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Imperfect Circle: R.E.M. Sums Up A Career In 40 Songs

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It's embarrassing how messed up the news of R.E.M.'s breakup has left me. I'm a 42-year-old father, for the love of Stipe, and I'm going around mourning my loss like I'm a moon-faced teenager. And it's not like they've died or anything. It's not even like they're not still friends. They've just decided to stop making records and playing concerts together -- something a lot of former fans thought should have happened years ago anyway.

And that, in addition to the whole they've-been-my-favorite-band-since-I-was-17 thing, is one of the things I love about them. R.E.M. have made a career out of pissing off their fans. Some of the original enthusiasts from Athens, GA who knew them from their power-pop beginnings were no doubt alienated by the opaque, mumbled lyrics and gentler melodic strains that ran through their debut album, Murmur. A lot of the audience that discovered them through Murmur didn't understand the power chords and booming drums (not to mention Michael Stipe's newfound enunciation and politicized lyrics) that characterized Lifes Rich Pageant and Document. A lot of fans of those albums couldn't wrap their heads around the string-laden baroque-pop tunes that populated Out Of Time and Automatic For The People. And so on.

For the first half of their career, R.E.M.'s musical twists and turns worked to their advantage; for every fan they shed, it seemed like they'd gain another two. And by 1994, when their musical vision finally dovetailed with the Top 40 and they released the grungy, guitar-heavy album Monster, they were among the handful of biggest bands in the world. They signed an enormous, long-term deal with Warner Bros. that also made them one of the richest bands in the world.

And then the rollercoaster went down, picking up speed as it went. New Adventures In Hi-Fi, a weird, sprawling and often brilliant album recorded on the Monster world tour, was a relative flop. Drummer and founding member Bill Berry left in 1997. The remaining trio of Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Michael Stipe seemed to lose their way, making unfocused, sometimes lethargic records. Their live act, conversely, got a lot sharper and more exciting, but the crowds were getting smaller. Those who bothered could always find a moment or two of genius on every record. But by the time of Around The Sun, the 2004 album which even guitarist Peter Buck hated, and whose U.S. sales were about 8% of what Monster had moved a decade earlier, a lot of longtime fans wondered why they hadn't simply folded their tent when Berry quit.

In hindsight, of course, it was an absolutely R.E.M. thing to do -- no clean and timely exit for them. They soldiered on in the face of popular indifference and critical derision, and finally found their way again. Their two most recent albums, 2008's Accelerate, and this year's Collapse Into Now, contained some of the most vibrant and thrilling music they'd made since their heyday, and reminded the fans who still cared why they still cared. It felt like a vindication for us die-hards who'd stuck with them for so long. It felt like this was a band settling in for the long haul. Which, of course, is why it made perfect R.E.M. sense to hang it up.

And so, thirty-one years after R.E.M. played their first gig, we're left with fifteen studio records, a handful of live CDs and videos, and a few compilation albums, including their latest one, Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage. It's the first package that covers their entire career, from their days on the indie label I.R.S. right through to the three new songs they recorded this summer as a final farewell. In true R.E.M. fashion, it's bound to piss off just about everyone, at least a little. It doesn't have all their singles, or even all their hit singles. It's got a couple of real oddball choices ("New Test Leper"? Really?). There are four tracks from one of their less beloved albums, Green, and only one from Monster. And one of the new songs, "A Month Of Saturdays," is a 1:40 throwaway that sounds more like a B-side than a track fit for a best-of.

But the songs that are here -- "Gardening At Night," "Begin The Begin," "Nightswimming," "Electrolite," to name just a few -- make for a pretty good reminder of why people were so damn passionate about this band. In the '80s, for a lot of us who were in high school or college and whose music tastes ran a little left of center, R.E.M. were like gods. They didn't only release one brilliant record after another (as well as all those great B-sides that made it fun to be a record-collecting nerd), but they waved the flag for so many other amazing, relatively unknown artists as well. Loving R.E.M. was like an initiation into a secret society, where you could discover an alternate history of rock that included Big Star, the Velvet Underground, the Replacements... bands who are much better known today than they were 25 years ago, in large part because of R.E.M.

R.E.M. never stood still stylistically for more than a couple of albums at a time. The 2 CD set (no vinyl, at least not yet) is programmed chronologically, so you can really hear the band evolve. I can think of few other artists who have changed their sound so radically, so many times. "Gardening At Night," from 1982, doesn't sound anything like "Everybody Hurts," from 1992. "At My Most Beautiful," an unjustly ignored Beach Boys-esque ballad from 1998, sounds nothing like the punky squall of "Living Well Is The Best Revenge," from 2008. Not every song here will be to everyone's taste -- they wound up in a much different place from where they started, and traveled a lot of different paths along the way, some more interesting than others. But hey, do you think and act and talk the same way you did 30 years ago? 20? Ten?

It's no exaggeration to say that R.E.M. changed my life. They played a big part in making me as passionate about new artists and unsung heroes as I'd been about the Beatles and Elvis and all the already-enshrined greats. That passion led to my opening a (now defunct) record store of my own (and hence having a much less lucrative career than I would have otherwise, but that's OK, all is forgiven). In fact, Peter Buck became a customer of mine, and even bought a bootleg of R.E.M. rarities that I'd compiled -- thanks for not having me arrested, Peter! To this day, when I see him and get a nod of recognition, my inner 17-year-old still gets goosebumps.

Which makes it rather hard to determine if Part Lies, Part Heart... is a worthy summation of their career. Gathering up as much objectivity as I can, if you only have room on your desert island for one R.E.M. album, it'd be a tossup between this and their smoldering 2007 concert recording, Live At The Olympia In Dublin -- which I think about 14 people bought when it came out a couple of years ago. If you're a fan, it's worth it for the new tracks (even the throwaway is a good throwaway), the sequencing (who'd have thought that "Nightswimming" would segue so nicely into "What's The Frequency, Kenneth?"), and of course the liner notes. Written by all four band members, they've got a perfect mix of information, self-deprecation, pride and humor. If they ever write their own story in book form, I'll be first in line for it.

But your collection should encompass more than just one R.E.M. album. Why? Because they're the greatest band, missteps and all, that America has yet produced. If you're young enough to have missed them, or you were around and you didn't pay attention, start with Murmur and go from there. It's a hell of a trip, I can guarantee you that.