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You’ll have read by now that college-rock/alt-rock/legacy-rock legends R.E.M. have, after 31 years, called it quits. Now that I think about it, I’m sort of surprised that I only saw the band once, in 1998 at the Tibetan Freedom Concert at RFK, where Michael Stipe was wearing a wrap skirt, and where the band played what I’ve always remembered as a decent consolation prize for having not been alive during their early-’80s heyday.
I’m also surprised the band didn’t break up a decade ago. Even though I kinda sorta really liked Up and Reveal.
Looking through City Paper‘s archives, literally every R.E.M. review begins with a several-hundred-word career synopsis. Even among younger fans, latter-day R.E.M. was always seen through the prism of its earlier years—-which spoke, yes, to their lasting musical accomplishment, but also to the severeness of fan’s disappointment. I think Brett Anderson nailed it in this 1999 Washington City Paper review of an R.E.M. concert:
The band’s had a great run. Few, if any, artists in rock have parlayed fabulous critical press into equally fabulous popular success to the degree that R.E.M. has. Yet it’s been only four years since that Monster tour, and R.E.M. has never seemed so irrelevant. The mysteries surrounding the band have all either been solved or run out of steam; the records now come with lyric sheets, and no one cares anymore whether the group will switch labels or break up, or which way Stipe swings. The atmospheric chamber-pop on Up, R.E.M.’s latest, is more out of tune with the mainstream music of today than the atmospheric garage-pop of Murmur was with radio in the early ’80s—but that doesn’t mean it matters as much. Today, R.E.M. is breaking ground only for itself; it doesn’t have an underground to call home. If I had realized that a couple of other acts (Moby, Guided by Voices) were playing in town on the same night as Stipe & Co., I might not have even signed up to review the show.
So, yeah, I’m not too sad about this. R.E.M. was too great to become a nostalgia act. Plus, suburban kids like me will always get that extra frisson from “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville.”