A 40-track career overview that puts every other R.E.M. ‘best-of’ in the shade.
Paul Whitelaw 2011-11-09
Following R.E.M.’s (perhaps overdue) split in September 2011, the release of a career-spanning retrospective was as inevitable as the shrugs which greeted its announcement. But this two-disc compilation, featuring 40 songs chosen by R.E.M. themselves and culled for the first time from both their I.R.S. and Warner Bros. catalogues, functions both as a definitive overview of their work and as a reminder of why they were one of the best and most important alt-rock bands of the 80s and early 90s.
With the honourable exception of early EP, B sides and rarities collection, Dead Letter Office, Part Lies… renders their previous seven (count ‘em) compilations all but obsolete. Beginning with the arpeggiated rush of Gardening at Night, disc one charts their imperial phase as the world’s most seminal American post-punk outfit, whose unique fusion of folk-rock melodicism, inscrutable (i.e. often unintelligible) lyrics and Michael Stipe's unmistakeable voice leant them an almost unquantifiable air of cerebral mystery.
The description most often associated with early R.E.M. is "southern gothic": that distinctive aura of cobwebs, fog, pillars and pylons conjured by such timeless puzzles as So. Central Rain and Talk About the Passion. The latter, with Peter Buck’s Byrds-inspired guitar figure and Stipe’s vaguely profound yet ultimately vague lyrics, stands as arguably the quintessential R.E.M. song.
Sadly, as the closing numbers of disc two make clear, R.E.M. took a slow slide into irrelevance following the departure of drummer and key songwriter Bill Berry in 1997. Their period spent as one of world’s biggest bands is represented by the familiar-to-millions hits from Out of Time and the peerless Automatic for the People, but you can feel the spirit drifting away with every selection from the last decade. The three new songs tacked on at the end are indicative of their latter day torpor: hardly awful, but hardly memorable either; just three middle-aged millionaires going through the motions.
But remember them as they were during the majority of this fine collection. Hell, even the universally unloved Shiny Happy People doesn’t sound that bad in context.