Back in the 1990s, R.E.M. used to joke that they’d play their final concert on December 31, 1999 and break up the next day. Had they done that, with the original lineup intact (drummer Bill Berry left in 1997), they would have certainly gone out with a bang.The 90s were R.E.M.’s golden age: they started off the decade with Out of Time, the album that brought us the classic “Losing My Religion,” perhaps the strangest song to ever become a Top Ten hit. Its bookend was the foursome’s final record, 1996’s gorgeous and wholly underrated New Adventures in Hi-Fi.
But Michael Stipe, Peter Buck and Mike Mills went on without Berry for another decade, and released five more studio albums before they announced Wednesday that, after 31 years, R.E.M. is officially over.
While their later work certainly didn’t measure up to that of their first 20 years, what’s admirable about R.E.M. is that they never quite “jumped the shark” — they didn't do anything embarrassing and always stuck to their own aesthetic. Sure, the music might not have been as original anymore, but if they were cribbing, it was off themselves. They always stayed honest. (Unlike, say, their contemporaries U2, who’ve turned into a machine that feeds Bono’s megacelebrity.)
We were lucky enough to have Michael Stipe in the studio back in May, after R.E.M. released their last album, Collapse into Now. He talked about the videos they commissioned for every track, released as short films on YouTube — even with their last project, the band was still trying new things. Stipe told Kurt Andersen as a teenager he had a vision of becoming rock star, even though he was extremely shy: “At 15 I had this dream of what I was going to do with my life; I actually had the audacity to carry that out.”
To get a sense of how Stipe and his bandmates did carry that out — how four University of Georgia students who used to play drunken parties became one of America's most influential rock bands — listen to this piece about their first single, 1981's “Radio Free Europe.” The song was inducted into the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry last year.
But if there’s one thing the group should be remembered for, it’s that despite their mainstream success, R.E.M. really wasn’t your typical rock band. Their music doesn’t inspire fist-pumping, much less booty-shaking. It’s their thoughtful, acoustic ballads that shine the most, and touched the most fans. Studio 360 listener Monica Murphy told us this heartbreaking story of how listening to Automatic for the People — specifically “Sweetness Follows” and “Nightswimming” — helped her deal with her grief after her father’s death. And that’s the best thing any record, any band, can do.