R.E.M.’s 10 best songs after Bill Berry: Daring, brilliant, underappreciated

"Murmur," "Document" and "Automatic" are great, but R.E.M.'s last albums are underappreciated gems. Here's a guide VIDEO

Topics: Video, R.E.M., Michael Stipe, record store day, Peter Buck, mike mills, Out of time, reveal, bill berry, Rock, Georgia, Editor's Picks, Music, R.E.M. Unplugged, , , , , , ,

R.E.M.'s 10 best songs after Bill Berry: Daring, brilliant, underappreciatedR.E.M. (Credit: Reuters/Susana Vera)

For Record Store Day today, R.E.M. is releasing a limited-edition four-LP collection, “Unplugged: The Complete 1991 and 2001 Sessions.” Recorded a decade apart, the two shows have striking differences. The R.E.M. of 1991 was fresh off the release of the No. 1 album “Out of Time,” but still clung tight to their earnest college rock roots — even as it was clear they were on the cusp of a mature creative breakthrough. The R.E.M. of 2001 was now an established mainstream draw, but was certainly at a crossroads, trying to figure out where to go next.

Part of this crisis stemmed from the fact their cerebral, intricate music was out of step with prevailing trends. But the ongoing concern was achieving balance after the departure of drummer Bill Berry. At the time he left, vocalist Michael Stipe was quoted as saying, “I guess a three-legged dog is still a dog, it just has to learn to run differently.” Four years after this amicable decision, Stipe, Peter Buck and Mike Mills were still learning how to find their footing and create without him.

In 2001, that process had already produced some interesting (and uncharacteristic) music. 1998′s “Up” was a murky, keyboard-tinted record that found beauty in feeling unmoored, while that year’s “Reveal” delved deeper into electronic textures, beats and remixes. During the following years, R.E.M. continued to obliterate their comfort zones and rebel against their past selves — with admittedly mixed results — before finally reaching equilibrium with 2011′s “Collapse Into Now.”

Still, the argument about R.E.M.’s post-Berry output continues to be a heated one, nearly two decades after his departure. In reality, R.E.M. without Berry was simply a different band with different chemistry. Examining their catalog in this light reveals some real gems, cuts that stand tall next to any of the band’s beloved early work. Below are 10 of the best post-Berry songs.

“The Lifting”

R.E.M. tended to make bold statements with the first track on a given album. In the post-Berry era, that hadn’t changed: 2001′s “Reveal”immediately erased the darker sonic textures of “Up” with “The Lifting,” a lighter-than-air psych-pop song on which orbiting synths zap around scrambled sound effects and strident piano. Surging vocal melodies and key changes contribute to the tune’s head-in-the-clouds atmosphere — and create a cumulative effect of emotional exhale and release from tension.



“Electron Blue”

To say 2004′s “Around The Sun” is critically maligned is putting it mildly; even among many hardcore fans, the record rarely merits a defense. However, time has been kind to many of the album’s songs, including the futuristic, anxious second track “Electron Blue.” Layers upon layers of vivid keyboards — which sound like everything from percolating coffee to buzzing fluorescent lights — intertwine with faint hints of chiming guitars and quivering strings. The resulting music is otherworldly, and intoxicating in the way it quells fear of the unknown with delicate calm.

“Hope”

Perhaps it’s not surprising that the uncertainty surrounding “Up” produced lyrics focused on finding order and logic within chaos. The stream-of-consciousness-like “Hope” attempts to reconcile scientific and religious beliefs with the more nebulous ideas of faith and the supernatural. And although the song draws no concrete conclusions, the tinny drum machine and childlike keyboard drones make these philosophical musings hypnotizing.

“Imitation of Life”

On the surface, “Imitation of Life” certainly sounded like good ol’ bittersweet R.E.M. jangle-pop. But the “Reveal” single was a far cry from the scrappy, angsty rock of the band’s youth: Sugary strings, swampy keyboards and glossy production — not to mention a loping pace and cheer-up lyrical attitude — mean “Imitation of Life” is one of R.E.M.’s most life-affirming moments.

“Living Well Is the Best Revenge”

2008′s “Accelerate” was a “return to form” in the sense that R.E.M. sounded galvanized by global and political injustices. The raucous opener “Living Well Is the Best Revenge” is a scornful, spite-filled song itching for action to combat idiocy: “Well, I’m not one to sit and spin/’Cause living well’s the best revenge.”  While the tune is a showcase for Buck’s buzzsawing riffs, its true secret weapons are Mills’ nimble, lively bass lines and vocal countermelodies.

“Hollow Man”

As the name implies, “Hollow Man” is full of self-doubt and self-reproach. In fact, the protagonist is rather torn up about losing depth and authenticity, and is longing to get back in the good graces of others: “You trusted me, I want to show you/I don’t want to be the hollow man.” This urgency and desperation only benefit the “Accelerate” song, however; the dynamic song segues from sparse verses to barnstorming choruses with sunny-side-up guitars.

“At My Most Beautiful”

The piano-heavy, intricate Beach Boys homage is one of R.E.M.’s most direct songs — and a love song to boot. But the emotional honesty works remarkably well, mainly because the vulnerability pushes Stipe to be concise and pointed, leading to detail-rich lines such as, “At my most beautiful, I count your eyelashes secretly/With every one, whisper I love you.”

“Walk Unafraid”

A staple of the band’s later tours, “Walk Unafraid” harkens to the troubled guitar jags and biblical references of 1985′s “Fables of the Reconstruction.” However, the protagonist of this “Up” highlight brings world-weary confidence and clear-eyed conviction to the song’s lyrics. An elegant allegory, “Walk Unafraid” espouses the idea of living a fearless life, even if this path is different: “They claim to walk unafraid, I’ll be clumsy instead.”

“Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter”

In the twilight of their career, R.E.M. glammed up their sound here and there, in a style reminiscent of 1994′s “Monster.” The “Collapse Into Now” cut ”Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter” is the best of these glitter bombs: Buck’s metallic garage-guitar glints underneath a hollering vocal duel between Stipe and guest Peaches. Although the pair’s bravado masks lyrics cut through with insecurity (“I have, have got a lot to learn”), the song has devastating swagger.

“It Happened Today”

As far as swan songs go, 2011′s “Collapse Into Now” was pretty much note-perfect; the album neatly tied a bow on R.E.M.’s legacy by nodding to all eras and styles of the band. Perhaps the album’s finest, most affecting moment is the deceptively simple “It Happened Today.”  The song’s prominent musical elements – proud acoustic guitar, wordless dueling harmonies from Mills and Stipe, and folksy percussion — seem basic. But buried underneath this foundation are dozens of sonic ideas, in the form of (to name a few) dulcimer, mandolin, glockenspiel and pianos. It’s the best kind of R.E.M. song: one whose nooks and crannies reveal new nuances with each listen.

Annie Zaleski is a freelance writer based in Cleveland, Ohio.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...