could be occasional flashes of brilliance, but mostly it’s old age, bum body parts, and diminished skill. In musical terms, it’s the equivalent of Columbia releasing a Bob Dylan live album that relies entirely on songs from Empire Burlesque, Knocked Out Loaded, and Under the Red Sky. With all the great shows from the “early days” that circulate on bootleg, the first live R.E.M. should have been something much better.

This release also suffers from the song selection; many Around the Sun stink bombs are included, but no tunes from classic albums Murmur or Fables of the Reconstruction make an appearance. In addition, Reckoning is represented only by the by-rote “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville,” and only a reworked “Cuyahoga” from Lifes Rich Pageant is performed. I am by no means suggesting that R.E.M. should turn into a nostalgia act and only serve up a platter of the older songs, but when their latest material is the musical equivalent of a steaming turd in the punchbowl, a listener can’t help notice how inferior this material sounds compared to the older stuff.

By no means am I some Luddite who wants the band to record Murmur Part II. If a band doesn’t keep trying new tricks in the studio and performing new material on the road, said band quickly turns into an irrelevant oldies act. The rub of course is that in R.E.M.’s case, the later material simply doesn’t come close to rivaling the brilliance of anything from Chronic Town to New Adventures In Hi-Fi.

It would be easy enough to declare that R.E.M has lost it for good, that fame, money, and comfortable middle age (and the departure of uber-drummer Bill Berry) have plunged the band into an irreversible descent into mediocrity. Let’s face it: every statement of “I’m an R.E.M. fan” is now inevitably quickly followed up by any one of the caveats:

Well, yeah, they seem to have lost something.
I don’t know why Stipe does that paint thing with his face.
Yes, they’re still around. And yes, the last few albums have been kinda lousy.
Please don’t hit me.

But I’m not throwing in the towel just yet. Like many, I’ve been a fan for far too long to believe that the band isn’t capable of again producing challenging and exciting music. Judging by the new songs that the band has performed live recently, there is still reason for R.E.M. fans to remain hopeful that a resurgence is possible. Just don’t expect that resurgence to start with the Live album.

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