29 September 2005

R.E.M., reconsidered, yet again

Fine piece by Ian Mathers on Stylus this week reassessing R.E.M.'s Up, an album I discovered only recently. I ignored it on its release, figuring the band were well past their expiration date at that point, but have come to realise that the problem was not them, but rather me: I had outgrown them.

As a generation of rock critics younger than me begins to emerge, I've come to an interesting realisation about R.E.M.: everyone's favorite R.E.M. albums are the ones that came out when they were teenagers. This may seem obvious, but I don't think there are many bands who have kept this up as long as R.E.M. have. At the same time, this may seem counterintuitive because R.E.M. have always been assumed to appeal to an older audience. They were the prototypical college rock band, but sounded as though they should appeal to an even older crowd than that, like adult-contemporary for slightly hipper adults.

And yet R.E.M., despite sounding perennially uncool on the surface, seems to appeal perpetually to teenagers, the amazing part of that statement being "perpetually". Their early records appealed the those in college and, to some extent, high school at the time. As those fans grew up, they grew dismissive of the band's subsequent work, particularly when R.E.M. signed a big money deal with Warner Bros. But the band simply found a new generation of fans for their next few albums.

This was my R.E.M. heyday, Document and the early Warners albums, through about Automatic or so, also the band's commercial peak. I think Out of Time was the last one I bought right when it came out and, like all R.E.M. albums, it was a little bit different and a little bit disappointing. I stopped paying attention to them entirely around New Adventures, and assumed that everyone else did as well.

But little did I know the band was still making new fans, like Mathers, younger than me. Now that that generation of fans is beginning to produce its own music writers, the critical re-assessment of post-Berry R.E.M. has begun. Mathers is not alone, mind you; the response to his article in the comments section is a non-stop outpouring of love for Up, with several proclaiming it their favorite R.E.M. album. I'm curious to see whether, eight years or so from now, another generation of young writers begins defending the much-derided Around the Sun as a lost classic.

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