There aren't a lot of people around these days that care much for R.E.M. At least I don't run in to many of them. The people I talk to either hate them (in my opinion, because they are homophobic) or they think they used to be cool, but now they suck. I've heard that one since Out of Time. Lately I have been wondering how this came about. I suppose they did just get into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, whatever that means, and I know that if they went on tour it would be a stadium venture that would sell out everywhere. But we know that people go to shows who don't care about the bands. I suppose I just expect R.E.M. to hold the same status as U2. Perhaps I'm showing my age, but that is how I always experienced them. These were my two favorite bands for as long as I can remember being aware of their existences. I have always thought of R.E.M. as our, meaning America's U2, as the most important American producer of rock and roll since Bob Dylan.
I don't wish to dwell on all this, I just want to let you know who it is that is reviewing their new album, a double disc live set from a theater in Dublin. They call it a rehearsal, go online and read the details, I want to talk about the songs.
Merely to read the names of the tracks on set list offers many surprises. There are songs from the newest album and a few here and there from most of the albums back to Life's Rich Pageant. But the set is dominated by songs from the first three albums and the EP that preceded them. Songs from Chronic Town, Murmur, Reckoning, Reconstruction of the Fables (of Reconstruction) are performed with clarity and completeness the early recordings lacked. I would not say either version is better, just that the new performances of the old songs come alive in different, often unexpected, ways. There are no different arrangements, just details: you can understand the lyrics now, Mike Mills' backing vocals are more self-assured and more frequent and there are more textures of guitar. There are just more sonic layers overall which, again, is not to say that the songs are better than they used to be.
I listen and do not really here songs that are new to me, but performances that sound like the songs are new to the artists. These are not aging rockers going through the motions of playing their old shit. R.E.M. seem to have discovered that they wrote some very good songs 25 and 30 years ago. They don't trot out these tunes the way the Rolling Stones trot out Satisfaction. The songs from the first four recordings are vital, energetic and urgent. Perhaps this is why there's barely anything in the set that would count as a hit. No “Losing My Religion” or “Shiny Happy People.” No “Stand,” “The One I Love” or “End of the World as We Know It.” They perform “Drive” but not “Man on the Moon” or “Everybody Hurts.” All the quasi-hits are the old hits, but even then they are few and far between. “So. Central Rain” and “Driver 8” appear but not “Don't Go Back to Rockville” or “Radio Free Europe.”
For me this may be the best album they could have made. It makes me dream of the possibility that the bands I love will see this as an option. No Line on the Horizon is great, but I wonder U2 would make of October and Boy these days? I think this is one of the unique possibilities rock and roll affords. One need not be forever coming up with new material. Revisit and re-imagine the old material. Find new vitality in it.