I fucking miss R.E.M. And I’m not even sure why. It’s not like I was a rabid fan of theirs when they were around. I mean, I really liked them– like everybody else, I revered “Automatic for the People”, continuously proclaiming it as one of the greatest albums ever. Apart from that, I only owned two of their CDs. They weren’t even proper albums, but compilations: “…And I Feel Fine”, a chronicling of highlights from their burgeoning IRS years, and “In Time”, a Greatest-Hits-y collection of their most noteworthy singles from after I was born. Honestly, as much as I liked those songs, I thought I was set. I never really thought of these guys as a deep-cut kinda band. I thought, since their singles were so fucking good, that was obviously their area of expertise: crafting these amazing, anthemic, melodically rich hit singles. And anyway, apart from “Automatic For the People”, you never really hear anyone praising any R.E.M. album as top-to-bottom genius. (Stop being an idiot, Jorge, people rave about “Murmur” too. And “New Adventures in Hi-Fi”.)
In 2008 I was lucky enough to catch them performing live at a music festival here in Buenos Aires. It was an odd lineup: I saw !!!, Spiritualized, The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Mars Volta, Bloc Party and The Offspring. All of the shows were fun in their own way (even The Offspring, which felt a little bit like revisiting an old high school drinking buddy only to find him stuck in high school and intellectually stagnant and so it’s kind of sad but kind of comforting at the same time), but R.E.M. was the definite highlight. This was one of the last shows of what turned out to be their last tour. Nobody knew that they were just about four years and one record away from disbanding, so there was no extra poignancy to the show; nothing that wasn’t already there in the songs. And it was a fantastic show: electric, passionate, subdued, melodic, heavy, human. I left with a rekindled interest in digging into their back catalogue and felt like I had stumbled onto a chest of treasures.
I was thinking about something Joe Strummer said in the “Westway to the World” documentary, about how a band is a chemical combination that should not be tampered with. I think about how these four guys (well, three in their later years) with a very specific skill set came to find each other, play with each other, nourish each other’s gifts and progressively become these demented pop geniuses. How they truly worked as a team, finding the balance among their strengths and playing it for all its worth, like the titular superheroes during the third act of The Avengers (have you seen that movie?! It’s bad-ass!). I thought about a long career graced with marvels– both as hits and lesser-known gems– and how it kind of makes sense to be happy with what they did and take the graceful way out. No drama, no implosions, no late-career burnout. Just a knowing, satisfied smile to each other, a bow, and exit stage left.
And yet… I miss them. I finally listened to their last batch of songs the other day– the ones they recorded for their career-spanning retrospective– and I thought man, these guys still had it. They could still craft a beautiful, touching summer song, with mystery and pathos to it. But there’s a very clear sense of finality in this final batch of songs. This gorgeous tune in particular, appropriately titled “We All Go Back to Where We Belong”, feels like a denouement of sorts. Like that final-credits music for the movie of their life as a band. And even if I couldn’t think of an ending more perfect, I miss them. I guess I just found some comfort in their ongoing existence; it was kind of nice to know that they were out there, doing their thing, writing these genius songs that I’d eventually get to, fighting the battles I can’t fight myself. Like The Avengers. Have you seen that movie? It’s pretty bad-ass.