The Over/Under: R.E.M.

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MAGNET’s friend Roob (you’d know him if you saw him) was a Yes man until he took a trip to Chronic Town in 1982. He’s left the city limits since then, but now he’s back to inform you of the five most overrated and five most underrated R.E.M. songs.

I was 23 years old when I first heard 1982’s Chronic Town bursting from my friend Linda’s speakers, and that seminal EP, which was essentially a template for the entire indie-rock movement, managed to turn me overnight from a proghead who spent his free time in a room lit only by a lava lap, listening to Tales From Topographic Oceans (on headphones) spinning on an old turntable into a diehard fan of cutting-edge guitar-pop music. I gave up on R.E.M. sometime in the mid-’90s, disgusted not only with the obvious decline in the band’s work but by the notion that somehow the stuff the group was still putting out was even better than everything from 1983’s Murmur up through 1987’s Document. As I revisited all of R.E.M.’s records for this piece, I tried to approach the newer stuff with an open mind. Maybe it’s not as dreadful as I thought. Maybe I dismissed everything after 1996’s New Adventures In Hi-Fi too quickly. Maybe R.E.M. really is still a great band, only different. Sadly, I was wrong. No group in history has ever plunged from such remarkable heights to such dismal depths. But, then again, R.E.M. was once the greatest band in the world. Anyway, here are the five most overrated and underrated tracks in R.E.M.’s 29-year history.

The Five Most Overrated R.E.M. Songs
1. “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)” (1984)
Murmur and 1984’s Reckoning exploded with an astonishing level of creativity, inventiveness and energy. This was the defining sound of alternative rock before the term was co-opted by morons like Blink-182, Third Eye Blind and Trapezoid 11. (OK, Trapezoid 11 isn’t a real band, but if they were, they’d suck.) Anyway, “So. Central Rain” just never fit on Reckoning. It lacked the fire of the other early R.E.M. stuff and just sounded too much like an attempt at a hit. And the refrain (“Sorry … Sorry”) makes me sorry I ever heard this song. If another band released “So. Central Rain,” you’d think, “Hey, pretty good song.” But for R.E.M. to stick this in the middle of the otherwise flawless Reckoning just magnifies how mediocre the song really is.

2. “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” (1987)
One of Roob’s Rules of Rock ‘n’ Roll is that simply listing random, vaguely historical phrases doesn’t really constitute rock ‘n’ roll. Was it fun to pump your first and shout out the little “Lee-o-nerd Bernstein” break in the middle? Sure. But that doesn’t make this a great song. “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It” is one step above Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire,” and that’s not a good place to be.

3. “Stand” (1988)
I’m not sure what’s more insipid, the banal lyrics (“If you are confused, check with the sun/Carry a compass to help you along”; is this a Boy Scout camping guide or freaking rock ‘n’ roll?) or the trite music (another of Roob’s Rules of Rock ‘n’ Roll clearly states that any song with more than one key change sucks). “Stand” was R.E.M.’s worst song while the band was still good.

4. “Everybody Hurts” (1992)
“Everybody Hurts” is R.E.M.’s pile of pseudo-inspirational Hallmark-greeting-card bullcrap about not killing yourself when everything around you starts to suck. Well, hell, this song makes me want to kill myself. We all would have been better off if Michael Stipe was still mumbling like he did on the first few records. Then we’d be spared wisdom like, “If you feel like you’re alone/No, no, no, you are not alone.” Thanks for clearing that up. “Everybody Hurts” is actually a damn good Stipe vocal. It’s just wasted on some trite lyrics. How could a band as brilliant as R.E.M. be reduced to the kind of sappy inspirational pabulum that a high-school poetry girl would be too embarrassed to jot down on the back of her autographed picture of Ani DiFranco? And, hell, Wilson Phillips covered this ground much better. When I hear this song, I don’t know if I can hold on for one more day.

5. Everything From Accelerate (2008)
Nothing from 1998’s Up, 2001’s Reveal or 2004’s Around The Sun can be construed as overrated since everybody who’s honest about it pretty much acknowledges each is a lifeless mess. Accelerate, on the other hand, is fair game since it’s been fairly well-received and branded a “return to form” by so many critics. The problem with Accelerate is that it’s a big, fat fraud. It’s crap disguised as a comeback. It’s not R.E.M. music; it’s R.E.M. product. R.E.M. realized its last few records were a steaming pile of pig vomit, and its audience had dwindled down to two guys in Athens, Ga., who used to be roadies for Love Tractor. So Stipe and Co. put together this clumsy attempt to recapture what once made R.E.M. great and record an album that sounds like vintage R.E.M. without actually possessing the soul of a vintage R.E.M. record. It fooled a lot of people who were desperate to have the old R.E.M. back and didn’t bother to notice that if you looked beyond the briskly paced songs and churning guitars, there was nothing there.

“I’m Gonna DJ”:

The Five Most Underrated R.E.M. Songs
1. “I Wanted To Be Wrong” (2004)
This is a gem swimming deep below the surface in the murky waters of one of the worst records ever made. “I Wanted To Be Wrong,” from the otherwise dismal Around The Sun, is typically midtempo for late-period R.E.M. and suffers from an overly syrupy arrangement. But throw it on a mix and surround it with some tracks from Document, Murmur and 1986’s Lifes Rich Pageant that actually move along on a full tank of gas and you’re onto something.

2. “Imitation Of Life” (2001)
“Imitation Of Life” is proof that not everything on Reveal was crap. If anybody was able to muddle through the dizzying wash of strings and synths that suck the life out of most of the album, they’d find a song with an actual melody, with some actual life to it. Sure, it would be the 147th-best song on Murmur, but “Imitation Of Life” is one of the few late-period R.E.M. tracks that isn’t embarrassingly bad. It has a melody and actually sounds like R.E.M.

3. “Leave” (1996)
Yeah, it’s longer than “American Pie.” Yeah, there’s that air-raid siren blasting through the entire song. But “Leave,” from New Adventures In Hi-Fi, contains everything that was once great about R.E.M. Inventive playing: Check out Peter Buck’s Fripperish single guitar line winding its way around the melody. Vague but powerful words: “It’s under, under, under my feet/The scene spread out there before me/Better I go where the land touches sea/There is my trust in what I believe.” And a mighty Stipe vocal. “Leave” appears on the final record with drummer Bill Berry, and I’ve always felt that in some way it gains its power and edge from the unknown of continuing as a band without one of its founding members. A stunning track and the last great R.E.M. song.

4. “Sitting Still” (1983)
When Murmur came out, one of my music-snob friends who was into Tim Buckley, Leonard Cohen or some crap sneered that he couldn’t get into a band when he couldn’t figure out any of the lyrics. Figuring out the lyrics (or guessing at them) was always a big part of the appeal for me in the early years of R.E.M. I still don’t know the words to “Sitting Still,” but here’s the chorus I’ve always gone with: “Up to bar and Katie buys a kitchen set, puts nutmeg in/Sit inside, put nutmeg in/Wasting time, sitting still.” In any case, “Sitting Still” is R.E.M.’s best song ever, even if nobody really knows what the hell Stipe is singing. Even Stipe. It absolutely explodes with energy and life and hope and massive piles of frantic guitars and tons of nutmeg.

5. “Driver 8” (1985)
As much as I loved Chronic Town, Murmur and Reckoning, “Driver 8” was the first R.E.M. song where the words blew me away as much as the music. The literal meaning escaped me, but the train imagery is stunning, and this remains one of the most visually evocative tracks R.E.M. has ever done, a minor-key Currier & Ives print for the next generation. Listen to Stipe repeating, “Still a ways away, still a ways away” and you can see the fleeting images of the old South as the train rumbles through Georgia, a treehouse on the outskirts of the farm, an old revival tent, the distant power lines. Fables Of The Reconstruction is the most underrated R.E.M. record, and “Driver 8” was the first sign that the band was capable of more than just frenetic, high-octane pop songs, the first sign that R.E.M. had something to say, not just something to play.

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