Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Dreams So Real

For a decade and a half now, R.E.M. have lived the modest dreams of rock and rollers of a certain age--R.E.M.'s age, 21 to 24 when they released their first and only indie single in 1981, pushing 40 now that they're too old to rock and too young to stop. They were hardly the first Amerindie band, hardly the first Athens Amerindie band, hardly the first real good Athens Amerindie band--all respect to Pylon and the B-52's. But it was R.E.M.'s naturally nurtured musicality and quiet endurance that made Amerindie a going proposition. College radio, the u-drive-it circuit, hustling nerds and interns infiltrating a&r, a horde-and-a-half of rockcrits convinced that history began with the Velvet Underground--it was the evolution of R.E.M., with more help than is ever mentioned from the A&M/MCA-distributed pseudoindie I.R.S., around which it all crystallized. In Gina Arnold's statement of the myth, a cornerstone of her essential and emblematic Amerindie chronicle Route 666, they "galvanized the entire subculture and made it into a community."

Since R.E.M. epitomize "modern rock" even if they're ancient by the internal clocks of the 21-to-24s who continue to determine the tastes of that market or community, a longevity that's both miraculous and telling has snuck up on us. There are older bands, including postpunks like the Mekons, the Fleshtones, the Cure. But damned if there's another that's put in 14 years without a personnel change. And while such constancy is never inevitable, it does follow from the fellow feeling, respect for tradition, and other solid values R.E.M. embodied from the beginning. In 1984, Milo Miles noted the band's avoidance of "scattershot hatred, mordant hectoring, and wan ennui . . . [I]t's plain the band respects earthy thinking and empathizes with daily struggles." Avers Arnold: "Their niceness stood in bright relief against the scary world of angst and pain the rest of rock 'n' roll celebrated. . . . They were our mirror, put on earth to reflect what we were, in case we didn't know, and what we were, it turned out, was sick of anger and ugliness and anti-everything cant."

For a band destined to change the world, R.E.M. were exceptionally open, ordinary, unpretentious. Although Mumblin' Michael Stipe's wild make-out sessions with incomprehensibility constituted a species of formal daring, collector-guitarist Peter Buck and homestyle Macon houserockers Mike Mills and Bill Berry were less aggressively peculiar than the Athens norm. "I loved those bands like Pylon and the Method Actors," Buck said in 1985, "but we were trying to be a rock and roll band, we felt we were in the tradition of Chuck Berry." I suppose the predecessors they best recalled were the Byrds and the Band, except that Jim McGuinn was a virtuoso innovator where Buck learned as he went along, and the Band were all muck and funk where R.E.M. were all air and revery--at least during their subculture-galvanizing years.

On Chronic Town and especially Murmur, the musical case for their historical necessity was so beguiling that only churls, ideologues, and speech therapists could deny it. They toured faithfully without acting like bigshots about it, too. But my nonsubcultural contention remains that for the next three perfectly decent albums, their misty romanticism and outright sentimentality--their evocations of a lost mimosa paradise, live-and-let-live lyricism, and occasional bouts of liberal concern--were compelling only to those with reason to believe. Tom Carson got Arnold's goat when he pointed out, in the wake of 1986's putatively progressive Lifes Rich Pageant, what seems undeniable--that R.E.M.'s "tendentious appeals to a cloudily glorious past" and "wishful confusion of cultural might-have-beens with historical truth" were "the emotional syntax of Reaganism, pure and simple." Not that R.E.M. were Reaganites, of course (you knew that, right?)--just that they didn't escape Reaganism's cultural climate. Fans of both band and pol shared the habit of closing their rapidly moving eyes and wishing stuff would go away, not to mention a disdain for the moral weaklings on the other side of the fence. Few craved the "revolution" enthusiasts in their camps nattered about--just the space to practice some grand old American individualism. Only for the Reaganites this usually came down to greed and nimbyistic bigotry, while the rock and rollers gravitated toward something more humane--flexible notions of self-actualization, live-and-let-live tolerance undercutting boho snobbery, and a sense of social responsibility that got broader and more specific at pretty much the same rate R.E.M. did.

The turning point was 1987's punchy, pronounced, political Document, which shipped gold, then went platinum off a sardonic single that citizens of the superculture thought was a love song. The album got the good reviews it deserved, and I'm not the only one to count it a fit complement to Murmur, but with its big production and bigger popularity fueling a backlash, it shed one true believer for every three or four dabblers it picked up. R.E.M. were sorry to lose them but never looked back; soon they'd signed with Warners, stormed Europe, and hit the megavenues they had sworn to eschew like countless well-meaning naifs before them. It is now as many years between Chronic Town and their 10th and latest album, New Adventures in Hi-Fi, as it was between The Rolling Stones and Some Girls, and R.E.M. stand as the most benign supergroup in history. In 1992, they made clear who they considered their community--humane rock and rollers of a certain age, sure, but also citizens of the superculture--by dedicating their time, will, and prestige to the defeat of George Bush. Whatever identification they retain with "modern rock," they're not trying to galvanize it anymore, having left the next phase to young Kurt Cobain, who found in Michael Stipe one more inspiration who couldn't save his life. But musically, they've done just fine.

True, to my ears the only Warners album to rank alongside Murmur and Document is 1991's lushly peaceful Out of Time, keyed by the unfathomable "Losing My Religion," a love song that the superculture thought was something else. But though 1992's Automatic for the People is so slow it seems sodden at times, "Nightswimming" and the Andy Kaufman tribute "Man on the Moon" are really just mournful, and what they mourn isn't so much lost life as lost youth, a base rock and roll cliche revitalized by death's proximity. Possessed by a pop emotionalism less guarded than the foggy messages of the band's subcultural days, these records reclaim the delight in the human and the humane that comes easily to the very young but has to be relearned by adults after they see the light at the end of their self-actualization. And both 1994's Monster and New Adventures in Hi-Fi take crucial cues from a protracted stadium tour of the sort that can dehumanize the most well-meaning former naifs, including R.E.M. themselves. The breakup rumors the band has always generated--refuse to act like bigshots and you shoot the shit with a lot of gossips--mushroomed after their first European campaign. They gathered themselves up again, however, and having spent much of the past two years on the road, they've been making music out of the experience--in its spontaneity, yes, but also in its arena scale. Especially on the new album, much of it laid down at soundchecks and ad hoc local studios, Stipe preaches and exhorts more than he rambles or muses, Mills deepens the mix with a profusion of keybs, and Buck pumps the folk-rock jangle that dissipated Amerindie's first wave into something louder and broader--Chuck Berry in spirit if not fact.

If there's nothing epochal about this achievement, there's poetry in that--the poetry of a subculture dedicated to tolerant self-actualization, a scattered if not altogether nominal community that has learned by now how to keep its dreams modest and enjoy them that way. The power, spaciousness, and melodicism of a musical output that seems virtually unstaunchable provides a sustenance completely suitable to its sense of possibility. No anger, no ugliness, no anti-everything cant. Just the next gig, and try to make it a good one.

Village Voice, Sept. 24, 1996