In Time: The Best of REM 1988-2003
’m assuming my REM history is exactly the same as it is for any other kid of my generation that ever had bought a copy of Automatic For The People (incidentally, I stole mine, but I couldn’t think of a clever way to work that into the review). You turn 13, 14, you start to listen to music, it begins creeping into your life. You pay more attention to the radio. Perhaps you don’t listen to the top 40 radio, and you take some great pride in the fact that you listen to the “classics” station, proving that you’re “intelligent”. Whatever. Anyway, as you’re doing this, you begin to realise that the one “Losing My Religion” song, and the one where the guy mentions “Classy” Fred Blassie, and the one where he says “Tolker jar paker luff” are all by the same band. So you wait for the sales, buy the album, and then, that’s it: you are now an R.E.M. F.A.N. REM are the existing-in-the-90s equivalent of the Beatles: you either get into them when you’re 13, or never.
In the eight years since I stole that album, they’ve veered between being the “biggest band in the world”, the “biggest band in alternative rock”, and “elder statesemen”, a hoary old phrase meaning that they’re hoary and old. Irrespective, they’ve always sounded like a potential “biggest band in the world”, ever since Green (the furthest back this best of stretches to). Their music has always operated (like a biggest band in the world’s should) outside of whatever else is popular and faddish at the time (excluding Monster (REM do grunge) of course, but then blah blah blah second hand record shop blah blah blah). You put your head out of a window at any point in the past ten years, what are people listening to? G-funk? Drum and bass? Brit Pop? Big beat? Nu metal? The Tony Rich Project? Whatever was going on, REM paid no mind, and kept on doing whatever it was they felt like doing, which, in all honestly, cost them the fall from the triple-platinum of Monster to the not-even-gold of “Reveal”. That’s quite a fall.
But they never did care, anyway. By 1996 they had the world’s biggest ever recording contract, they’d churned out three of the biggest selling albums of the 90s, they could now sit around and make music for themselves, or just piss around. They could take “Daysleeper” and make it the lead single of an album, despite it being an attempt to recreate in you the feeling of being an insomniac stockbroker. They could roll up three-deep on Sesame Street and sing an altered lyric version of “Shiny Happy People” (neither version shows up on here). They had enough money, and a large enough fanbase, to do whatever the hell it was they wanted to do.
So what was it that they wanted to do? In the (pretty rubbish to be honest) liner-notes, yoghurt-hurling Byrds-fetishist Peter Buck calls “Man On The Moon” “the quintessential REM song”. It probably is. Athens’ finest come along with those nonsensical lyrics that have a “feel” rather than a point (the feel being overrated sideburned sitcom cadaver Any Kauffman, for the stupid), a guitar line that runs against the vocals, and, that great peculiarity unique to REM, a vocalist who sounds like he’s enjoying himself. Considering the guy looks like the photoshoot for the cover of And The Band Played On, he always sounds overjoyed to be in a band. And why not? He’s in a band that everyone knows, many love, and they’ve just bunged out a greatest hits package that is just that: great, consisting of hits, and a proper package (placed in order to sound like a studio album! They even end with “Nightswimming”, fercrissakes.)
It’s pointless me talking about the tracks, because you already know them from the past 13, 14 years. You know what they sound like. Perhaps you need to be reminded how fucking gorgeous “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” actually is. As for the new material, “Bad Day” stands out here as a Bush Administration Eye for the Straight Guy makeover of “It’s The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”, and “Animal” is (probably deliberately) impossible to listen to without thinking of Def Leppard. They’re both great, obviously.
So you listen to it, and you think of the 14 year old you, and how listening to REM was the worst gang ever, you’d be speaking to Joseph, and he’d be all like “Do you like REM?”, and you’d be “Yeah, yeah, love them”, and you’d convince yourselves that that counted as a “connection” because you both listened to REM and not pop or dance or whatever else it was everyone else was listening to around you and you listened to the classics station as well, and thus that made you superior. I still think like that sometimes. Still the genres roll by: NAM, 2 step, grime, microhouse, no name, and this and that and the other, but REM couldn’t give a toss. It’s a Luddites’ party this album, and, damn it, Ludditism rules.
Reviewed by: Dom Passantino
Reviewed on: 2003-11-19