Whoa. Dude. R.E.M. is back. It’s been the trend the last few albums to hark the return of the band as a creative unit at the height of their powers, only so they can be dismissed in a month or so, until the college kids in our flying-car breakfast-machine future deem “Up” and “Reveal” masterpieces once again. We needn’t wait to praise this one.
This double-disc concept album strikes gold in the here and now, imagining R.E.M. back in time, and, once again, making incredible music. I admit that I know little about this band other than the anthemic “Everybody Hurts” and the straight-outta-Sesame Street “Stand.” I liked “Everybody Hurts” because it made it easy to deal with suicidal friends (‘here’s a mixed CD buddy’) and of course enjoyed “Stand” because it was the theme song of the early FOX show “Get a Life!” where Chris Elliot’s mad-cap slapstick matched the hilarity of “Life Goes On” (where, incidentally, I first learned of the Beatles with “Ob-Li-Di-Ob-La-Da,” a wonderful ditty about, I guess, Down Syndrome.)
The album begins slow with “Begin the Begin.” I get it guys. Cute. This song is too odd and meandering, the lyrics downright preachy. It would never be a TV theme song. But all great albums start off with terrible music (the obnoxious “Clap Your Hands” on Clap Your Hands Say Yeah debut, or the excruciating “Hard Day’s Night” from the Beatle’s “Hard Day’s Night”) so it was no surprise to hear the laundry room tumble-dry melody of “Radio Free Europe” pop up. This song is glorious. And it contains the line “stick that in your wall, that this isn’t country at all.” First off, Stipe is making fun of the Berlin Wall, and then he makes fun of country music. Stipe has no use for boots, Mr. Toby K.; he uses elegant poetry to shake things up in the Eastern Bloc. Too bad R.E.M. wasn’t big during the worst days of the Cold War.
There’s song after song here that takes your breath away. We have “Pretty Persuasion,” which sounds like a song that would be played in a John Hughes film, if John Hughes made film noir. There is also a song from “Tommy Boy” called “It’s the End of the World as I Know, and I Feel Fine.” I guess that R.E.M. had this song all ready to release but then 9/11 happened so they had to wait to get it out. This song is crazy, folks. But it’s also the weakest point of the CD, a rip-off of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and the McDonald’s song where they list all the food on the menu.
Not to worry though; Pavarotti could sing the Taco Bell menu and it would never come close to “Perfect Circle.” This is a sweet, yet heartbreaking song about friends that gather together to see the band “Perfect Circle.” “Shoulders high in the room, Standing too soon” we hear, and we shudder, because we’ve all been thereóthe band still has an encore, sit back down fool! Another song that hits you like a Buck Roger freeze-ray is “Life and How to Live It,” a rambunctious song about a weird man who writes the eponymous book. This song had me dancing. As did “Cuyahoga” and “Welcome to the Occupation.” (I also just was informed by “Deal, No Deal” that I made the second round of selection, so I was dancing a lot. I think I danced through the whole first disc.)
There’s one track that completely defines this new approach R.E.M. has taken. Near the end of this epic journey, we get the treat “Superman,” where our bald hero imagines himself as the all-knowing all-American and knows that his girl does really like that guy she’s going with. Thom Yorke sang “Bulletproof, I Wish I Was,” here Stipe might as well be responding “Bulletproof, Yes that’s Me.” That’s how confident he is, taking chance after chance with these songs. There are many rewards for such risk-taking. R.E.M. have sworn to never have their music used in a commercial, but all the fast food joints on the planet are going to offer mucho moolah for “The One I Love,” a haunting song about desire. “A simple prop, to satisfy my need.” I’ll buy two of those chicken sandwiches.
I think that this album will make R.E.M. MTV’s darlings again. I can’t wait to see Stipe holding one more of those moonmen in his hands for the video “We Walk,” what will most likely be a single. He’d take it with a shit eatin’ grin that says ‘try to match that kind of dorm-room romanticism, Kellis,” as he snatches the statue. I have an idea for that video: Stipe walks over the graves of sample-heavy hip-hop and watered-down punk rock that has taken root in mainstream. He looks into the camera and tells them: “I think you’re feeling gravity’s pull now fellows.” Then a Claymation R.E.M. plays the hell of their wondrous song.