Saturday, June 16, 2018

R.E.M.

One of the enigmatic aspects of Cocteau Twins was the indecipherability of the lyrics. One can pick out a "cherry cola" here and there, maybe, yet the decline of the conceptual trio was tantamount to annunciation; once we understood the lyrics, it was over (and we verily dismiss the last two LPs). The same is no doubt true of R.E.M. Comedian Stewart Lee gave an interview to the online magazine The Quietus and said, "I don't think there's anyone whose career trajectory has been so disappointing," he opined, "starting so brilliantly and ending up so dreadful. They're just awful."



R.E.M. buffs can argue the night away about when the decline began, but I even question a decline. Maybe instead (and AM is eternally optimistic), the early LPs were just that good, but if that sublimity is assessed, the decline happened way back, 1986, just after Lifes Rich Pageant (sic). Debut LP, Murmur, provides R.E.M. with its place on the greatest albums of the 80s list, but there's a pervasive sense that Lifes Rich Pageant may represent the band at their apex. The Guardian states that “they never sounded more perfectly poised. From opener "Begin the Begin" to the joyous closing cover of "Superman," Lifes Rich Pageant is an album imbued with a swaggering confidence absent from its murky predecessor, Fables of the Reconstruction, but with the mystery of their debut and follow-up still intact. There's a beautiful opacity about "Fall On Me" (AM10, single), a protest song that lures us in, not with the directness of its message, but the sumptuousness of its melody. Indeed, the lyrics, poignant as they are, don’t really matter, they don't guide the song but merely punctuate it, leaving the listener wondering joyously. From there it was all downhill.*

Afterparty, Radio City Music Hall, October 6, 1987, the Document Tour: Despite my dismay, LeeAnn was infatuated with Jefferson Holt; the lanky manager of R.E.M. didn't stand a chance. "Do I look all right?" I was so the last person to ask. Like a million bucks, I thought, but out loud I replied, "Yes, of course, fine." She never looked fine. It was like saying she looked presentable. I felt like Ducky in Pretty in Pink, like I should sing "Try a Little Tenderness," such was her ability to crush me like a petal.

And then I met George. Not a coming out party; George was as hot as LeeAnn (not). She, yes she, thought I was Thomas Dolby (who am I to disagree?). Her superpower was that she could drink a whole bottle of beer without touching it with her hands. Hot (not as). I looked over. LeeAnn was tugging on Jefferson’s sleeve. She smiled at me. (Why?)

"You want to get out of here?" I didn’t hear her. "You want to get out of here?" George repeated in my ear. "I don’t know," I said in my mind. "Yes," I said, aloud. 

To LeeAnn and Jefferson: "We’re taking off." LeeAnn: "You are? I don’t want to take the train by myself." Me: "I’m sorry." I spent the night with George (thank you, Thomas Dolby), and from there it was all downhill.

*I can hear the comments now about Automatic for the People (AM9), and it’s true – a 9 as a part of the downfall? And yet the disappointment is real; Automatic should be a 10. This acoustic album was subdued and beautiful; an LP about life knowing death is there in the same room. It is R.E.M.'s Rubber Soul, every song spot on; it fails only in its mid-tempo stall, yet imagine the album murmured by Stipe, the lyrics mumbled over and production values like Lifes Rich Pageant?

For this writer, R.E.M.'s decline begins with Document, bottoms out with Monster and recovers the extant of the band's career, but those glorious years of mumble, from the beginning through 1987, lead to Stewart Lee's dismay, leaving one with the constant question, what if only?

By the way, LeeAnn went home alone on the train. I never saw George again.